I was invited to give a talk on Cross Veneration Sunday, and it happened that the preceding Friday was the Feast of the Annunciation. So it was like a parenthesis of the whole Christian story, with the Annunciation of Christ’s Incarnation on one side, and the Crucifixion on the other.
When the angel announced to Mary that she would bear a son, she sang a hymn, one Western Christians call the Magnificat. She sang,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior …
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the humble and meek,
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
At that time, Israel had been conquered by the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers controlled the city, and Jewish citizens paid taxes to Rome. (Recall the incident in the Gospel in which Jesus shows Peter the image of Caesar on a coin, and tells him to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”) That’s old history to us, so to understand what that was like for them, imagine that America had lost WWII, and there are German soldiers on every street corner, and when we pay our taxes, we send the money to Berlin.
Naturally, it would seem to us, as it did to the Jews, that the most urgent need was to expel the invaders from the land. So when you hear the Magnificat, it’s the first thing you picture.
But that’s not what happened. In fact, things got much worse. Forty years after the time of Christ there was a Jewish rebellion against the Romans, and it ended in disaster. The Romans laid siege to Jerusalem. There was starvation; some were reduced to cannibalism. The rebels were in three separate groups, and they were killing each other. When the Romans broke through the city wall, they killed everyone in sight. The Romans demolished the Temple, right down to the ground. Remember that Jesus told his disciples that that there would not be one stone left on another.
So the Roman emperor, the “mighty on his throne,” was not cast down. Instead he enjoyed a victory parade through the streets of Rome, with captured Jews exhibited as slaves. All the golden lamps and vessels of the Temple on display. On the arch of Titus, still standing in Rome, there’s an image of Roman soldiers carrying off the giant golden menorah.
If you heard Mary sing this song, you would have rejoiced, thinking victory over the Romans was at hand. Even the Apostles thought so, right up to the last minute; about the most poignant line in the New Testament comes at Christ’s Ascension, when all his work on earth is done, and he is preparing to return to the Father. That’s when the Apostles ask him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
We assume that God’s top priority is saving the poor and oppressed—but that’s not what happened. As Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And for Mary, the Christ who lay in her arms as a baby was returned to her arms as a corpse.
Christ’s Kingdom, not of this world, is much bigger than anything in earthly history. It’s bigger than the universe itself. Before this universe was made, God was already locked in battle with the evil one. This is a battle against real evil, not Hollywood evil or pretend evil. Sometimes when you read descriptions of child abuse or war atrocities, you can get just the bare idea of what pure evil is capable of.
St. Paul said,
“We are not contending against flesh and blood,
but against the principalities, against the powers,
against the world rulers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12)
We said earlier that, since Rome remained in power, it appears Mary’s prophecy did not come true. But if Israel had won a victory over Rome, it would have been just as transitory and ambivalent as any use of earthly power.
But now stop and picture the icon of the Resurrection. Under Jesus’ feet, under the broken gates of hell, you can see the evil one bound in his own chains. And then you see Adam and Eve, pulled up out of their tombs by Jesus’ might. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the humble and meek.” Did Mary’s prophecy come true?
The Cross was aimed at a much bigger enemy than the temporary Roman powers. But we might ask, why did God have to become human, in order to vanquish that great enemy? Why did Jesus have to die and rise again?
We know some of the effects of the Cross—that it means for us eternal life, and forgiveness of our sins. But God has not told us all the elements and details of his plan. This was a battle fought over the children’s heads. He has told us only as much as he thinks servants need to know.
Mysteriously enough, this was God’s eternal plan, even before the universe was made. A surprising range of New Testament authors testify to this.
St. John says Christ is
“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Rev 13:8)
St. Peter says that the sacrifice of Christ
“was foreknown before the foundation of the world.” (1 Peter 1:20)
St. Matthew said Jesus revealed
“what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:34)
St. Paul says that
“[God’s] works were finished from the foundation of the world.” (Heb 4:3)
and that it is the
“plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” (Ephesians 3:8)
This was the plan from the foundation of the world. Our prayers often end, “Now and ever and unto ages of ages…” This whole era, from the creation of the universe, is just one “age.” Who knows how many other ages there have been, or will be?
So what are we called to do? In the Gospel for Cross Veneration Sunday, Jesus says some harsh things:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. …
For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation,
of him will the Son of man also be ashamed,
when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-35, 38)
These are not words of comfort, but of challenge. You must die to self. You must take up your Cross. Jesus’ words are harsh because the stakes are high.
If you’re a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Lord of the Rings, even Dr Who, if you wish you could take part in some epic battle between good and evil – you are in that battle. You are on the field of battle right now. Those stories move you because you were designed for this, made by the hand of God to be steadfast warriors in the fight against evil.
“You are God’s workmanship,” says St. Paul, “created…to do good works which God has prepared for you to walk in.” (Eph 2:10) God has already set works for you to do, parts for you to take, in his battle against the evil one. This is the story we were made for.
Contemporary culture tries its best to convince you that the material universe is all there is, but that’s a lie. We are enmeshed at all times in a matrix of spiritual powers, both good and evil. You are never alone; the whole host of heaven surrounds you. At all times you have your guardian angel on one side and your patron saint on the other.
St. Paul says, “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1); the purpose of icons is to make visible a spiritual reality that is already there. So come to church to be strengthened, and return again to your work. Like every generation before us, we are called to a fight. And the battleground is your heart.
But that’s a topic for another day.