What an odd thing to exalt, the cross.
We tossed that notion around a bit during our men’s faith-sharing group this weekend, as we looked ahead to the feast we celebrate on Sunday: “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.”
This holy day has been an fixture on the Church calendar since the seventh century, but it occurred to me that the very idea – exalting the cross – might have seemed a little strange to Jesus and his contemporaries. It’d be a little like asking them to exalt the electric chair or the guillotine. The cross is, after all, an instrument of execution.
And the mystery is deepened a bit when we considered the reading from Numbers which opens the Liturgy of the Word on Sunday: The Lord commanding Moses to raise the sculpture of a saraph serpent on a pole, so that those who gazed upon it might be saved from the saraph’s venom. The command seems at first glance an awful lot like idolatry, if not outright hocus-pocus.
As the discussions continued, things started to change for me when we turned to the haunting and poetic words of the second reading, excerpted from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God
Did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself
Taking the form of a slave…
Becoming obedient to death,
Even death on a cross.
This lesson that Jesus gives on the cross – this example of surrender – is a pretty tough one for most people to take. I thought about my granddaughter, who at 8 months, is just now beginning to assert her independence: She pulls herself up on furniture…and crawls about the house with amazing speed. And with each new skill learned, she becomes a bit less submissive to the guiding hand of her caregivers.
It’s the path we all take as we grow to maturity: We learn to make our own moves, think for ourselves…and become a little like gods: Masters of our own universes. All of which is no doubt pleasing to our Maker. Surely, God must delight in how these divine gifts are made manifest in God’s children.
But perhaps it’s also true we need reminders now and again that we are not quite as independent as we’d like to imagine ourselves to be.
We need to obey the command to gaze upon a seraph serpent – even if our intellects recoil from the obvious fruitlessness of such an act.
We need to gaze upon the cross – and learn to love the emptiness we find there: the model of surrender…which points to our utter (and ultimately, life-giving) dependence on God.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.