The Exaltation of the Cross

Num. 21:4b-9; Phil. 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

This weekend, we celebrate the instrument of our redemption—the cross on which Christ gave up His life. This feast commemorates the recovery of the cross from the Persians, who had taken it as a trophy in the early 7th century. In our day and in our contemporary culture, the cross is considered something a bit weak and watery—an adornment for little old ladies or children—or even a symbol of fear and intolerance for people who can’t bear to be challenged or sullied by a post-Christian culture that no longer operates by Christian values. We live in an age of stunning historical blindness, where few people seem to remember what happened two years ago or 50 years ago, much less two thousand years ago.

Occasionally, though, you get the observant atheist or someone from another faith tradition like Buddhism who looks at the symbol of our faith and considers it scandalous. Appalling. Disgusting.

Why? Well, in one sense, the cross is scandalous, appalling, and disgusting. The cross is, to us, a sign of our redemption, but the cross was first and foremost an instrument of execution—one of the worst ways imaginable to die. To the non-Christian, what else could it be but appalling to celebrate the barbarity of the cross, of the instrument of torture that Ancient Rome used for the ultimate demonstration of its power and authority over those whom it ruled. To put this in perspective, think of someone wearing a hangman’s noose or a small electric chair as a pendant, and you’ll understand. To the outsider, the cross is barbaric. The cross represents pain, suffering, and a horrible death. It behooves us to remember this simple fact about the symbol of our redemption.

But that perspective only sees part of the picture. To the Christian, the cross is all of those things! But it is also a symbol of reconciliation, of healing, and salvation. Our scripture readings tell us a different story and one that actually precedes Western Civilization.

Our first reading comes from the earliest part of the Jewish scripture—the Torah—which recounts the time from creation until the death of Moses. God chose a tiny tribe of people—Aramean nomads who had been enslaved by the Egyptians—to set an example of His love for us. He used Moses to guide them out of bondage, across the waters of the Red Sea, to freedom and to a land He promised would be flowing with milk and honey. He promised to make them a great nation and to care for them. But at every turn, they kvetched and grumbled that they had been led out to die of hunger and thirst. They had been given manna—this miraculous bread from heaven—yet they turned up their noses at it and considered it “wretched food.”

Imagine that: being given bread from heaven and turning up your nose at it.

Quite rightly, God is offended and sends seraphs among the people, who bite and poison them. When they realize their folly, they beg for God’s mercy, and God responds by having Moses mount a bronze serpent on a staff—the Nehushtan—and anyone who is bitten can look at the mounted serpent and be saved from the poison. That’s an odd way for God to deliver His mercy, but who are the Israelites to complain? They take what mercy He gives happily, yes? Maybe they don’t fully understand how their ingratitude is offensive, but they repent nonetheless. It would be better to repent out of love for God, but God takes what we offer.

What I find interesting is that the agent that God sends to the Israelites to punish for their sinful attitude is the same agent who caused the fall in Genesis: the serpent. I’m going to make a bit of hay with this fact in a minute, but for now, just hold onto that coincidence.

In our gospel reading, Jesus points back to the image from Numbers and compares Himself to the serpent on the staff. Just as Moses raised the serpent, the Son of Man would also be lifted up. The serpent is often depicted on a staff with a cross bar, essentially, a miniature cross. So in the gospel allusion, we see both the serpent and Jesus on the cross—the serpent as a sign of healing for the Israelites, and the crucified Son of Man as a sign of healing for all mankind.

But he unpacks the theology of his future action right here—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Moses raised up a bronze serpent—a human creation—so that God could work through it. But in Jesus, a Divine being is raised up. How much more, then, could the effect be? In Numbers, the Israelites are cured of poison. In Christ, we’re cured of death and sin!

But that sign was not easy for Jesus’ contemporaries to recognize. To them, the first scripture they would remember is from Deuteronomy—that anyone who hangs on a tree is under God’s curse. Jesus could have gone anyway He chose, but He allowed Himself to be made the most heinous of signs—a sign condemned by His own people—a cursed man hung on a tree. How do they get beyond this contradiction that Jesus poses to them: that He declares his own prefigurement in Numbers but that Deuteronomy says He will be cursed if He is raised up?

You see, He was as much of an enigma to his contemporaries as the cross is today. Christ said He would be a sign of contradiction, and I can’t think of any more contradictory approach to saving a people than to allow oneself to be executed by them. And yet, that’s just what He did. He took a hideous torture device and turned it in to the sweetest bridge from this broken world to a kingdom in which we dwell in God’s presence. “Dying, He destroyed our death. Rising, He restored our life.” That language comes right out of our Eucharistic liturgy.

That death there is linked to our offering here, and through them our distance—that gap between our unworthiness and God’s mercy—are bridged. We look at the Son of Man lifted up on the cross; we recognize our own sinfulness, our own failings, our own complaints against God’s gift to us—and we are free at last. We look on that cross and are healed, just as the Israelites looked upon the serpent—the sign of their sinfulness and were healed.

I told you that I would bring back this matter of the serpent. First we have a serpent in Genesis, who tricks our ancestors into disobeying God. Then we have the serpents in the desert who torment the Israelites in their disobedience. I don’t think that parallel is by accident. While we think of serpents as snakes in both cases, the same word can mean something more like what we would call a dragon. So our first text in scripture begins with the victory over God’s created image by a serpent (which could be a dragon) and we have the last text in scripture, the Revelation, which shows the victory of Christ over the dragon (who is most certainly the serpent from Genesis). And in between, we see the inversion of the symbols of healing. We can have an earthly, temporary healing by looking on the reminder of our sinfulness (the serpent), or we can have a divine and eternal healing by the one who comes to undo the work of the serpent.

That’s what he came to do. The new Adam came to undo the disobedience of the first Adam. Through his obedience, he healed the rift between us and our Creator. So when you look on that crucifix there, don’t be appalled by its brutality. Don’t be disgusted by its brute reality as an instrument of torture. Be astounded that someone Divine, Jesus, thought so much of you personally and me—personally—that He allowed Himself to be put to that degradation to take you back and reclaim you for His Father. When you come to this altar today, remember that someone went through a great deal of trouble to make it possible.


About dcnbillburns

I am a deacon for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise.
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