By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

[Feast on the Exaltation of the Cross]

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”

But not all crosses point to the cross of Jesus. Not all crosses can save us. First, there are “imposed crosses” – one forced upon our shoulders.

Manny Pacquiao is famous for this argument in one Senate hearing. Death penalty is legal, he says; even Jesus was sentenced to death penalty. Or Duterte was once caught saying to jeepney drivers: "Mahirap kayo? Putang ina, magtiis kayo sa hirap at gutom, wala akong pakialam."

This cross kills people. There is nothing salvific with such an inhuman burden. It is a cruel and humiliating punishment. There is no way one can justify, rationalize, valorize or spiritualize an unjust cross.

There is no way a priest or pastor can preach to take up your cross because your reward will be great in heaven; to suffer hunger now because you will soon attend an everlasting banquet; or that to say that sickness is OK because in heaven there will be no more pain. Suffer now, enjoy later! Some sort of eternal delayed gratification?

There is no way a President can say: I will kill the drug addicts now in order to give a beautiful future to our children. He sometimes makes it appear as someone who takes care of the poor or one who is concerned with the youth. But no solution is forthcoming to respond to the hunger of our people during the pandemic, to the lack of work due to lockdowns, to the sick in overflowing hospitals, to the frontliners who are tired and underpaid. Instead what you get are tirades against those who oppose him or curses the poor as "pasaway", "mga gahi'g ulo!" Instead, he protects the policemen who killed the addicts, or the Cabinet members who squandered the people's money.

These imposed crosses are not salvific at all. They do not save us. They kill people and condemn them to hell.

Well, there are some others who are in some ways "saved" by it. Who? The kumpare drug lords and/or Chinese businessmen who bag billions for PPEs and enjoy palace protection; the contractors, many of them in Cabinet positions, who get the construction deals in dolomite project or Kaliwa dam—all having problems in the COA reports; the favored capitalists whose mining contracts are protected by militias. They all perpetuate what Pope Francis calls “an economy that kills”. This cross is intended to maintain the status quo. It continues to kill.

The second kind is a “domesticated cross” - one that decorates our bodies and our churches.

Sometimes, people are tempted to look at the ‘cross’ in Madonna-like fashion like some sort of decoration items on walls, as pendants or tattoos that give an ethnic color to our bodies in order to look cool. Pastors decorate them with neon lights on church steeples or people include them in their ivory collections. Some preachers also tell us that our little toothaches and headaches, a nagging mother-in-law or heavy traffic are our “crosses” that we need to bear.

All these so-called "crosses" domesticate, de-historicize, romanticize and trivialize the experience of Jesus who suffered the violent death of a criminal under the Roman law. It is used to make his painful death palatable to our middle class tastes, justify our complacent petty concerns, intended for us to go on with our self-confined lives, unmindful of the killing and the dying around us.

The third kind is the cross of Jesus - one that saves.

But how can an instrument of torture; how can the cruel punishment of the crucifixion be anything but evil? How can we say that it is the cross that saved us?

What led Jesus to the cross was his option for justice and freedom in defense of the marginalized of that society. His commitment to the kingdom of equality, freedom and justice made him say and do things that put into question the social, political and religious structures of his society. His crucifixion was the necessary consequence of such a commitment. What happened in the end only highlighted what he was committed in his whole life.

The cross of justice and freedom, of fighting for the oppressed and the excluded, was not imposed on him. It was his option. He freely took it upon his own shoulders to bear.

If considered alone, the cross is shameful. What is positive is Jesus’ fidelity and commitment to the demands of the Kingdom in the whole of his ministry, from the beginning up to the end, regardless of its consequences for him. From the synagogue in Nazareth to the fields of Palestine up to the hill in Calvary, Jesus single-mindedly proclaimed and worked for the liberation of the poor for which the Spirit anointed him to do in the waters of the Jordan. His death was the peak but also the sum total of his whole life of self-giving compassion.

Here I remember the many mothers and widows who take up their crosses after their sons and husbands have been killed. They continue to long for justice. Some already have the courage to go to courts; others still gather strength to speak out. But all of them take on the cross of living in these difficult times, a strong resolve to take care of the children, to learn new skills, to take on odd jobs... so that their children may live and have life to the full.

I still remember Lola Remy, the 85-year old grandmother, who told me during the funeral of her son killed by the police that week. Pointing to her seven grandchildren, se said: “Father, they want us dead. No, we will not give them that joy. We will live. We will show them that we will live.”

And if this commitment to life and justice will bring them to their own Calvary, they would gladly and willingly accept, as they do now. For the sake of their children and their children’s children.

This is the cross that truly saves.

Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM
Chair of Social Justice
St. John's University
New York