Saturday, September 09, 2006

Preparing the Feast of the Cross

The Sunday before the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is referred to in the Byzantine tradition, appropriately enough, as the “Sunday before the Holy Cross.” Likewise, and equally appropriately, the Sunday after this feast is known as the “Sunday after the Holy Cross.” Aside from the unassailable logic of these designations, there is the underlying fact that this feast, and hence the mystery of the Holy Cross, is of exalted importance in the faith and life of the Christian. The only other feasts that have Sundays immediately before and after on the liturgical calendar are Christmas and Theophany. While the Gospel of the crucifixion itself is read on the feast, the Sunday before gives us a little of the theology of the Cross, and the Sunday after gives its practical application. But I’d like to give a little of each today.

In the Gospel reading (John 3:13-17), Jesus instructs Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Why did Moses lift up a serpent? You have to get the story from the Book of Numbers (21:4-9). The Israelites were once again grumbling against God and Moses in the desert, and God was getting fed up with it, so He sent poisonous serpents to attack them. With this incentive, the people repented and the Lord told Moses to mount an image of a serpent on a pole, and their looking upon this would be the antidote to the serpents’ venom. But now we have to ask: Is Jesus saying that a serpent is an image of Himself?—“As Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” No, we’ve already seen the devil appear in the form of a serpent in Eden, so Christ would not adopt that image for Himself. What connects Him to that event in Numbers is the term “lifted up.” Moses “lifted up” the serpent in the desert, and Jesus would be “lifted up” on the Cross (in fact, “lifting up” was a euphemism for crucifixion at that time—see John 8:28: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, you will know that I AM,” and John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself”).

So, lifting up means crucifixion, but the question remains, why link that with Moses and the serpent? The Book of Wisdom gives us the answer in its own commentary on that event: The serpent on the pole was a “sign of salvation” (16:6), and the author makes it clear that it was not the serpent that healed the people, but God, “the Savior of all.” So Jesus is telling us that his crucifixion, his being lifted upon the Cross, is a sign of salvation, and that He, as the Son of God, is the Savior of all.

This is made clear in the next two verses, the first one being one of the most famous and important verses of the whole Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God sent the Son into the world…that the world might be saved through him.” So we see that even if God gets fed up with us because of our sins, his first choice is not to send the destroying angel, but rather to send his Son, so that we might put our faith in Him and be saved. But Jesus didn’t merely appear on earth, saying, “believe in Me and be saved.” His mission was much more costly than that. He says, “Believe in Me who have come to suffer and die for you, so that your sins may be forgiven, so that it will be possible for you to be saved.” For without the forgiveness of our sins, it is impossible for us to be saved.

The evangelist goes on to say that the Light, meaning Christ, has come into the world for our salvation, but many loved darkness instead of the Light. And his next comment is both spiritually and psychologically astute: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” Everyone who does what he knows is wrong tries to hide it, to keep anyone from knowing about it, because if it comes to light he will be exposed as a transgressor. But the Lord also said that whatever is hidden will eventually be revealed and come to light, so that all will know who has tried to hide his sins, and who is able with a clear conscience to bring his deeds into the light of God.

Taking a quick look at practical applications, we turn to St Paul in the epistle reading for this Sunday from Galatians (6:11-18). “Far be it from me,” he exclaims, “to glory, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” Since he understands so well the mystery of the Cross, he glories in nothing else, for he wants nothing else but communion with Christ, “who loved me and gave himself for me,”
as he says earlier in this letter. Paul realized that we have to undergo a kind of mystical crucifixion if we are to be free from sin and the dead weight of this world. Baptism is the indispensable beginning of this, as he explains in Romans, but there is a whole life’s work that follows it. Death must precede resurrection, and throughout our life of faith, little deaths must prepare the way for little resurrections. If we are to attain humility, then pride must be crucified; if we are to attain purity, then impurity must be crucified; if we are to attain peace and inner freedom, then anger and disobedience must be crucified, and so on.

Paul goes on to say that he bears the marks of Jesus on his body. The word in Greek is stigmata. Does this mean that his hands and feet and side were miraculously pierced, as happened to some later saints? Probably not, but we know that he suffered many actual scourgings and beatings for the sake of Christ, and these are Paul’s stigmata. This should make us aware that anything we suffer for Christ’s sake, or any suffering we offer for his sake, or in union with his Cross, will be in a sense the stigmata on our bodies and souls, our communion with the Crucified.

In any case, let us glory only in the Cross of Christ and not in the passing and deceptive attractions of the world and the flesh. All that matters, Paul concludes, is that we become a new creation in Christ. This can only happen through faith and sacramental immersion in the mystery of his death and resurrection, his “lifting up”—his ascent of the Cross and his ascension into Heaven—for our salvation. God so loved the world that He sent his Son to save us. Do we so love God that we will respond with our whole heart to his offer of salvation? “Peace and mercy upon all,” says the Apostle, for Jesus Christ loved us and gave Himself for us.