A sign of contradiction

By Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone

During Palm Sunday and Holy Week, I am reminded of a special childhood memory thanks to my maternal grandfather, after whom I am named. My grandfather had an interesting way of crafting a cross out of the fronds of palm branches distributed at the Palm Sunday Masses. I would watch him make several delicate folds and circular manipulations of the fronds to produce an impressive-looking cross, with a tight ring at the intersection that effectively held the cross together.

I cherished these unique icons created by my grandfather, and they served as a reminder during Holy Week of our Lord’s passion on the cross and the triumph of the cross on Easter Sunday.

This is a time of the year when we can deepen our reflection on the meaning of the cross and Christ crucified, which is described in sacred scripture as a sign of contradiction — “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23).

Yet, as the scriptures also tell us, the wisdom of God is not the same as the wisdom of man. As we read in the prophet Isaiah: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Is. 55:9).

With this reality as a guidepost, and with the help of the saints, perhaps we can in some small way view Jesus on the cross through the lens of our Creator. The Catholicism video series by Bishop Robert Baron released more than a decade ago is one source that presents the cross as a paradox.

The series quotes St. Thomas Aquinas who said that if you want to see the perfect reflection of the Beatitudes, look to Christ crucified. The word beatitude means joy. St. Thomas said that if we want to be happy, we should despise the things that Jesus despised on the cross and love the things that Jesus loved on the cross. What did Jesus despise? He despised the four things that people typically chase to achieve happiness: wealth, pleasure, power, and honor.

Wealth? Jesus has none of it. He was stripped naked on the cross. Pleasure? Jesus took on the very limits of physical and psychological suffering. Power? Nailed to the cross, He chose to surrender His power; He could not even move. Honor? The bystanders mocked Him as He died on the cross as a common criminal.

Jesus on the cross is detached from the four things that many people strive for in their pursuit of happiness.

What did Jesus love on the cross? He loved doing the will of His Father. Although it seems very strange, Jesus on the cross is the image of a happy – that is to say, a blessed – man. From God’s perspective, the cross is an image of freedom, an image of the path that leads to joy. Where man sees tragedy, God sees triumph in the final outcome.

We learn from the saints that our Blessed Mother had to carry the knowledge of her Son’s suffering and cruel death on the cross all the days of her adult life. She knew from the prophesy of Simeon at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple that He would be contradicted in everything He would do. Instead of being believed, He would be known as a blasphemer. Despite being of royal descent, He would be despised as a peasant. Although Jesus was God, He was treated as ignorant, a false prophet, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners.

Can you imagine what it would be like if you had to carry such knowledge of the future all the days of your child’s life? Our Blessed Mother pondered all these things in her heart and embraced her suffering in perfect virtue.

In reflecting on the cross at World Youth Day in 2023, Pope Francis challenged the youth to walk in the footsteps of the Savior:

“Let us go up with Him to Calvary, offering Him our dreams, desires, and joys, together with our sufferings, our fears, and all those situations in which we feel hopeless or overwhelmed. Let us join to His experience of abandonment all those times when we feel alone, rejected, and wronged. Let us bring to Him all our hopes for a Church that better reflects His image and for a more just, hospitable, and fraternal world. Let us ask Him once more to take upon Himself every form of injustice, violence, and discrimination, all the horrors of war, and whatever harms the poor or devastates His handiwork in creation.”

May God bless you as you carry your cross during this Holy Week, and may God fill you with His grace as we welcome the triumph of the cross on Easter Sunday.