Today is Holy Cross Day, also called the Feast of the Cross, or the Triumph of the Cross. It is of course our patronal festival at the Church of the Holy Rood (Rood is an old word for the Cross), although this year it is being celebrated on Sunday, as part of the Flower Festival and general shindig for the 100th anniversary of the re-hanging of the bells.
Tomorrow, though, is the Stigmata Festival (our local Third Order area is celebrating with the Brothers at Hilfield Friary) commemorating St Francis' receiving the Stigmata - the first recorded case of someone receiving the wounds of Christ, in his case in response to his prayer that, before he died, he might know something of the sufferings of Jesus, and of the love that brought him to the Cross. The full story is here.
Our adult lives are about choices: choices which may wound us. I believe the Stigmata challenges us about our wounds. We have to give up things – and people – sometimes. We have to choose one job, one home, one relationship, one life, over and above another. And a Christian life demands these certain sacrifices alongside giving certain joys. Those decisions leave us with our very own stigmata.
So where are your stigmata? They might have something to do with your own sense of vocation. They might be about a decision you took. They might concern a relationship you felt you had to give up, an opportunity you passed by, or a failure to achieve what you set out to do. Any life situation in which you took a difficult decision knowing that some hurt was caused to others and to yourself. You may have been wrong, but you nevertheless made your choice in good faith. And deep inside you still feel a pain about it. You still have a wound.
So, how do we Christians deal with our wounds? The first step is in recognizing that these wounds are there. That is not always an easy thing to do. For we live in a culture in which success is an idol. We are expected to achieve, to win, not be a ‘loser’. We should aim to ‘have it all’. It is all a matter of succeeding. In such a world, pain is unacceptable. It is seen as a sign of failure either in ourselves or others. So we are tempted to pretend. We act unwounded.
And then comes the time when we can not do it any more. We have to cry out. Our culture then pushes us fast in the opposite direction. We become ‘walking failures’, convinced of our unworthiness and uselessness. We agonise over the negative sides of our lives and become locked in self-doubt and low self-esteem. We chase imaginary failures and analyse quite trivial problems. We believe we are too fat, too ugly, too stupid, too slow. And chasing all these exaggerations is just another way of avoiding the real issues and looking at the real wounds.
So, as Christians, our first step is to witness honestly, neither evading our wounds nor becoming obsessed by them. We then have to take a second step. We have to see our wounds as part of who we are. For these very wounds are one of the creative forces of our own personalities and of our own Christian commitment. They are not alien or separate, but integral to the human being we have become. They are a part of the whole person, whom God loves unconditionally, and so part of the whole we too must love. Healing is not about discarding but about accepting. We do not heal our wounds by cutting them out and throwing them away. We heal them by surrounding them with love.
And so to the final step. Christ teaches us that pain and suffering are not an end. We transcend them by transforming them into a beginning, and using them as an opportunity for growth. So if we have had to make a difficult choice, we should live out fully the way we have chosen. Think of our novice friar at the beginning. Whichever decision he makes, he should try to live it positively. For either path can be an affirmation. The pain of the initial choice can lead to the joy of commitment.
As an Easter people, we are proclaimers of the truth of the Resurrection. The power that gives us is that we know vulnerability and weakness are truly a strength. It is then because of our wounds that we can proclaim our faith. And we are no longer afraid of the wounds of others because we have a message of hope and love to give them. We can use our own experience to help and comfort others. Our wounds become a window to the truth of the Gospel for us.
I know that this is true. In my own life, the little sufferings I have had, the hard choices I have had sometimes to make, have in the end become a window, perhaps the only clear window, in my life through which it is sometimes possible authentically to witness to a Gospel which has something to say to a suffering world, and is more than just a shallow, glossy placebo. Without those small stigmata, I should have nothing to say.