With the Easter season and Anzac Day bracketing the term break, I was taken by the recurring image of the cross which seemed to span both commemorations. At Easter, of course, we were carried through the Pascal Triduum from Maundy Thursday until Easter Eve with the cross ever before us. We began with it covered in purple, then bearing a broken, disfigured body, then a bare cross again, now draped with a discarded white burial cloth. This story is at the heart of our belief – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The same cycle repeats itself in the universal human story: life and death, gain and loss, companionship and loneliness, health and illness, consolation and desolation (to use Ignatius’ descriptors of our relationship with God). But the difference is this: the Easter story boldly proclaims that death never has the last word. All will be saved, all made whole, all redeemed.
Leading up to Anzac Day, with the various media images bringing it into focus, there was the cross once again. Crosses on battlefields where those who fell were marked. The medics, the Red Cross ambulances or the hospital ships, all marked with that universal sign, making clear that succour was at hand and that, by common agreement in the midst of such horror, these men or this vessel were not to be targets. And even those decorations for great valour – Victoria Cross, Military Cross, Croix de Guerre, Iron Cross – the same symbol transcends national boundaries. Why a cross? Perhaps because in the most brutal experience of war, when generosity, love of others and selflessness abounds, it is marked and rewarded by the sign of a cross – something quite transcendent.
When anyone approaches Riverview, there are crosses to pass at the main gate. An illuminated cross is mounted atop the Wallace Wing. A wooden crucifix, commemorating the death of a young Old Boy from the Territory, Emil Pavsic, in 1999 is even to be seen high up in a pine tree on the drive near The Woods. We begin classes with “the sign of the cross”. At a school Mass we sign ourselves any number of times. When teams or boats or new buildings are blessed, it is with the cross once again. Our student Eucharistic ministers are marked out with brass lapel crosses. Clearly, the cross is a mark of who we are. A stamp.
I have written before about the Christian humanism which characterises Jesuit education. This is a style of formation grounded in the dignity and freedom of each person. It seeks the full-flourishing of the human person in every dimension which is life-giving and loving. Such humanism has its roots in the belief that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that this God, in Jesus, took on human flesh to become as we are, to share our lives. But such high aspirations do not exclude the reality of evil and suffering – even Jesus died. The cross reminds us of that daily.
That was brought home to me starkly this week in a new series, Testing Teachers, on SBS which follows the lives of six talented but very young teachers in their desire to make a difference in the lives of children in extremely disadvantaged regions of the nation. These generous young men and women were being crucified daily. At one point, though, one of them reminded herself that in spite of what happened in class, each of these students was a son or a daughter of a parent who loved them. She wanted to show her love for them, too, in her helping to shape them. Occasionally, in the grim round of classes, there were small flashes of life or glimpses of redemption coming through in both her passion for the enterprise and her compassion for them. We hope more so in episodes to come. But the reality is, the cross – in terms of both its terror and its triumph – is to be found in all our lives, wherever we live them.
In observing the plight of this world and its suffering, theologian and Georgetown academic, David Hollenbach SJ, wrote about the juxtaposition of suffering and the culture of humanism in the field of education in this way:
I think that any true humanism in a world bent by the afflictions and injustices we have witnessed in the twentieth century must be a humanism of compassion. A Christian humanism of this sort is humanism under the sign of the cross. For the cross tells us that wherever men, women or children grieve, the ultimate mystery that surrounds our history grieves too. Wherever human beings suffer unjust torture and death, God is there, for God has already been there in Jesus as the one who endured the curse of crucifixion (Gal. 3:13). When such evils lead us to fear that the One beyond the many fragments of our experience is hostile, even our enemy, we need to hear the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, which describe Jesus as “the pioneer” of our faith and call us to “consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (Heb. 12:2-3). If the Catholic [educational institution] today is tempted to lose heart, not only in its humanistic goals but also in its ability to integrate its religious tradition with its intellectual tasks, perhaps such a consideration can sustain and encourage it.
The sign of the cross is a multilayered sign and it speaks to the heart of our humanity – a humanity at its best and even at its worst. As a school in the tradition of Christian humanism, the cross has its place because a proper understanding of humanism includes not only embracing and celebrating the noblest heights to which a culture can rise, but also understanding, and manifesting a compassion for, the depth of suffering into which it can fall.
A humanism of the cross – in all its dimensions – will serve us well.