Today we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Why? Why would we exalt the cross? To exalt something means to hold it in very high regard. Why would we exalt the instrument of Christ’s death? The beginnings of the answer is found with Moses and the Hebrew people in the sojourn in the desert.
“With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!’”
This wasn’t the first complaint the people lodged against God and Moses. It wasn’t their first act of rebellion, or their first sin. But this one caused God to send venomous serpents as a punishment. After all, the Hebrews were complaining —and, in effect, rejecting — God’s great gift of Manna and discounting the Almighty’s act of sustaining them by supernatural means.
Remember that the so-called “wretched food” that “disgusted” the people is a prefigurement of Holy Eucharist. If you or I were to reject God’s gift of the Eucharist like this — if we were to do something so terrible as to call the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, which is the source and summit of our spiritual life and is the most holy and perfect gift of God “wretched” and say that we were “disgusted” by it — we would be lucky to be punished by being bitten by a poisonous snake and dying.
Lucky? Am I being overly dramatic? Hardly! Such a death —intensely agonizing though it may be — would be a very lenient punishment indeed compared to the intensely agonizing eternity in hell we would merit for such a transgression.
So, between the beauty and the horror we stand, facing Christ crucified on the Cross.
But even though the Hebrews may have merited such a punishment, God — in His great mercy — sent the remedy. He gave them a way to repent of their sin and to avoid not the entire effect of the punishment — they still suffered the fact of being bitten by a snake — but the finality of death as a result of the punishment. Moses, at God’s command, made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, so that whoever looked on it would live. Consider, for a moment, Christ nailed to the Cross and lifted up, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
We all sin. We all are in need of repentance. We are all in need of salvation. No one can save himself; we are all totally dependent upon God for our salvation. And yet, sinners though we are, God — in His infinite mercy — “did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
The bronze serpent was given to save the physical lives of the Hebrews. The result of their sin was immediate, proximate, and final: they were bitten by serpents and died.
Our sins generally do not result in our immediate physical death (though some might). But they always contribute to our spiritual death. Every little sin we commit moves us a little bit closer to a spiritual death; every great sin we commit moves us a great deal closer to a spiritual death. Some sins are so grave and so mortal that such a sin committed one time is enough to completely sever our spiritual bond of love with God — to separate us from God, possibly for eternity.
If we die physically while in such a state of spiritual death, we die separated from God. God doesn’t send anyone to hell; people choose hell by committing sinful acts that separate them from the true source of love and light and by not repenting of those sins and returning to spiritual life. Christ was lifted up on the Cross to save us from a spiritual death and to make possible our eternal life.
I have a friend who is a pastor at a very liberal nondenominational church in Olathe. She told me before last Easter that she was not going to mention Judas in the Easter celebrations and was in fact considering taking out any mention of the Crucifixion, because that focused on the negatives and was a downer. I felt terrible for her. Though well meaning, she was making a tragic mistake. The Crucifixion of Christ isn’t a downer. It is horrible. And it is beautiful.
It is horrible in that Christ, fully God and fully human, experienced a great horror. He was scourged, beaten, and nailed to a cross. I think it’s horrible if I hit my thumb with the hammer. Imagine the horror of having nails purposefully driven through your hands and feet. How many hammer blows does it take to drive a nail through flesh and bone? I hope there is no one who can contemplate that and not feel horror.
It is beautiful because Christ, the perfect high priest, offered the perfect sacrifice on our behalf. He gave Himself. Moreover, He gave Himself for us. There is a depth of beauty in that act of love that is breathtaking. What an act of mercy it is to take the burden upon Himself so that we do not have to bear that which is too great for us to bear.
So, between the beauty and the horror we stand, facing Christ crucified on the Cross. The Hebrews looked on the physical bronze serpent with their physical eyes for the salvation of their physical lives; we are called to look upon the spiritual reality of Christ’s crucifixion with our spiritual eyes for the salvation of our souls. Yes; we can certainly look upon the physical representation of the crucifix to begin our contemplation but our gaze must transcend the physical; it is not the image of the crucifix that saves, but the sacrificial act of Christ that saves. The physical representation is simply a window to the spiritual truth.
When we truly see in a spiritual way the beauty of the Cross and of Christ’s sacrifice for us, we can begin to grasp that which can never be fully understood: the infinite depth of God’s love for us and the terrible price He paid for us, His unworthy children. Authentically seeing in a spiritual sense the beauty and the mystery, the majesty and the horror of the Crucifixion is the beginning of a true exultation of the Holy Cross.
Christ’s perfect sacrifice transformed the cross from an instrument of death to an instrument of life. Christ makes all things new. “Brothers and sisters: 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, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
But this is not the end. The Resurrection follows the Crucifixion just as surely as life follows death, because Christ makes it so. And this is why we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”