16th Sunday after Pentecost
In today’s epistle, St Paul give us a glimpse of his own interior life with the Blessed Trinity, blessed life which he longs to share with us. Christ dwells, he says, in our hearts through faith which is grounded in love of God, and that love surpasses all that we can know about God. Indeed, we cannot comprehend God, for to comprehend is to take into oneself what one knows, but we cannot take God into our tiny head. On the contrary, love goes out of self into the Beloved, and so in this life we can love God more than we can know Him.
St Paul prays that we might come to perceive the breadth, the length, the height and depth of Christ’s love for us. What is meant by these measures? St Thomas tells us that the breadth designates the extension of God’s power and divine wisdom over all being. By length His eternal duration is signified. Height or loftiness denotes the perfection and nobility of His nature which infinitely exceeds all creation. In the depth the incomprehensibility of His wisdom is intimated.
But we can also see in these four dimensions an allusion to the cross of Our Lord who chose to die in this manner because of its rich symbolism. Again St Thomas tells us that the crossbeam has breadth and to it the hands of Our Lord were nailed to symbolise that through charity our good works ought to stretch out to all, even to adversaries. The trunk of the cross has length against which the whole body leans, and this signifies that charity must endure, sustain and so save man. The upper portion of wood, against which the head is thrown back, has height since our hope must rise toward the eternal and the divine. The cross is braced by its depth which lies concealed beneath the ground; it is not seen because the depth of the divine love which sustains us is not visible insofar as the God’s plan of love and eternal predestination is beyond our intelligence (see St Thomas’ commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians).
We can also, perhaps more simply, consider that the depth of the cross symbolises the very heart and foundation of our being, with all its composite parts, that have been made with such great care by the Creator, knitted together by the Divine Hand in His eternal wisdom. This refers to who we are as creatures, as persons grounded in a reality which is at one and the same time concrete, real, immovable, but also fragile and lowly, as the lower part of the cross in the ground. The height of the cross refers to the goal. Even though we are made of clay and existentially so feeble, we were made for God; our destiny is to climb to the heights of Heaven, as the upper portion of the cross reaches up to the infinite expanse of Heaven where God dwells and where He wants us to be with Him. This lofty destiny should give us great hope and incentive, especially when the lower part of our nature seems to draw us down into the depths – even there, God is present, always pulling us upward with His grace.
But to go from the lower part to the higher part of the cross, one must pass through the crossbeam, which extends right and left and gives us the length and the breadth. What is this horizontal part if it be not the care we have for others, for our fellow human beings, for those we live with, for those we meet along the way? If this be true, then we can also say that just as the lower and the higher are joined only by the crossbeam, so there can be no union of our lowly nature with the divinity but through our attentiveness to the needs of others, our readiness to reach out and help. This of course can be done in a number of ways. The traditional form of helping our fellow man is called almsgiving, but this expression includes much more than just giving money to someone who needs it. It englobes anything that we do to help others, be it by teaching them, advising them, feeding them, speaking well of them, helping them to get a job, doing their shopping or their cooking, servicing their house, etc.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from the four directions of the cross is that it is Our Saviour, the Lord Jesus, who is their centre, their point of attraction, the divine element that unites all the other parts of the cross. It is only by contemplating and imitating Him that our lives are unified and pacified, as St Paul said in the preceding chapter of Ephesians: Now in Christ Jesus, you, who some time were afar off, are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, the enmities in his flesh (Eph 2:13-14). Yes, it is the Person of Christ who unites all those whose lives are dispersed by sin. It is Christ alone who unites each person with himself, allowing him to find that inner unity of communion with God. It is Christ alone who then brings each of those souls who have found inner purpose in Him, to find oneness with others within the bosom of the Holy Catholic Church and its saving sacraments.
The contemplation of Jesus on the Cross brings us to today’s Gospel where we see another kind of contemplation of Christ. The Pharisees, St Luke tells us, were watching Our Lord. They had their eyes fixed on his every deed and their ears open to his every word. Their watching, unfortunately, was not that of humble admiration but that of proud self-sufficiency and harsh rash judgment. They watch Him in order to catch Him, for they want to destroy Him. In other words, they spy on His every word and gesture in order to find some way of accusing and being rid of Him. Their malevolence is shocking, but unfortunately we know such people, who are always on the lookout for ways to put others down in order to flatter their own ego, falsely imagining that if they put others down, they will somehow be better.
This is why today’s Gospel concludes with the well-known verse: Everyone who exalteth himself shall be humbled and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. Let us seek to put others first, to put ourselves last. Let us seek to be the lower part of the cross, in the ground, hidden from the vain attention that worldlings give to each other, but supporting in that way a world gone astray, and by the very fact making it possible for ourselves and others to aim at the heights of eternity.
Let us contemplate Our Blessed Lord. Let the eyes of our hearts be lifted frequently towards Him. Like the psalmist, let our eyes be always in His Hands, that is to say, always keeping watch to learn how He lives, how He speaks, how He goes about doing good, how He prays, how he preaches, how He works and walks and eats. Every single aspect of the life of Our Saviour is an open book in which we can read God’s love for us, His plan over us. But most of all, it is in His passion, on the Cross, that we discover the ways of life. St Edith Stein, who was a highly gifted woman who had read extensively both before and after her conversion, confessed that she had learned more by contemplating the crucifix than by all the books she had read.
This week, Holy Mother Church commemorates the Ember Days of September. This Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are traditionally days of fasting on which we should devote more time to prayer and to works of charity. The great message of the cross – the “word of the cross” as St Paul calls it in the first epistle to the Corinthians, is there to encourage us to be generous, to be like Christ and embrace all in the love He Himself has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
In these humble efforts, divine grace sustains us. With today’s oration we ask that His grace may always go before us and follow us and give us to be intent on doing good to all. If we do so, then even into old age and grey hairs He will not abandon us, but will lead us from victory to victory, through the Cross to eternal light. In this effort, we are not alone, for wherever the Cross is, there is Mary standing, weeping, interceding, opening to us the mystery and teaching us to bear about in our bodies the Death which leads to Life. Amen.