We print here the inspirational homily given by the Bishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, O.P., at the year beginning preparations for World Youth Day, a marvellous meditation on the Cross and its meaning.
Behold the Cross. What does it mean? A gibbet on which a young man was tortured and executed for his beliefs? A totem at the end of beads hanging from the rear-vision mirror in a car? A symbol used by vampire-slayers to ward off evil spirits? A sign outside hospitals, ambulances, the Red Cross Blood Bank, indicating care and healing? A memorial along the side of the road to some young person who crashed or in a graveyard to some young solider who was killed? A tattoo on the arm of a bikie or jewellery around the neck of a cool girl? An invitation on the top of churches to come inside? The ‘halt and the lame creeping to the cross’ on Good Friday hoping for something?
Behold the Cross on which ‘the Son of man must be lifted up’. The first Christians saw this instrument of execution very much as a countersign to the world and as a source of a new kind of power and wisdom. Soon it was the code signal for Christians. Generations of theologians and bishops, mystics and saints, artists and ordinary people revered the cross. They bowed or genuflected before it in their churches or homes. They scratched it on the tombs of their loved ones. They brought to it their fears and sufferings, hopes and dreams. They made the sign of the cross, especially to pray for things or against evil. For as we just heard in our Gospel passage ‘God so loved the world he gave his only Son, that those who believe in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.’ (Jn 3:13-17) If you feel lost, right now, this day, or any day in the future, turn to him and find in his cross life, not death.
Here in Oceania we had the cross in our sky, 365 days a year, for millions of years. Australia was like a great natural cathedral waiting for the meaning of this ‘Southern Cross’ to be explained. On this national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday we remember that the original Australians long knew that Cross. The cross is the place where Jesus died, the stars whispered to them. On this cross an innocent victim died to redeem us all, they twinkled. Here God sang to us the eternal love song that is his Son.
God set the Southern Cross above Cathedral Australia as a promise of salvation to come. Now another cross will touch every corner of our land. The World Youth Day Cross and Icon are portents of an extraordinary grace which is promised to our country. When the Pope arrives in this very harbour and gathers with half a million young people to this very city in one year from now it will be to encounter Jesus Christ, his Spirit and his Church. It will be so that, as Christ promised (Acts 1:8) and Guy and Paulini sung to us today, you might ‘receive the power of the Holy Spirit’ who will make you into witnesses. The Holy Spirit will make you, like the Cross, witnesses to God’s undying love.
With the Cross travels an Icon of Our Lady. She was there with Christ, from the beginning, from that first great Yes she said in obedience at his conception, right to the end, when he died upon the Cross and again with resignation she said Yes to God. She shows it is possible for us ordinary mortals to be disciples of the crucified One. She says to us: dare to be great! Dare to be all that He calls you to be! ‘Receive the power of the Holy Spirit.’
Decades from now people throughout Australia will look back to World Youth Day in 2008 as the beginning of so much that will be so good in Australia and as the time of renewal of so much that already was. Young people will say to old guys, as old as I am now or even older, What a time it must have been for you when the World Youth Day Cross and Icon came to Australia! What a time it must have been when the Pope and the young people of the world came to Sydney. What a time it must have been when you experienced that New Pentecost from which we are still reaping the spiritual fruits.
Those old guys, as old as me, will be you. And when young people ask you, you will say: I was there! I was there at the beginning! I was there when the World Youth Day Cross and Icon arrived. I was there when that wonderful song that we are still singing was first launched. What a privilege. What a grace. The grace of the Cross of Jesus Christ. The grace of the God who so loved the world he sent his only Son. The grace of the Holy Spirit.
It is a privilege and a responsibility to welcome the WYD Cross and Icon to Australia today and for the year ahead. When I was a student a friend of mine pointed to a small cross I wore around my neck, rather like the ones you will be given today as a sign to others of your encounter with the WYD cross. My friend said to me that she wouldn’t dare wear a cross unless she was sure she really meant it. If we are to dare to bear the cross around our land, upon our shoulders and around our necks, we must ask what it means and make sure that we really mean it. We must be open to conversion, to God working deep within us to free us for mission in the world. Rediscover the One who was ‘lifted up’ upon the Cross, that he might ‘draw all to himself’ and so ‘that all who believe in him might have eternal life’.
Behold the Cross! In a few moments you will come to venerate it. You may genuflect or bow or stand. You may touch or kiss or just stand-by. You may weep. Like Mary at the foot of the cross. But if you weep now remember that you also will sing. ‘You will sing forever: Alleluia!’ For God loves the world, loves you that much. When Pope Benedict gathers half a million young people around this Cross next year, it will be to tell them, to tell you this. It will be so that you can receive the Holy Spirit’s power, to go out and tell the world that Good News. To go out and tell your generation. God has great plans for you, young people of Australia, young people of the Cross, young people of the Holy Spirit!
This article is originally found on page 33 of the printed edition.