14 Sept. 2014
Some time ago, I attended a workshop on Chinese medicine sponsored by Marquette University. The Chinese presenter was not only knowledgeable, but respectful of western traditions. But the American presenter objected noisily at one point about how offensive it was to him as a healer to have the figure of a dying man hanging on the walls of hospitals. I finally protested and asked him to stop. Clearly, he had no idea what significance the cross of Jesus had for both the sick and the healthy members of the community, including Christian doctors and nurses.
The cross is a sign of contradiction to many and always has been, although after nearly 2,000 years we are not so much shocked and scandalized by it as annoyed. But properly understood, it is the sign of our salvation, as celebrated in the hymn cited by St. Paul in the second reading. It is a sign of life, not death. And the first reading connects it, as does Jesus in the gospel passage, with healing. Again this year, with the memory of the terrorist attacks of 2001 still so vivid in our minds this week, we might dwell for a moment on the lesson of love and forgiveness revealed by the cross.
The cross is and will always remain the central image of the Christian faith. It has not always been respected, and sometimes for a reason. In 1187, the great relic of the True Cross, which St. Helena discovered in 326, was captured at the tragic end of the Second Crusade. It was dragged behind Saladin’s horse and burned. Only the slivers cut from it before that and distributed throughout Christendom survived. Contrary to ill-founded claims, taken all together those would amount only to a small board. (Some years ago a French researcher actually traced all the known fragments and calculated their volume.) And in 335, a great basilica was erected over the place where the Empress Helena unearthed the Cross, and that event led to the feast we celebrate on the 14th of September every year.
Sadly, the cross is still viewed with fear and anxiety by many people in the Middle East, who tell their children horror stories of the rampages of the Crusaders. In those countries there is no Red Cross to come to the aid of the ill and injured, but rather, the Red Crescent. And in Europe and the United States, secularists periodically mount campaigns — I’m almost tempted to say “crusades” — to have the emblem removed from flags and public buildings and monuments. Historically, that is our fault, not theirs. Like the doctor from Marquette, we too easily forget what the cross really represents.
Christians have grown so accustomed to the image that we fail to grasp the horror it evoked among Christians, Jews, and other people for hundreds of years before and after the execution of Jesus and many other martyrs and saints. Crucifixion was the worst and most shameful death the Romans could inflict, one reserved for traitors, slaves, and rebels. And yet, even when the cross was still feared and hated, Paul audaciously claims — over and over again — that through the cross of Jesus Christ, God redeemed the world. What was terrifying had become a sign of hope and safety, of salvation, a sign prefigured in the mind of the first Christians by the story we just read from the Book of Numbers.
The Brazen Serpent was a wooden pole with a brass serpent attached to it. Even though its origin was later attributed to Moses, at the end of the eighth century before Christ, King Hezekiah had it removed from the Temple and destroyed because people were worshipping it with incense [2 King 18:4]. But in today’s gospel Jesus looks back to this strange figure as a portent of his own crucifixion. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Not merely healing, but life itself, eternal life.
John continues, repeating himself: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his own Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The ‘so’ here means “in this way.” But in what way? The way of the cross. To be lifted up, as we read later in the 12th chapter of John, means to be crucified: “‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men and women to me.’ And he said this to show by what death he was to die.” (John 12:32-33.) And he was to die for the life of the world.
The sign of shame, defeat, and death, became the sign of salvation, life, and triumph, the sacrament of the world’s forgiveness. So we sing of the noble tree, the precious wood of the Cross of Christ. But it was Christ who hallowed the cross, not the other way around, Christ, whose cruel death ransomed the human race from its slavery to sin and death by the sheer force of love and forgiveness. And still does. “See how much I love you.”
The cross is no less a sign of love, a love that the power of hate, the lure of revenge, and the violence of oppression and persecution can never stifle, a love, as the old hymn has it, “so amazing, so divine that it demands our soul, our life, our all….” [“When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts, 1674-1748.]