By Bishop David A. Zubik
Everybody has a special place in their hearts for their grandparents. My favorite grandparents’ story is about a pair who relished the thought and the opportunity of spending time with their four-year-old granddaughter who lived in another state. They planned to take her out to eat at several restaurants during her week’s stay. An afternoon at the local movie theatre was also in order. They were excited about the possibility of her being reunited with some of her cousins who lived nearby.
One of the special highlights of the week would be a visit to their local parish church. The grandparents were sadly aware that their granddaughter’s mom and dad never took her to church. The grandparents went to church more often than just on weekends. One morning the young girl’s grandpap took her to their parish church. He was her one-on-one tour guide. He pointed out the stained-glass windows and explained the depiction of the events in Jesus’ life reflective in the windows of the mysteries of the rosary. He showed her the statues in the church and told her something about each one of the saints who was figured. He introduced her to the baptismal font, the place where people become members of the Church. He showed her the confessionals where sins are forgiven. He pointed out the Stations of the Cross and explained what Lent was. He described a number of the important symbols painted on the walls of the church. He explained the importance of the gathering space and was especially excited to show her the sanctuary, the ambo where the Word of God is proclaimed: the altar where the Eucharist is celebrated.
During the course of her first visit to church, the young girl had many questions for her grandpap, questions that more than humored her grandfather, questions in which she pursued her curiosity about the spiritual realities theretofore unknown to her.
Among the many questions she asked her grandpap happened when she looked at the large crucifix which commanded attention in the sanctuary. As she looked up at the cross and the figure of Jesus on it she asked: “Hey grandpap, what’s that ‘plus sign’ for?” As the common expression goes, her question blew her grandpap’s socks off. The grandfather realized that his granddaughter realized a lot more about God than he thought. The simple emerging theology of the young girl recognized at once the purpose of the cross. It is God’s “plus sign.” It is the sign of God’s endless love for His people. It is the sign of His deep hunger to have His people be one with Him forever. It is the sign of His never-ending willingness to forgive the sins of His people. It is the sign of how God looks at His people. The cross, God’s “plus sign” becomes such because Jesus embraced it as He died and rose from the dead to save us all.
But the sign of the cross, God’s “plus sign” is meant to say something about our lives as Christians as well. It is meant to be a sign from us to the world in which we live.
A number of times in his own life, Fredereich Nietzche, a philosopher who was often very critical of Christianity, would remark: “The problem with you Christians is that you don’t look saved.” His criticism, harsh as it is, should cause us as followers of Christ to ask the question: Do we look and act and speak as people whose lives have been touched by Christ’s saving love?
The “plus sign” of the cross calls us to be positive in our words, loving in our deeds and intent on growing in holiness.
On Ash Wednesday, you and I did more than participate in a ritual. As the cross was placed on our foreheads, we were given a charge. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” That charge calls us to become more like Jesus. That challenge calls us to be as is the cross, a “plus sign” everywhere we are.
The cross that we received on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday is a true reminder that we are to speak and live and look the message of the cross. The cross that we received on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday is a “seal” that we are to wear with joy throughout the year.
As we live in an age that tries to disprove all that Jesus did for us, it becomes incumbent on us to disprove the cynical criticism of Nietzche and be a people who look and speak and act as a saved people.
As I was preparing this Lenten reflection, I remembered an impressive painting I came upon many years ago. The scene immediately follows the Last Judgment. Everyone who has been admitted into Heaven is celebrating the moment. There’s dancing, singing and great feasting. All are filled with joy except for Jesus, who is standing at the Pearly Gates, turned away from the “party.” Jesus looks downcast. Underneath the painting, inscribed on a nameplate affixed to the picture frame, were the words: “Waiting for Judas.”
During this Lenten season and beyond, during each day of our lives, Jesus is waiting for us to be convincing signs, “plus signs” of His saving presence.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, like the little girl of our opening story, people would be able to look at us and say about us: “Look at that ‘plus sign’—that is a person who reminds me so much of Jesus.”