This homily based on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:13-17 was delivered on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
The Lord has an uncanny way of turning things upside down. “Samaritan” used to be a bad word among the Jews until our Lord cast that unlikely character as the kindhearted stranger in his famous parable. Crucifixion used to conjure the most horrific and brutal images during the Roman times until the Lord climbed up his cross and died for sinners.
The cross has become the central religious symbol for Christianity, found today in both churches and homes, and worn around the necks of believers (as well as ears of rock stars!). Why, the Church has even dedicated a special day for it because it didn’t consider Good Friday enough. Hence, we have today’s feast called “The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.”
You may be wondering, “How is this different from Good Friday, that holiest of day when we commemorate the crucifixion of the Lord?” The short and quick answer to that is that while Good Friday is about the crucifixion–i.e., what happened to our Lord–today’s feast is all about the cross itself–the very thing to which our Lord’s hands and feet were nailed. What today’s feast tells us is that the cross of our Lord itself is really almost as important and as holy as his act of redemption because the cross was the instrument used to win our salvation. Also, when you think about it, the cross served as the deathbed of our Lord: It was there that he breathed his final breath and shed the very last drop of his precious blood. As a result, the cross has been immeasurably sanctified and deserves our reverence and devotion.
Today’s feast, in fact, is based on a story of such a devotion. According to legend, Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered the True Cross in 326 AD during her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. By her order, a church was built at the site of the discovery: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When the church was dedicated nine years later, a portion of the True Cross of Christ was placed inside it.
But today’s feast invites us to gaze upon the cross and reflect on what it means for us not just back in Calvary, but here and now, in the midst of our lives, as we move about in the thick of things. What coud it mean for us today? We find the clue in his conversation with Nicodemus in the Gospel reading, when our Lord refers to a somewhat strange event narrated in our First Reading.
After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites are stuck in the desert, and as they are wont to do, they complain about everything–most of all, about the terrible menu. “We are disgusted with this wretched food!” they whine. Before they know it, they are attacked by a pit of serpents, and many perish as a result of the poisonous snake bites. The Israelites quickly get the hint and repent appropriately, crying out to Moses: “We have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you. Ask the Lord to take the serpents from us.”
But God doesn’t take the serpents away–at least the Bible doesn’t say so. What God does is to instruct Moses to construct a serpent of bronze and raise it high on a pole, so that anyone who looks at it survives any serpent bite and lives. One can’t help but associate the bronze serpent raised on a pole as the source of the Israelites’ salvation in the desert with our Lord raised on the cross in Calvary–and this is exactly what Jesus is talking about with Nicodemus.
What does the story of the serpents teach us about the meaning of the cross to us here and now?
First of all, what’s significant here is that God does not immediately remove the serpents; they continue to attack and bite the Israelites–only this time, the Israelites survive, thanks to the healing they receive by gazing upon Moses’ bronze serpent. Life’s like that, isn’t it? When we beg God to take away our suffering, it sometimes feels like he’s taking his time. But if it’s any consolation, that’s pretty much how God behaved during the crucifixion. He didn’t send a battalion of angels to spare his Son from the cross. But He was certainly there even if He had to keep His silence and bide His time before He took action on the third day.
Also meaningful in the Israelites’ story is that just like what happens in Calvary, the very source of suffering is turned into the source of healing. Christ’s cross in Calvary, which has been notoriously a Roman instrument of terrible suffering and death, through our Lord, becomes an unexpected and marvelous instrument of salvation and eternal life.
By wrapping his great love around the cross, our Lord has transformed the cross into something beautiful and powerful. Given our Lord’s example, we are invited to do the same. Every time we encounter suffering in our lives, whatever its cause–be it caused by foollishness or wickedness, our own or others’–we can, like Christ, turn our suffering into something redemptive. If like our Lord, we wrap our love around our pain and raise every ounce of it to God, both our suffering and what causes it, what starts out as something evil can become the source of something good. And just as God has blessed our Lord’s suffering, He will bless ours as well and transform it into something holy. All we need to do is wrap our pain with love and keep our faith in the Lord’s redeeming power.
I’d like to end with a story about two famous painters, Matisse and Renoir. Matisse was 28 years younger than Renoir, but didn’t stop them from being good friends and constant companions. By the last decade of Renoir’s life, he was suffering from severe arthritis, so that each time he painted, he experienced a lot of pain. Once, while watching his friend paint–and suffer with each brush stroke, Matisse asked, “Why do you continue to paint when you are in such agony?” His friend turned to him and said, “The beauty remains; the pain passes.” True enough decades after his death, long after his pain has passed, the beauty of his art works has lingered.
Renoir may well have been talking about our Lord’s suffering, and the suffering of humanity in general. When wrapped with love, our pain will pass, but the beauty will remain.