In the first five years of my priesthood, when I was the full-time, resident chaplain in a Catholic hospital, I should have kept a journal of the uncanny signs of God’s presence and action in the lives of persons that I was regularly seeing there. Some few are indelibly imprinted on my mind and I recall them easily in the context of occasions like today’s celebration of the cross of Jesus.
I remember, for example, the 9-year-old boy whose dying words to his mother, standing next to me at his bedside, were, “Don’t forget to change the flowers.” I asked her, out in the hallway soon after he had closed his eyes in death, what the child had meant by that request. She explained that he had developed the habit of returning from play – usually his favorite sport, baseball, she added – with a handful of wild flowers and placing them in a vase before the statue of the Mother of Jesus on their kitchen window sill. I was privileged to be there to hear his last expressed thought, one of affection for Mary — a very young son’s last will and testament.
I recall a Chinese woman, wife of a prominent international diplomat, whose deathbed was surrounded by her husband and their 12 adult children. They took turns, one-by-one, conversing with her privately, briefly, finally. Last of all, she held her husband’s hand and said to him, “Don’t despair, John. This will be only a temporary separation. We shall all be together with God for eternity. In the meantime, pray for me as I will for you and our children.” Minutes later (I was only 10-or-so feet away from this exquisitely touching scene) she lowered her head back onto the pillow and died.
And then there was the woman whose room I entered toward the end of her slowly progressing disease. She was peaceful, smiling, alert. She lifted a hand and said to me, “Please pray with me, Father, that God will take me home today. I am so eager to be with him.” (My mother, by the way, expressed that same longing shortly before she died; although she put it a bit differently. She said, “Ask Jesus to take me home. I’m ready to go.”)
And how could I ever forget the young father’s commentary at the funeral Mass of his beloved 19-year-old daughter, who had been killed in an accident at a construction site? His words have come back to me hundreds of times since I heard them in that church decades ago: “We know that God must have loved Barbara more than we ever could, because God gave her to us in the first place for these too-short years. Now all God asks of us is that we increase our love and our faith. We know that, in this tragedy too, God’s love and mercy are always with us.”
We celebrate today the Exaltation of the Cross, a feast day that used to be called the Triumph of the Cross. It is in such lives as the ones I just described to you that we see that triumph realized. To know from Jesus’ experience that death is not permanent, to know that suffering and death not only do not frustrate human life but can actually magnify it, to know that death was not able to annihilate the life of Jesus, and to be called to share in his victory — what more does anyone need in order to live a hopeful, purposeful, happy and successful life, no matter its crosses and burdens, no matter the inevitability of death’s brief visit?
We say on Good Friday, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.”