THE EXALTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS – September 14, 2014

A reading from the Book of Numbers 21:4b-9

A reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2:6-11

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 3:13-17

 

When I was a child, I used to have nightmares about Judgment Day. From the beginning of my life, my problem has been a vivid imagination. I can see clearly things that people describe. Even now it is hard for me to believe that in the days before television, I only listened to Inner Sanctum on the radio and didn’t watch the series on a screen. So, when I heard stories about the Last Day and what it would be like to have to give an accounting to God for one’s life, it was easy for me to see myself standing before a huge throne, all the while trembling. The funny thing is, I never saw who was sitting on the throne. All I could ever see was the base of it – heavy and black and forbidding. I lacked the courage to look up. And I saw myself alone and defenseless.

My perspective has changed. Obviously I am not a child anymore. But I still tremble when I think about giving the final accounting. The throne is still massive. Now I wonder about the judgment process. Will there be someone accusing and someone defending as we are used to in our civil court proceedings. Or will there be only Jesus and the cross leaving the compulsion to compare my life with Christ’s, the One with whom I am supposed to be identified. That’s what we believe happens in Baptism, isn’t it? We rise from the waters identified with Christ.

As bleak as might be our thoughts about Judgment Day, today’s feast should change our perspective. With the Exaltation of The Holy Cross, we celebrate our reason to hope. By his stripes we are healed, as we sing in the hymn. Jesus’ dying on the cross changed that grizzly instrument of torture and death into one of life and redemption. Why else would be wear crosses on chains around our necks, or hang them on our walls? Why do people clutch them as they struggle to draw their last breaths? Christ’s triumph over death through his resurrection changed the meaning of the cross forever.

There is a foretaste of this mystery in the first reading. The Israelites, wandering in the desert are wandering also from God’s ways when poisonous serpents invade the community. To be bitten is to die. The Israelites cry out to Moses to intercede with God for them as they repent also from their sinful ways. Moses makes a bronze replica of the dreaded snake and tells the people that if a snake bites them, if they look on the serpent mounted on the pole they will be delivered and live. The hated snake becomes a symbol of hope. See the connection between the snake and the cross? In both cases, the instrument of death becomes a means to life.

Paul speaks to us about the cross’s transformation. In the magnificent second reading we hear a summation of the theology of Christ as the one who was with God from the beginning, who in his humbly becoming human accepted all the consequences of sin we humans experience while he remained sinless. Paul says Jesus embraced the Cross that led to our salvation and to God’s exalting him in his resurrection and made him eternal Lord. The Cross is the means. So it is exalted.

But there is more for us to ponder today. Remember the Liturgy of the Word is always a means of our transformation. What should be clear to us today is that for us Christians our path to salvation mirrors Christ’s. We must embrace the Cross. Translated, that means we must live what we believe, confessing with our tongues that Jesus is Lord and living lives that translate that belief into action.

In the Gospel, Nicodemus has to struggle with that reality. Of course he could not possibly have known what Jesus meant when he said that the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. God sent his son, not to judge the word and condemn it, but the world might be saved through him. That is why we die with Christ in Baptism and rise with him to live his life, to imitate him in pouring out our lives in service that all might live.

With the passage of time and a degree of maturity I began to understand that Jesus has entrusted the Church to his followers, to his friends called Christians. It began to enter my consciousness that Christ expects those who choose to believe in and to walk with him to have a deep sense of responsibility for each other. We are to live different kinds of lives so that Christ’s Good News shines through us and lifts up the lowly.

That is not an easy task today, nor has it ever been. These are not the best of times. We live in a world that doesn’t seem to care that much about Gospel. In our country the church is in decline. Read the worldwide statistics and one could conclude that a powerful virus is spreading though believers and as a result faith, at least faith in organized religion, is dying. Do you wince when you read that the second largest “denomination” in the United States is Ex-Catholics? Disillusioned Catholics apparently are leaving the church in droves, some to become part of other faith traditions, others to simply go it on their own. Some friends who used to walk with me in this Catholic faith pride themselves now in being secularists whose ideas of salvation have everything to do with the acquisition of power and the amassing of this world’s fortunes. For them, wealth and success are signs of God’s favor and a foretaste of the heaven to come. Then there are those who call themselves atheists.

Again I am saddened when I read the ranting of those who blame the Second Vatican Council and the empowering of the laity that resulted for the collapse of faith. For some, seeing the Church as the People of God equates with secularism. They would have the church return to the pre-Council days of the Tridentine Liturgy, Latin, and a renewing of focus on the transcendence of God, not on God’s imminence.   The Eucharist is to be adored, not celebrated. There are not a few who revile Pope Francis for what they see him doing to the church. They do not want a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. They want a return of the church of splendor and power.

Will God’s people really pray with greater fervor if the language in which they pray is stilted, no longer reflective of the vernacular of their everyday speech?

Fervent patriotism is the new secular religion. Being part of this land of plenty is a sign of God’s special favor. The realization of the American Dream is about as close to salvation as many of our contemporaries want to get. Some hedge their bets by singing “God Bless America.” But if we heard the Gospel’s proclamation of the universality of God’s love for humankind, isn’t their something wrong with singing “God Bless America” without invoking the same benediction on every other land on the globe and its people? Aren’t there implications here for the attitude we should exhibit toward those undocumented little ones coming across our borders, fleeing the violence of their homeland and dreaming of living in the land of the free?

So I begin to think abut my standing before the throne of judgment on my last day. I won’t be attempting to dodge accusations of failed attempts hurled at me by an angry prosecutor. Rather, I will stand in the shadow of the cross, surrounded by all the wonderful things this life has to offer. Somewhere, perhaps hidden in the midst of all that lavish wealth, will tremble the little ones, the poor and the disenfranchised. There will be those shunned because of their race or color or sexual orientation. It was the Second Vatican Council that defined the Church as the People of God always exercising a fundamental option for the poor. Do you hear an echo of that in what Francis says and does?

The question I will hear the Voice ask then will be, “Which choices did you make?” The reality I will have to deal with will be how closely those choices mirrored the ones Jesus made. Will it be clear that I chose to take up my cross every day and follow him? Will it be obvious that I recognized Jesus in the poor and poured myself out in service of him in them? Did all this dictate how I gathered with my sisters and brothers in Christ to celebrate Eucharist? Was it clear by attitude and demeanor that all were welcome at the Table?

That is a lot to ponder and pray about.

In the meantime we must strive to be faithful to Christ’s call and to do our part to bring the Good News to the poor. By our lives we must convince them that it is all about love – again quoting Pope Francis. The hymn urges lifting high the Cross. That is our hope and our life.

Does taking Christ and the call of the Gospel seriously make one irrelevant in these times? That just might be another aspect of the Cross. Christ died on it. So might we.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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