In the Heart of the Church

The Divine Romance: The Pulpit Of The Cross 
Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Our Blessed Lord during His mortal life chose many varied and picturesque pulpits from which to deliver His sermons, the Words of Eternal Life. Sometimes His pulpit was Peter's bark pushed out into the sea; at other times, it was the crowded streets of Jericho; on another occasion, the golden gate of the Temple; and on still another Jacob's well. It seemed as if almost any pulpit pleased Him, until the day came for Him to deliver His last and farewell address to the world. Then He would not be content with any pulpit; then He would demand a pulpit, which, like the words He was uttering, would be remembered down through the arches of the years. And on that Good Friday morning, as He stood on the sunlit portico of Pontius Pilate, perhaps He thought of making that portico the pulpit of His last and farewell address to the world. There was a vast sea of faces before Him and hearts hungering for the Bread of Eternal Life; there was an audience like unto which any one would have loved to open his heart.

But, no, He would not make that portico the pulpit of His last and farewell address. He would wait for a few hours, for another pulpit, which would be given Him at the foot of the steps of Pilate's palace; and that pulpit He would put upon His shoulders and carry to Golgotha. That pulpit would be the Cross. Once on those heights He offered Himself to His executioners. Hands of the Carpenter hardened by toil; hands from which the world's graces flow; feet of the Miracle Worker that went about doing good and that trod the Everlasting Hills now had the rough nails applied to them. The first knock of the hammer is heard in silence; blow follows blow and is faintly reechoed over the city walls beneath. Mary and John hold their ears. The sound is unendurable; each echo sounds as another stroke. The cross is lifted slowly off the ground, staggers for a moment in mid-air, and then, with a thud that seemed to shake even hell itself, it sinks into the pit prepared for it. Our Blessed Lord has mounted His pulpit for the last time and what a majestic pulpit it is! In itself the Cross is a sermon. How much more eloquently it speaks now when adorned with the Word of Eternal Life!

Like all who mount their pulpits, He o'erlooks His audience. Far off in the distance, down over the Valley of Jehosaphat and over on the other side of the valley, He could see the gilded roof of the Temple reflecting its rays against the sun, which was soon to hide its face in shame. Here and there on Temple walls He caught glimpses of figures straining their eyes to catch the last view of Him whom the darkness knew not. Nearer the pulpit, but off at the border of the crowd, stood some of His own timid disciples ready to flee in case of danger. Greeks and Romans were there, too, as well as Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem. There were Temple priests in the crowd asking Him to come down and prove His Divinity. There were the Deity-blind, mocking and spitting at Him. There were some who had followed Him for an hour, taunting Him that others He saved but Himself He could not save. There were Roman soldiers throwing dice for the garments of a God. And there at the foot of the cross stood that wounded flower, that broken thing, Magdalen, forgiven because she loved much. And there, with a face like a cast moulded out of love, was John. And there, God pity her, was His own Mother. Mary, Magdalen, and John. Innocence, penitence, and priesthood the three types of souls forever to be found beneath the Cross of Christ.

All is silence now. The Scribes and Pharisees cease their raillery, the Roman soldiers put away their dice. The sky is darkened and men grow fearful. They are awaiting the farewell address of the Son of God. He begins to speak, but like all men who die, He thinks of those whom He loves most. His first word was a word about His enemies: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." His second word was about sinners as He spoke to a thief: "This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise." And the thief died a thief, for he stole Paradise! His third word was to His saints. It was the new Annunciation: "Woman, behold thy son." As the sermon went on, it seemed to gain in emphasis about the love of God for man; and at this particular point that we are now considering, when He began to speak, it was not a curse upon those who crucified Him; it was not a word of reproach to the timid disciples off at the border of the crowd; it was not a word of withering scorn to those who taunted and mocked Him; it was not a proud prophetic word of power to those who taunted His weakness; it was not a word of hate to the Roman soldiers; it was not a word of hope to Magdalen; it was not a word of love to John; it was not a word of farewell to His own Mother; it was not even to God at this moment it was to man; and out from the abundance of the Sacred Heart there welled the cry of cries: "I thirst."

He, the God-man, He who holds the earth in the palm of His hand, He from whose fingertips have tumbled planets and worlds, He who threw the stars into their orbits, and spheres into space now asks man, a piece of His own handiwork, to help Him. He asks man for a drink. Not a drink of earthly water that is not what He wants but a drink of love: I thirst for love.'

There is perhaps no word in the English language that is more often used and more often misunderstood than the word that rang out from the Pulpit of the Cross on that day: The simple word, love. Love as the world understands it means to have, to own, to possess: To have that object, to own that thing, to possess that person, for the particular pleasure which it will give. That is not love; that is selfishness; that is sin. Love is not the desire to have, to own, to possess. Love is the desire to be had, to be owned, to be possessed. Love is the giving of oneself for the sake of another. Love as the world understands it, is symbolized by a circle, which is always circumscribed by self. Love as our Lord understands it, is symbolized by the Cross with its arms outstretched even unto infinity to embrace all humanity within its grasp. As long as we have a body, then love can never mean anything else but sacrifice. That is why we speak of "arrows" and "darts" of love something that wounds.

