Msgr. Ramon Aguilos
Homily on the Celebration of the Triumph of the Holy Cross
by the Carigaranons in East Coast USA & Canada
May I thank the organizers and everyone of you for your kind invitation in the celebration of the patronal feast of Carigara, Leyte here in New York City. This is the third time that I have had the chance to celebrate with you this occasion, and I can see why, judging from your happy faces and jubilant spirits, it's always a look-forward-to event among Carigaranons in this part of the world. We unite ourselves with our family, relatives and friends back in Carigara, although we know that the fiesta celebration there is still four days from now, i.e., on July 16.
The celebration of the Triumph of the Cross is liturgically celebrated every 14th of September, and sometimes it comes with another term, “Exaltation of the Holy Cross," its original Latin phrase. Back in Carigara, we celebrate this day, too, being the fiesta in Punong. But the choice of the July 16 celebration also has its historical explanation, as it was the day in 1595 that the Jesuits were said to have reached our shores and planted the mission cross on the Carigara soil to signal the start of their evangelization in the island of Leyte.
To understand the significance of the Triumph of the Cross as a feast day, we need to go back to the origin of its celebration. It was the commemoration or the dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher built by Constantine the Great over the very spot believed to be that of Jesus' crucifixion. That day of dedication was on September 13, 335. The next day, September 14, the relic of the cross was held up for veneration by the faithful.
This gesture of "lifting up" unites the crucifixion with the glorification of Jesus. In our gospel reading Jesus says to Nicodemus: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up. This seraph mounted on a pole is very recognizable today by all who work in the medical profession. It is a symbol -- more than a symbol - a lifeline to healing.
Speaking of healing, our celebration is actually a celebration of Christ who has healed us; who has overcome sin and death; it is the celebration of the triumph of good over evil. Our gathering today, both as a people from the same hometown and as a people of God, is to commemorate that saivific event.
This, too, is our way of offering hope and healing to the world, a message based on the mystery of the Cross of Christ. The Cross that we see in every altar, in every room, in many places, is the sign and symbol of hope for a world corroded by sin and hatred. This sin and hatred is manifested by the many acts of violence which we see constantly in our world.
Few today would associate Jesus with that seraph serpent; just as it was very difficult for early Christians to associate Jesus with the cross, the cruelest instrument of torture ever conceived. For a Roman citizen it was strictly forbidden and St. Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship demanding his right of decapitation rather than crucifixion.
Each time we recall Jesus as lifted on the cross our minds quickly recall the painful agonies of Good Friday; but it is more than a physical lifting up. When the eyes of the Israelites looked upon the mounted serpent, they were healed not only of venomous snakebite but of venomous bickering and bitterness. They were healed not merely by looking with eyes but with the soul.
When we look to the cross as our lifeline, our source of salvation and faith; it is His victory, His triumph in which we share; His glorification by the Father in the splendor of the resurrection and enthronement at the right hand. This is not Good Friday. Glorious exaltation and grace-assured salvation echo throughout this entire celebration.
But the cross continues today to divide like a sword between believer and unbeliever. Some are repelled in total rejection; turning away, never to return. For others it remains a powerful hope even for some who wear it with little faith like a good luck charm. And for still others it is the infinitely enabling power to see life in a totally different light.
In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion in China brought a vicious attack upon the Church. In one instance a crucifix was thrown on the ground and the school children were told if they stepped on it, they would be allowed to go home free; if not they would be shot dead on the spot in front of their classmates.
The first seven students trampled the cross and went home free. The eighth young teen age girl walked around it fell on her knees to kiss it and was immediately shot. The next 100 students followed her example. Nearly 30,000 gave their lives that day rather than deny their God.
The example of students and young people dying for Christ leads me to the next idea. In one of the messages of the Holy Father John Paul II to the youth he begins by explaining that the cross is the simple sign of God's love for humanity. We always come over for the fiesta and attend every mass celebration, but so often forget what it is that we are celebrating. The Cross reminds us of this fact and calls each of us to holiness.
We recall that in the year 2000, the start of the new millennium the Pope chose for the world youth gathering a passage that comes from the Gospel of St. John: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." It's now more than three years since the start of the millennium and I make the same appeal to everyone here to open the doors of our hearts to Christ. We recall also how all major churches had a Jubilee Year Door to remind us to continually open the doors of our hearts to the love of Christ. This means loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. To show the same love towards all without distinction.
May I quote verbatim how the Pope said in that message:
"The cross which seems to rise out of the earth, in reality reaches down from Heaven, enfolding the universe in a divine embrace... My dear young people ., may it be your holy ambition to be holy as He is holy. You ask me: But is it possible today to be saints? If we had to rely on our own human strength only then the undertaking would be truly impossible; however, everything is possible with the One who is our Redeemer .. The Lord wants you to be intrepid apostles of His gospel and builders of a new humaniity. In fact how can you say you believe in God made man without taking a firm position against all that destroys the human person and the family? If you believe in that Christ has revealed the Father"s love for every person, you cannot fail to strive to contribute to the building of a new world, founded on the power of love and forgiveness, on the struggle against injustice all physical, moral and spiritual distress."
Let us march forward from this day onward and make that Love of God known in our world in which we are living a world torn by hatred. Let us make Love present that it may overcome sin, let us make love present so that it may overcome violence.
We need to be the messengers of God's great love and even more especially his forgiveness. That forgiveness which enables us to become saints. The great saints of yesterday found it very difficult as well and they often fell into sin and distress. The big difference is that they picked themselves up with the help of Jesus and continued the struggle to become holy.
Each of us here today needs to remind ourselves that it is in brining this love to others that we come to perfection ourselves. How many friends do you have that have lost hope that do not know love in their lives that have no idea of forgiveness.
On our town fiesta today it is our call from Jesus Himself to bring his love to those who are without love, to share forgiveness with those who are bound up in hatred, to have the Holy Spirit come into our midst and create a peaceful world. It will only happen when each of us takes our call to follow Christ to heart.
Let us be counted as followers of the Cross of Christ. As he was willing to give completely of himself on that cross, let us give ourselves to those in need around us. The, greatest needs today are those of the soul. Let us look upon the Cross as the sign to give us hope in a world that calls us so far away from hope and so far away from love. Let us make that sign of the cross often and pray that through it we may become daily more devoted to the One who died upon it overcoming sin and death. This is truly the feast of good overcoming evil, the feast of Love overcoming hatred, the feast of God reaching down to us and leading us by the hand. Let us take our hand and heart and offer them to the least of our brother and sisters.
New York City
July 12, 2003