I. The Pattern of the Cross – One of the stranger passages in the Old Testamentis the one describing a command Moses received from God to mount a bronze snake on a pole.
The people had grumbled against God and Moses because of the “wretched” manna they had to consume (Numbers 21:5). Even though it was the miracle food, the bread from Heaven that had sustained them in the desert, they were sick of its blandness. (Pay attention, Catholics who treat the Eucharist lightly or find it boring!) God grew angry and sent venomous snakes among them, causing many to die (Numbers 21:6). The people then repented. and, in order to bring healing to them, God commanded a strange and remarkable thing: Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live (Numbers 21:8).
What about no graven images? It was God Himself who had said earlier in the Ten Commandments, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Ex 20:4). Yet here He commands that a graven image be made.
Why does God do this? That is covered in the next section.
II. The Palliative Cross – When Moses made a snake of bronze and showed it to the people, those who looked at it became well (Numbers 21:9).
In a way, it is almost as if God were saying to Moses, “In rejecting the Bread from Heaven, the people have chosen Satan and what he offers. They have rejected me. Let them look into the depth of their sin and face their choice and the fears it has set loose. Let them look upon a serpent. Having looked, let them repent and be healed; let their fear of what the serpent can do depart.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes up the theme and fulfills it, saying, And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14). It is almost as if he is saying, “Let the people face their sin and see its ugly reality: what it does to me, to them, and to others. Let them face their choice and seek healing repentance. Let them also see the outstretched arms of God’s mercy and find peace.”
There is something about facing our sins, shortcomings, anxieties, and fears. There is something about looking them in the face in order to find healing. One of the glories of the Catholic faith is that it has never hidden the cross; it has never run from it. There have been brief times when, shamefully, we de-emphasized it. But throughout most of our history, the crucifix has been prominently, proudly, and fearlessly displayed in our churches. We cling to it and glory in it.
Do you know how shocking this is? Imagine that you were to walk into a church and instead of seeing a crucifix you saw Jesus dangling from a gallows, a rope around His neck. Crucifixion was the form of execution reserved for the worst of criminals. It was shocking, horrifying, and emblematic of the worse kind of suffering. When the Romans saw or thought of something awful they would cry out in Latin, “Ex cruce!” (From the cross!), for they could think of nothing more horrible to which to compare something. This is the origin of the English word “excruciating.” Crucifixion is brutal—an awful, slow, ignoble, and humiliating death: ex cruce!
But there it is, front and center in just about every Catholic church. There it is, at the head of our processions. There it is, displayed in our homes. We are bid to look upon it daily. Displayed there is everything we most fear: suffering, torment, loss, humiliation, nakedness, hatred, scorn, mockery, ridicule, rejection, and death. The Lord and the Church say, “Look! Don’t turn away. Don’t hide this. Behold!” Face the crucifix and all that it means. Stare into the face of your worst fears; confront them and begin to experience healing. Do not fear the worst that the world and the devil can do, for Christ has triumphed overwhelmingly. He has cast off death like a garment and said to us, In this world ye shall have tribulation. But have courage! I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).
III. The Paradox of the Cross – In a world dominated by power and its aggressive use, the humility and powerlessness of the cross accomplishing anything but defeat both surprises and upsets the normal worldly order.
At the heart of today’s second reading is the declaration that Christ humbled Himself and became obedient unto death—death on the cross. But far from ending His work, it exalted Him and brought Him victory. To the world this is absurdity, but to us who are being saved it is the wisdom and power of God. Consider that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that. At the heart of Original Sin and every personal sin is the prideful notion that we know better than God. Satan’s fundamental flaw is his colossal pride; he considers himself equal to God. He is narcissistic, egotistical, and prideful.
The solution to conquering pride is not to have greater pride, but rather to manifest humility, as Jesus did. And while Satan disobeyed God, Jesus humbly obeyed His Father. He did not cling to His divine prerogatives, but rather laid them aside, taking up the form of a slave and being seen as a mere human being. It was in this way that He humbled Himself and obeyed, even unto the cross. Jesus was seen as the lowest of human beings, accepting a death reserved for the worst of criminals and sinners, even though He Himself was sinless and divine.
So astonishing is Jesus’ humility, that it literally undoes Satan’s pride and the collective pride of all of us. It is the great paradox of the cross that humility conquers pride, that God’s “weakness” conquers human power and aggression, that love conquers hate, and that light dispels darkness.
It is the great paradox of the cross that makes a public spectacle of every human and worldly presumption.
IV. The Power of the Cross – The Gospel today announces the great power of the cross: So must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.Thus Jesus, the Son of Man, when He was lifted up from the earth, called to the heart of every human person. And those who believe in Him and look to Him are saved from their sins and snatched from the hands of the devil. The power of the cross is the power to save.
Not only are we saved from the effects of our sins, we are empowered to live a whole new life. The text says that God does this so that we might not perish but have eternal life. The word eternal does not refer simply to the length of life, but also to its fullness. By the power of the cross, we are given the gift to live a completely new life, transformed increasingly into the very holiness, freedom, joy, and blessedness of the life of Christ. In dying to this old life with Him in Baptism, we rise to the new life that He offers: a life increasingly set free from sin, a life transformed from vice to virtue, from sorrow to joy, from despair to hope, and from futility to meaningfulness and victory. Thus the power of the cross is manifest as the power of the tree of life.
V. The Passion of the Cross –Why all this? Why this undeserved gift? In a word, love. “For God so loved the world …” Yes, God loves the world. Despite our rebellion, our unbelief, our scoffing, and our murderous hatred, God goes on loving us. He sent His Son to manifest His love and to obey Him within the capacity of His humanity. Cassian says that we are saved by the human decision of a divine person. Jesus loved His Father and us too much to ever say no to Him. And the Father loves us too much to have ever withheld the gift of His Son from us, even though Jesus is His only begotten Son, the greatest gift He could ever offer. In His love, God does not withhold this gift, but offers Him.
Why do you exist? Why is there anything at all? How are you saved? God so loved the world, God so loved you. God is love. And God, who loves us, proclaims the truth to us and invites us to accept His truth. He does not force His love upon us, but invites us and gives us every grace to turn and come to Him. Why does He care? Why does He not simply force us to obey? Because God is love and love invites; it does not force. Love respects the will of the beloved and seeks only the free response of love in return.
The cross—nothing is more provocative. Nothing is more paradoxical. Nothing is greater proof of God’s love for us and of His desire to do whatever it takes to procure our yes to His truth, His way, and His love. Run to the cross and meet the Lord, who loves you more than you can imagine and more than you deserve. Run to Him now, because He loves you.