|Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Psalms 78:1-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
I remember attending a very solemn meeting of very solemn Jesuits during a very solemn time. The most solemn of the very solemn Jesuits in the group was called upon to begin the meeting with a prayer. He looked up and said, “Before we pray let’s all strip to the waist.” With that the entire group burst into laughter.
The readings today make some rather absurd requests on this absurd and oxymoronic feast—the Exaltation of the Cross. How can an instrument of torture and murder, oppression and humiliation be a vehicle someone is raised up in dignity?
In the first reading from Genesis the Lord asks Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up for all to see so that they might be cured of their snake bites. While this may seem absurd in itself (I’d vote for the snake bite kit or perhaps an injection of antidote or maybe a move to some part of Alaska where there are no snakes), it is more absurd if you remember that the same people were punished for creating a statue of a calf and looking at that! Yet in that very absurdity we are told that the people found healing.
There is yet another absurdity in the Gospel reading when Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the story of the serpents in the desert and predicts and promises that when he himself is lifted up (exalted) that the people will find eternal life. Yet Jesus would be lifted up on a cross of pain and suffering….
In the epistle we hear an absurd explanation for this absurd event that Jesus predicts to Nicodemus, his own ignoble death. We are told that through obedience and humility, by becoming the lowliest, by becoming a slave, Jesus is lifted up and God exalts that same Jesus, giving him the title of “Lord.”
There are clowns in every culture and all humans relish absurdity, at least when we are at our best (another absurdity). In these reversals of “how the world should be,” we have the inbreaking of the Divine. The Lakota people with whom I work revere laughter and humor as sacred. Indeed it has a place in all of their ceremonies. Humor at root is about absurdity, contradiction, and incongruity. In the humor of the reversal, through a transformation of how we see the world, we allow the Divine to appear anew and we permit the Spirit to reorder our world.
Jesus calls us to be absurd too, to engage in sacred reversals: to lower ourselves so that God may exalt us, to give that we might receive, to forgive that we might be forgiven, to weep that we might laugh, to die that we might live.
At that meeting of Jesuits we did not strip to the waist (thanks be to God!). What we did do was laugh and grow closer together through that laughter. What was a rather absurd request brought new spirit and solidarity to the group through the commonality of shared emotion and an unexpected suggested reversal from dignity to absurdity. We began a solemn prayer with the joyful prayer of laughter.
So on this solemn feast let us be joyful and let us accept the absurdity
and foolishness of life so that we and it might be transformed. For
today we remember that the tragedy of Christ’s death is also the triumph
of God’s healing, forgiveness and salvific power, that THE cross and OUR
crosses can also be triumphs, changing the world and transforming us through
the power and grace of our loving and at times absurd and surprising God.
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