Sunday, September 14, 2014

Snakes on a ... Pole?!

Readings for Sunday, September 14: Exaltation of the Cross:
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 78:1-2, 34-38
Philippians 2:6-11
John 3:13-17

When you walk into the refectory (cafeteria) at St. Joseph Seminary College, where I did my undergrad studies, immediately in front of you would be the tables, to the right was the setup for food and drink and off to the end of the room to the left was a large crucifix. From time to time one of my brother seminarians would go bring one of the others aside for a little ‘Jesus talk.’ This entailed bringing him to the far end of the room away from everyone else and letting him know in front of the crucifix what a horrible sinner he was and how his actions are what caused the Lord Jesus to have to suffer on the cross. It seems rather harsh, but it helps to note that the offense was usually something along the lines of taking the last piece of chicken while others were in line or getting seconds on dessert. I mention that, though, because sometimes in our life of faith we can look upon the crucifix and see it as a great sign of shame – a reminder of how horrible our actions are and how we are the cause of the Lord Jesus’ death on the cross. Such thinking isn’t entirely false and it does have its place in bringing us to realize the weight of sin and its consequences. But as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross today, we look upon the Cross not as a sign of shame or guilt but as one of love and hope.

When I was in my early adolescence I struggled pretty badly with depression. My family always knew that I had my ‘quiet days’ but they didn’t realize just how dark those days were in my mind and heart until one night when I had reached a breaking point. We were about ready to go to Mass and I was sitting on the back porch by myself crying. My mom saw me and asked me what was wrong and the only thing I could say was, “Have you ever wanted to kill yourself?” Her stunned look was the face of a mother realizing that her baby boy was utterly lacking in the gift of hope. She and the rest of my family did many things to try to help me through that very difficult time, but the most important thing that they did was continue to bring me to Mass.

In addition to the Eucharist and community, I began to really wrestle with the mystery of the crucifixion because in my home parish we didn’t have a bunch of images or statues in the front of the church. We had only a large, life-like, beautiful crucifix hung on the wall. Every time we went to Mass I would just sit there and stare at the crucifix and wonder why that had to happen, why it was the only thing in the church, why it was so important to the faith. As I continued to gaze upon that blessed crucifix, I came to realize that all of those questions brought me to one conclusion: without the crucifixion, this world does not make sense. I had tried finding hope to lift me up in music, in nature, in relationships, in hobbies, and a whole host of other things, and yet they all left me empty. The crucified Lord alone brought me some consolation, some hope.

In the world today there are a whole host of people promoting a ‘Gospel of prosperity’ that says ‘If you pray right, if you live right, if you tithe enough, if you do this and that right…you’ll be blessed by God and will have a good life, good health, wealth, and no troubles’. The truth that you and I know is that such a Gospel is a lie because we see that Jesus was absolutely perfect, and look what kind of blessing that got Him here in this life! We can do and say all the right things and live perfectly in accord with the Gospel, but the simple fact is that we will have to suffer in this valley of tears; this isn’t Heaven. Those who follow a Gospel of prosperity have nothing to cling to when things start to fall apart around them other than to question what they have done wrong. We, on the other hand, have the grace of looking to the crucified Lord and to find some consolation that whatever the battle is, the Lord has the last say.

This is what we see in our first reading from the Book of Numbers. The people complain about the food that God Himself provides for them and sin against the Lord. As a result, seraph serpents are sent among them that bite them and inflict suffering and death. This harkens back to another familiar story, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and merited for themselves suffering (a woman brings forth children in pain and a man reaps the fruit of the earth by the sweat of his brow) and the promise of death to come. But remember that in Genesis, there was also a promise made by God that one day a man would come along and crush the head of the serpent, the devil. In Numbers, too, there is a promise of victory, but it is veiled behind what seems to be a magic trick: look at this snake on a stick! Placing one of the seraph serpents on a stake and holding it up for others to see wasn’t just a neat trick Moses worked; it was a sign of victory. How often have we heard of days past (and sadly, still occasionally in our own day) when the victors in a battle would behead their opponents and place their head on a stake for others to see that ‘We are stronger than this one.’ Indeed, the serpent held up for the Israelites to see was a reminder from God that if they reject the Lord they will suffer, but if they follow after His way they will be victorious because God is stronger than those things that cause suffering and death. He was making a bold claim and those who believed were saved for another day of life.

When the Lord Jesus was lifted up on the Cross for all to see, it was a new sign of victory. This time is was not simply a serpent placed on the wood, but it was the Lord God Himself, showing the victory that was indeed His. He showed us that there is absolutely nothing in this life – not even death itself – that is stronger than He and that if we simply unite ourselves to Him we will be saved not for this life, but for the next. This is why we exalt and rejoice in the Holy Cross; because it is a perpetual reminder that despite whatever I might feel or experience in a particular moment, God is bigger. This is why we sign ourselves with the Cross at the beginning and end of every prayer, why we wear crosses on our neck, place them front and center in our churches, hang them in our homes, classrooms, hospitals, and everywhere else that we Catholics find ourselves. The Cross is our glory. It is the means of our salvation. It is the sign of God’s love. And it is the greatest symbol of hope that broken humanity can cling to. When we find ourselves struggling with the weight of the world, when darkness fills our hearts, when suffering comes in one of its many forms, we can turn to the Cross and find our hope because we know that God has gone before us and walked the way of suffering Himself and lives today to assure us that it will end and glory will come. Glory will come.

I want to conclude with a hymn to the Cross as we all kneel before this blessed sign of hope:

O Cross of Christ, immortal tree
On which our Savior died,
The world is shelter by your arms
That bore the Crucified.

From bitter death and barren word
The tree of life is made;
Its branches bear unfailing fruit
And leaves that never fade.

O faithful Cross, you stand unmoved
While ages run their course;
Foundation of the universe,
Creation’s binding force.

Gove glory to the risen Christ
And to his Cross give praise,
The sign of God’s unfathomed love,
The hope of all our days.

(Hymn for Lauds in Liturgy of the Hours, text by Benedictines of Stanbrook Abbey)