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Tuesday, April 2, 2024

The Holy Cross: Gate of Heaven and Tree of life

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The Holy Cross: Gate of Heaven and Tree of life

The absolute axiom of interpreting the four Gospels, which has always been followed by the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, is that nothing of all that the Savior Christ did on this earth was devoid of meaning, nor was it done at random.

Both his words and his silences, both his deeds and the details that accompanied them, even the smallest choices (such as the garden of Gethsemane for the terrible night of his arrest), in a word, everything was chosen by God to convey profound meanings to us and to teach us hidden things. That is why meditations on the various aspects of the life of the Savior Jesus Christ have always represented the “heart” of the life of monks and nuns in all ages.

Following this axiom, of the hidden meanings in all the deeds and choices on earth of God the Son, Jesus Christ, in this period it is worth asking ourselves – asking God for the light of His divine Wisdom, why He chose to die on the Cross. Likewise, we can ask why He chose such tortures as those to which His accusers subjected Him. In order to find valid answers to such questions, a solution always at hand is to see what others have answered before us. Our Christian Tradition has recorded the most important answers given to this question.

I do not know if I can emphasize enough the extraordinary miracle accomplished by God on the Cross: the gate of Heaven was reopened.

For example, in his treatise The School of Christian Perfection, Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori asserts that “the Lord once revealed to a pious hermit that no devotion was better calculated to enkindle the love of God in the heart than meditation on the sufferings of Christ.” In other words, the choice by the Savior Christ of all the details of how he suffered unjustly has a very precise purpose, pursued by God himself: to ignite in our hearts a strong love for God. There is, therefore, no other more suitable means that can lead to this crucial effect. This is why the Way of the Cross must occupy a central place not only in Lent but in all our daily meditations. On the other hand, a very strong impetus must also come from the realization that this type of meditation, on the sufferings and death on the Cross of the Savior Christ, has always been preferred by the saints of God. Here is what Alphonsus tells us about “il Poverello:”

“Saint Francis of Assisi became a seraph of love by meditating on the Passion of Christ. He was found one day bathed in tears and uttering loud sighs. When asked what was the cause of his grief he replied: ‘I am weeping over the pains and insults of my Divine Master. But what grieves me most is that men for whom He suffered so much never think of the torments He endured’.”

So it was not the Savior’s sufferings and pains that saddened him the most, but rather their forgetting and ignorance by those for whom he suffered: us, Christians. Reading the words of Saint Francis, our best reaction would be precisely to take seriously the most important lesson he left us as a legacy when he said – invited to read a good book of piety – that “my book is Jesus Crucified.” This must be our dearest book, the one from which we learn how to reach Paradise. And this lesson, which Holy Tradition constantly transmits to us, shows us that the path to the Kingdom of Heaven, to the Resurrection, necessarily passes through the Cross. This is another great answer we receive from the saints.

Although not always through words, this answer is quite easily identifiable in the sacred art of the Church. One of the most beautiful representations of the Cross that one could see in many icons, paintings, and even medieval manuscripts, is that which depicts the identity between the Cross and the Tree of Life. What is the explanation for such an identity? How can a sinister instrument of torture used by the Romans to kill the God-Man become the gate of Heaven?

Thus, instead of being a terrifying end, death has become for Christians the beginning and the birth of a life much superior to everything we know during our mortal life.

An absolutely astonishing interpretation, proposed by Saint Augustine in his commentary on the Gospel according to John, offers us the unraveling of the mystery. This true enlightenment, proposed to us by one of the most brilliant Doctors of the Church of all time, is occasioned by the terrible moment when the side of the crucified Savior was pierced by the Roman soldier:

“A suggestive word was made use of by the evangelist, in not saying pierced, or wounded His side, or anything else, but opened; that thereby, in a sense, the gate of life might be thrown open, from whence have flowed forth the sacraments of the Church, without which there is no entrance to the life which is the true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins; that water it is that makes up the health-giving cup, and supplies at once the laver of baptism and water for drinking. This was announced beforehand, when Noah was commanded to make a door in the side of the ark (Genesis 6:16), whereby the animals might enter which were not destined to perish in the flood, and by which the Church was prefigured.”

Fascinated, probably, just like ourselves by the commentary above, Saint Thomas Aquinas did not hesitate to assimilate the main idea in his catechesis on the Apostles’ Creed. Here, after showing how Adam and Eve were exiled from Paradise as a result of original sin, the Angelic Doctor explains to us that the locked gate was once again opened through the sacrifice on the Cross of Jesus Christ:

“Adam was driven out of paradise immediately after his sin, and the gate of paradise was shut. But Christ by His sufferings and death opened this gate and recalled all the exiles to the kingdom. With the opening of the side of Christ, the gate of paradise is opened (my emphasis – R.L.K.); and with the pouring out of His blood, guilt is washed away, satisfaction is made to God, infirmity is removed, punishment is expiated, and the exiles are called back to the kingdom. Hence, the thief received the immediate response: ‘This day you shall be with Me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). Never before was this spoken to anyone, not to Adam, not to Abraham, not to David; but this day (i.e., as soon as the gate is opened) the thief, having asked for pardon, received it: ‘Having a confidence in the entering into the holies by the blood of Christ’ (Hebrews 10:19). From all this then is seen the effect of the passion of Christ as a remedy for sin.”

I do not know if I can emphasize enough the extraordinary miracle accomplished by God on the Cross: the gate of Heaven was reopened. We can reach there, through death, without even spending a single minute in the Jewish Sheol mentioned in the Old Testament. Through His infinite merits, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Logos, not only reconciled us with God the Father, but also provided us with the means – Holy Baptism, Holy Eucharist – by which we can begin even in this world the preparation for the great transition to the “world beyond.” Thus, instead of being a terrifying end, death has become for Christians the beginning and the birth of a life much superior to everything we know during our mortal life. This is why, in the apostolic period and several centuries thereafter, Christians did not celebrate their birthday but the day of their death: because they believed that true life, the immortal one, began only at the moment of leaving this passing world, full of dangers, temptations and sufferings. However, such faith was only possible through the Cross of the Savior Christ.

How long and enormous and difficult the cross is! Is it you who will carry this alone, Lord Jesus? Make me patient in turn with the wood that you want me to bear.

One of the oldest Byzantine hymns (probably from the 2nd century AD) of the Eastern Church, the so-called “Paschal troparion,” contains some wonderful verses that encapsulate the essence of the teachings of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas:

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs
bestowing life!

The life spoken of in the Byzantine hymn is not this earthly, transient life, but the eternal life, which only the tree in Paradise could bestow. This is why the Cross was symbolically assimilated with the tree of life. For the gate of heaven was reopened. And, at the same time, this is why the hymn speaks of victory over death through the death of Christ, which, as Saint Paul shows, thus defeated the devil:

“Through death, He might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil: and might deliver them, who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

P.S. – I have just received from the Sisters of Fanjeaux a message which contains a wonderful quote about the Holy Cross written by the great French poet Paul Claudel. Here it is:

“Ah, how long and enormous and difficult the cross is! How hard! How rigid! How heavy is the burden of the useless sinner! How long it is to carry step by step until we die upon it! Is it you who will carry this alone, Lord Jesus? Make me patient in turn with the wood that you want me to bear. For we must carry the cross before the cross carries us.”

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Last modified on Tuesday, April 2, 2024
Robert Lazu Kmita | Remnant Columnist, Romania

A Catholic father of seven and a grandfather of two, Robert Lazu Kmita is a writer with a PhD in Philosophy. His first novel, The Island without Seasons, was published by Os Justi Press in 2023.