For the first few years since I started attending Mass, I hesitated to participate in the veneration of the cross on Good Friday. Despite my growing fascination with liturgical symbolism, it somehow seemed a bridge too far for my more austere Protestant sensitivities, so that on first observation I could only see the kissing of an object. And then one year – my last as a non-Catholic, as it turned out – something changed.
What first got me to the front of the church that year was something that jumped out at me from the homily about “kissing the feet of the crucified king who opposes Caesar.” I remember very little about the homily itself besides that particular takeaway, but the sheer political subversiveness of it transformed the meaning of the act for me. And sure enough, right there in St. John’s Passion is the line that still jumps out at me every year:
“Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”
Which means, by implication, that everyone who makes himself a Caesar opposes this king. (Or herself: we women are not immune to this temptation.)
I still get a chuckle from what I once heard someone point out, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, about the outward-expanding pattern of the lengthy Good Friday intercessions: “First we pray for the Church and the pope and all the faithful, then we pray for those preparing to receive the sacraments, then we pray for all Christians, then we pray for the Jewish people, then we pray for those who don’t believe in Christ, then we pray for those who don’t believe in God at all … and then we pray for the politicians!”In all seriousness, surrounded as they are on all sides by temptations of Caesarian power that opposes the Christ crucified daily in his most vulnerable brothers and sisters, those in public office surely do need our prayers. And we need the cross as a sign of contradiction now as much as ever.
The need for such as sign is not unique to our present time, or even to our present Caesar, who despite all appearances is himself not all that unique. After all, egotistical rulers, or even egomaniacal ones, are all too common. But a king who takes the form of a slave? Let alone one who, of all people, has every right to claim equality with God, descending so low as to suffer one of the most torturous and public forms of criminal execution in human history? That is jarringly unique – and it is because of this that he is also our one and only Lord, the name above every name (cf. Philippians 2).
The one we venerate on the cross is the anti-Caesar. Once we see him as such, the veneration of his cross becomes the profoundest possible act of resistance.