Sixty years ago, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote a best-selling book about his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is considered to be a classic about the worst nightmare of the last century. Frankl describes how men, women and children coped with the horrors of the camp – how they were able simply to survive, day after day, week after week.
At one point he tells the haunting story of a woman who knew she was going to die in just a few days. Despite that, he says, she was remarkably calm, even cheerful.
One morning, Frankl approached this woman and asked her how she did it. How was she able to keep her spirits up? The woman told him that she had come to a deeper appreciation of spiritual things during her time in the camp.
Then, he writes:
Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through the window, she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me…I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me. ‘I am here. I am here. I am life. Eternal life.’ ”
In that astonishing moment, Frankl touched on something profound. At the bleakest of moments, in even the darkest of places, we look for life. We want a promise of something better. We want to know that life goes on.
We crave hope.
Hope, however fleeting, was there in Auschwitz that morning. And, whether we realize it or not, hope is what has brought us together this afternoon.
In one sense, of course, we are remembering an event that seems hopeless — the agony and death of Jesus Christ. Today, in this liturgy, we re-read the story of His passion. We experience a deep and mournful absence – no consecration, no bells, no final blessing. The altar will be stripped.
For some people, it’s still customary to turn off the radio, shut off the TV, draw the curtains … and pray. Some may light candles. Others may follow the Way of the Cross, or pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary.
The simple fact is: this can’t be a day like any other. Scripture tells us that on the day Christ died, the world – literally – cracked open. The earth quaked. To this day, we cannot help but remember what was done for us. As the old spiritual tells us, it causes us to tremble.
But in the midst of all this, we do something remarkable.
We venerate the cross with a kiss.
I’m sure some outside our faith find it strange that we pay tribute to an instrument of death. But they don’t see the cross the way we do. Maybe they should.
Maybe they should try to see that the cross was not an end, but a means to an end – the method God chose to remake the world. Maybe they should strive to see in the cross the beginning of our salvation. This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the savior of the world.
When the priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation, which we hear so often during Lent, he invokes the cross powerfully, and poignantly. As the prayer puts it, Jesus “stretched out his arms between heaven and earth in the everlasting sign of Your covenant.”
We are reminded today that it is a covenant that was sealed with nails, and splinters, and blood.
In the reading today from Isaiah, the prophet tells us about the suffering servant – foreshadowing Christ. Isaiah tells us: “He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth…it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured.”
In Christ’s cross, the wood we venerate and touch, we see part of the shoot from the parched earth. Nailed to this cross, He became one with it – and we are able to see this wood for what it truly is: a tree, like the one that prisoner saw, that holds out hope.
From within the four walls of our brokenness, behind the barbed wires of sin, we look out and look up — and we see this “tree” that symbolizes our salvation. This is how we know we are saved. This is how we know how much God loves us.
This afternoon, the cross speaks to us. It speaks of the One who suffered and died upon it.
It speaks to us in consolation. And – yes — in hope.
And quietly, but persistently, it offers us the promise of something better, beyond the prison wall.
“I am here. I am here. I am life. I am Eternal life.”