Sunday, September 14, 2014

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Men and angels worship Christ on the Cross
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This is a major feast in the east and the west, and it's one of the feasts where we actually celebrate it on the same day. But why is this feast a big deal, and why do we get such strange readings on this feast day? For that we, need to understand exactly what the Cross has meant before and still means to us today. There are records of really ancient crucifixions, well before Jesus' time, but it was the Romans who used it a lot and became very efficient at it. Crucifixion was designed to exact the most pain and the most humiliation possible. It was almost never used for the citizens of the Roman empire. It was used for slaves, rebels, revolutionaries, and others who threatened the Empire, and it was always done publicly as a warning to others: "Don't do what this guy did." It was intended to frighten and to keep a conquered population in check.

So how do we go from fearing that horrendous form of torture and execution to celebrating it, to putting it up in our churches and homes and wearing it around our necks? What happened? Jesus Christ happened. Let's think about what Jesus did. Jesus came to a humiliated Jewish people in a land overrun by Roman conquerors, and he was tortured, and humiliated, and killed, because the authorities thought he was some sort of revolutionary. And he was a revolutionary, but not like they thought. Everyone thought he came to free the Jews from slavery, and he did, but not like they thought. Because to Jesus and to his Father, being in bondage to the Romans was a very small matter compared to the bondage of sin that had held humanity captive since Adam. Jesus transformed this symbol of oppression into a symbol of freedom, because he transformed death into life.

But how did Jesus transform death into life? Well, by his Resurrection, most obviously, but we need to look closer at our readings to understand Jesus' stunning actions. This first reading, where snakes attack the Israelites in the desert, is kind of a strange one, but helpful for us to understand how Jesus used the cross to bring good. This story takes place while the Israelites are wandering in the desert for forty years before they can enter the Promised Land, and the Israelites, despite having a sea parted for them, despite being fed every day with bread from heaven, they complained. They in fact cursed the heavenly food, calling it "wretched," and they wished to be back in Egypt. So God gave them what they wanted, he sent a bit of Egypt their way in the form of snakes. They quickly realized their mistake and repented, and then the thing that healed them was looking at the bronze serpent with faith. Here we need to carefully understand how God operates in order to understand the cross. Why a bronze serpent? Why not a bronze dove or something that doesn't have such a negative connotation in the Judaic tradition? The answer, I think, is that the cure needed to be similar to the disease, the remedy needed to be like the problem. Not identical, but similar. So when the problem was deadly serpents, the solution was not another deadly serpent, something identical, or a dove, something totally different, but something similar, a bronze serpent. That way, those who are painfully familiar with the disease, whether it be a snakebite or sin, can recognize the solution when it comes along, when they see it with the eyes of faith.

Moses and the bronze serpent
This understanding, that God wants the remedy to look like the problem, helps us to understand the mystery of the cross, and why we should exult in it. The problem for humanity since the first days was sin and death, and as a result of sin and death, our eyes were dimmed and we couldn't see the glory for which we were created. Because of disobedience, sin and death have held humanity in bondage since Adam and Eve. So Jesus is the solution, because he is human like us, but he is not identical to us, because he is sinless. He died like us, he even died the humiliating death of a slave and an outcast, but unlike us, death couldn't hold him. Now, if we look on his cross with faith, then we can share in the life he gave by his death and resurrection.

We have to understand that Jesus didn't just die on a cross, he offered himself as a sacrifice for sins. We say that Jesus was both priest and victim. He fulfilled the Old Testament priesthood by offering a sacrifice for sins, and he fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices by being the perfect sacrifice for sins. What we do in this Mass continues this sacrifice throughout the world, when we offer bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Jesus. And incense helps to prepare the gifts for sacrifice. Incense is an ancient symbol used to bless and venerate our offerings. It is a symbol of our prayers, and it used on gifts prepared for sacrifice. So we incense the bread and wine that we will offer, we incense me, the priest, who stands as Jesus as both priest and victim, and we incense you the congregation, because you should sacrifice yourselves to God in a very real way during the Mass. We use incense because incense prepares a gift for sacrifice.

But Jesus, through his cross, didn't conquer only sin and death, he conquered the whole world. Christianity broke upon the ancient world like a tidal wave. Because Jesus died the death of a slave and then overcame it, those who were lowly in the world recognized a kindred spirit, one in whom they could place their hope, trust, and faith. Those who were in power recognized in Jesus and his followers a threat to their way of life and sought to eradicate it, and so countless followers of Jesus in the Roman Empire and beyond followed him all the way into death.

And yet, the remedy to sin that Jesus provided was too powerful for his enemies to stop, it couldn't help but gain momentum. Within three hundred years the Roman Emperor was converted and Christianity was legalized, and within 400 years Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This thing couldn't be stopped. And then, almost as a proof of the power of Christ's Church, this Church took over the Latin language, the language of the conquering Empire, and continued to use it long after that Empire was dead and gone. Seven years ago today, a decree from Pope Benedict XVI went into effect which expanded permission to use the Latin Mass that was in use before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

We do these things, the Latin, the chanting, the incense, and so forth, to glory in the cross of Jesus, to claim as our own this instrument of slavery that brought freedom, this instrument of death that brought life, because we recognize the remedy is like the cure. But more importantly, we glory in the man that hung upon it, because Jesus was a man like us, but not just a man like us. He is also the God who loves us, the God who offered himself as victim for our sins, the God who conquered death so that we could share eternal life with him.

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