But if love, in its highest reaches, means sacrifice, then these words of Our Blessed Lord from the Cross are the climax of Love's ways with unloving men. Love did not keep the secret of Its goodness that was creation. Love became one with the one loved and that was the Incarnation. But if Love had merely stopped with God becoming man, we might say that God did not do everything He could do to show His love; we might say that He was like the heathen gods that sat indifferent to the woes and ills and heartaches of the world and hence never drew from the heart of man a beat of love. If Divine Love stopped after merely appearing amongst us, man might say that God could never understand the sufferings and the loneliness of a human heart; that a God could not love as men do, namely, to the point of sacrifice. If, therefore, Love was to give of its fullness, it must express Itself even to the point of sacrificing Itself for the salvation and redemption of mankind. If, therefore, He who suffered on Calvary, He who was now preaching from the Pulpit of the Cross, were not God but a mere creature or a mere man, then there must be creatures in this world better and nobler than God. Shall man who toils for his fellowman, suffers for him, and if needs be dies for him, be capable of doing that which God cannot do? Should this noblest form of love, which is sacrifice, be possible to sinful man, and yet impossible to a perfectly good God? Shall we say that the martyr sprinkling the sands of the Colosseum with his blood, the soldier dying for his country, the missionary spending himself and being spent for the good of heathens aye, and more, shall we say that those women, martyrs by pain, who in little hovels and lowly cottages have sacrificed all the joys of life for the sake of simple duties and little charities, unnoticed and unknown by all save God shall we say that all those, who from the beginning of the world have shown forth the beauty of sacrifice, have no Divine prototype in heaven? That they have been capable of displaying a nobler form of love than He who made them? That they have shown greater love than Love Itself? Shall we say this? Or shall we say with John and Paul, that if man can be so good, God must be infinitely better; that if man can love so much, God can love infinitely more? Shall we not say this, and find in the Cross of Calvary the perfect expression of love by an All-Perfect Being, of whom perfect condescension and sacrifice were required by naught in heaven or earth save by His own perfect and inconceivable love which He now preaches from the Pulpit of the Cross? If we do say this, that He is very God of very God, and love is now reaching its climax in the redemption of mankind, then no longer can men say, "Why does God send men into the world to be miserable when He is happy?" for the God-man is miserable now. No longer can men say, "God makes me suffer pain while He goes through none" for the God-man is now enduring pain to the utmost. No longer can men say that God has a heart that cannot understand, for now His own Sacred Heart understands what it is to be abandoned by God and man as He suffers suspended between the kingdoms of both, between heaven and earth, rejected by one and abandoned by the other. Now it is true to say of Love Itself that It is really dying for us, for greater love than this no man hath that a man lay down his life for his friend.

The drama of that day is an abiding one. For Calvary is not just a mere historical incident, like the battle of Waterloo; it is not something, which has happened it is something, which is also happening. Christ is still on the cross.

"Whenever there is silence around me
By day or by night
I am startled by a cry.
It came down from the cross
The first time I heard it.
I went out and searched
And found a man in the throes of crucifixion
And I said, 'I will take you down',
And I tried to take the nails out of his feet.
But He said, 'Let them be
For I cannot be taken down
Until every man, every woman, and every child
Come together to take me down.'
And I said, 'But I cannot bear your cry,
What can I do?'
And He said, 'Go about the world
Tell every one that you meet
That there is a man on the cross.'"

Because of sin Christ dies again; for as St. Paul reminds us, as often as we sin we "are crucifying again to [ourselves] the Son of God." The scars are still open. "Earth's pain still stands deified"; and still, like falling stars, Christ's blood-drops crimson the robes of other Johns and the hair of other Magdalens. As long as earth wears wounds, still must Christ's wounds remain; for each new sin draws aside the curtain of another crucifixion. Christ is still on trial in the hearts of men, and every sin is another act by which Barrabas is preferred to Christ. There still are other Judases who blister His lips with a kiss, there still are other Pilates who condemn Him as an enemy of Caesar, there still are other Herods who robe Him in the garment of a fool, there still are gambling idlers who cast their dice, gambling away the riches of eternity for the baubles of time, there still are other Calvaries for sin is the crucifixion over again. Arms that are outstretched to bless, we nail fast. Feet that would seek us in the devious ways of sin, we dig with steel. Eyes that would look longingly after us as we set out for foreign countries, like other prodigals, we fill with dust. Lips that would speak to us words of tender pleading and forgiveness, we burn with gall. A heart that would pant for us as if we were fountains of living waters, we pierce with a lance. And when the last nail has been driven and Christ, like a wounded eagle, is unfurled upon His banner of salvation, we begin to say in our own heart of hearts that after all He could not be God, for if He were God how could we have crucified Him? With the job of sinning done, which means the crucifixion, we make our way down the hill of Calvary and then there comes, not the quake of earth but the quake of conscience, which makes us say in our soul with the Centurion: "Indeed this man was the Son of God." As uneasiness and remorse creep upon us, we look back to Calvary and wonder why He does not come after us. Why, if He is the Good Shepherd, does He not pursue His sheep? Why, if He is the Lord of all good gifts, does He not raise His hands to bless? Why, if He is the Lord of sinners, does He not bid us return to the foot of the Cross?

Oh! tell me, how can hands bless that are nailed fast? How can lips that are bruised and parched with desolation preach the tidings of Divine Love? How can feet that are dug with steel go after souls that are lost? They cannot. And if we are to undo the harm that we have done, we must make our way up the penitential slope of Calvary, up to the chalice of all common miseries, and cast ourselves at the foot of the Cross. We must kneel there at the foot of that Pulpit of Love and confess that when we stabbed His Heart it was our own we slew. But, oh, it is such a difficult thing to climb up the hill of Calvary. It is such a humiliating thing to be seen at the foot of the Cross. It is such a painful thing to be with one in pain and to be seen with one condemned by the world. It is such a hard thing to kneel at the foot of the Cross and admit that one is wrong. It is hard but it is harder to hang there!

Excerpted from the Divine Romance, pages 56-63

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