CYCLE II: HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE EXALTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS
HOMILY THEME: Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross : THE SON OF MAN MUST BE LIFTED UP!
BY: Fr. Benedict Agbo
HOMILY: *Num 21 : 4 – 9, Phil 2 : 6 – 11, Jn 3 : 13 – 17.
A. ORIGIN OF THE FEAST
The Cross on which Christ died was thrown into a ditch /well and covered over with stones and earth so that the followers of the crucified redeemer might not find it. 300 years later, Emperor Constantine prayed and a cross was shown him : ‘In this sign thou wilt conquer’. He later triumphed in victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312.
Then came the finding of the True Cross at Jerusalem by St Helena (the Emperor’s mother) in 326 AD. She discovered 3 crosses on Calvary. A special miracle worked by touching a cripple to each of the 3 crosses in turn, helped identify the true Cross. In the year 614 AD, Chosroes II, King of Persia invaded Jerusalem carrying off the great relic of the True Cross. God helped the Emperor Heraclius of Constantinople with a large army who fought and rescued and restored the Sacred Cross back to Jerusalem in 629 AD to its place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This event is commemorated by the Church on September 14 every year in the Feast of the Holy Cross.
B. THEOLOGICAL IMPORT OF THE FEAST
The 1st reading tells the story of Israelites’ embarrassing sin of loss of faith in the desert. God abandoned them to the scourges of damnation (represented biblically by the image of the fiery serpent). When they repented, God ordered Moses : ‘Make the image of a fiery serpent and raise it up as a standard. Anyone who is bitten by it and looks at it will survive’. What happened here, one may ask? Idolatry? But God commanded so. The book of Wisdom speaks on this passage saying : ‘Affliction struck them briefly by way of warning and they had a saving token to remind them of the commandment of your law, for whoever turned to it was saved, not by what he looked at, but by you, the Saviour of all’, Wis 16 :6.
History repeats itself and God never changes. That’s why in today’s gospel, Jn 3 :13 – 17, Jesus harps on that theological motif again by saying : ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up so that everyone who believes will have eternal life’. What is the theological connection here between looking and living? That is the connection between Sacramental and Spiritual theology. A sacrament is an outward sign (something to look at) of inward grace (something that makes us live) instituted by Christ. The difference between the sacrament and the sacramental is that the former contains what it signifies (eg the Eucharist contains Christ) but the later is only an outward sign, a contact point for salvation (eg the crucifix).
The Cross theology is the epicenter of the Christian faith. It is one area where Catholics and Protestants agree. Today’s feast is celebrated by both Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Evangelical Church in America.
There is an intrinsic connection between devotion to the Cross (use of the crucifix) and the Eucharist. Both has something to do with the danger of people becoming impatient on the way to the ‘promised land’ as we have in today’s 1st reading. It always happens that people complain and often get disappointed with God and men of God when they face hardships on their way to the ‘promised land’. There is always the problem of hunger (a deprivation of any sought) and thirst (a yearning for some life giving substance). And this is why we need to reflect deeply today on the import of both the Cross and the Eucharist from the point of view of both Sacramental and Spiritual theology.
When the Lord sent fiery serpents to his people, they needed to look at that image (like we look at the image of the Cross today) and live. That was the ‘saving token’ (Sacramental) spoken of in Wisdom 16 : 6 ‘to remind them of the commandments of your law for whoever turned to it was saved, not by what he looked at but by you the Saviour of all’. Sacramentals are not the sign realities themselves – they don’t contain what they signify. They only point to the Sacraments like the Eucharist which contains what they signify (the real Body and Blood of Christ).
The Exaltation of the Cross is the principal motif of today’s celebration; the fact that after the cross usually comes the crown: ‘Christ humbled himself and became obedient onto death on the Cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him…’, Phil 2 : 6 – 11. We cannot be exalting a Cross -less Christ; We cannot be confessing a Christianity without suffering and mortification – that version of Christianity must be a fake one! We cannot also be professing a powerless version of Christianity – where Christ does not intervene in the affairs and travails of man; that version is also utopian.
Christ made it succinctly clear in today’s gospel that ‘as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’, Jn 3: 13 – 17. Whether it is the Crucifix or the Blessed Sacrament that we are lifting up in meditation or adoration, the fact still remains that we are fulfilling exactly what the scriptures have said. According to Cardinal RanieroCantalamessa, ‘The Cross is God’s powerful ‘no’ to sin…It has been planted in the middle of every Church and the world and no one will ever be able to uproot it again or substitute it with other principles’. The Cross theology and the Eucharistic theology remain the epicenter of the Christian faith. It is one area where Catholics and Protestants are beginning to agree. Pastor David Ogbueli has written a whole book on the Power of the Cross. He says: ‘The power of Christianity is hidden in the Cross…If you have not preached the Cross you have not preached the gospel’. The problem now lies in what you want the Cross to do for you – to transform your life materially or spiritually? In our point of emphasis lies the caveat!
Christians cannot afford to neglect the Cross and what it symbolizes and keep saying in the face of temptations : ‘It is not my portion’. The cross is our own portion of divine allotted suffering, Lk 9 :23. Let’s learn to receive it with joy. Yes! The Son of Man must be lifted up in our lives! Permit me to end with this touching ancient hymn of the mother Church : ON A HILL FAR AWAY STOOD AN OLD RUGGED CROSS, THE EMBLEM OF SUFFERING AND SHAME AND I LOVE THAT OLD CROSS WHERE MY DEAREST AND BEST, FOR A WORLD OF LOST SINNERS WAS SLAIN… I WILL CLING TO THE OLD RUGGED CROSS… AND EXCHANGE IT SOMEDAY FOR A CROWN!