September 14, 2018
by Eileen Burke-Sullivan
Creighton University's Division of Mission and Identity
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Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Lectionary: 638

Numbers 21:4b-9
Psalm 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
Philippians 2:6-11
John 3:13-17

Praying Ordinary Time

Pope Francis on this Feast, in 2014

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As the Church approaches the midpoint of September, and plunges into the final weeks of Ordinary Time, it inserts a Feast that emerged in the Medieval Church as a kind of autumnal Easter.  When it began the Church was largely still located in the Northern Hemisphere of the planet, so the end of summer, harvest time, and the dying of the light began to be noticeable (near the autumn equinox).  In this late summer agrarian season, the Church meditated on the approaching darkness and posed the faith statement that by his death on the Cross, Christ, the light, overcame the darkness.  The Cross, then, became a symbol of victory of life over death and grace over sin.  The Cross stands as the doorway through the darkness to the fullness of light. 

With the Scripture texts assigned the feast proclaims that the mystery of the defeat of death is by submission to its power in confidence that God’s greater power will defeat the very finality of death itself – because God’s power simply destroys sin.  It is the mystery that we consider when we think of the power of love to overcome hatred, of hope to overcome despair. 

The first reading from Numbers tells of one of the times when the people were being formed by the long sojourn in the desert after leaving the slavery of Egypt.  The people are “bitten” by a longing for the security of slavery the reality familiar to them.  It is like one who has been ill for a time not really wanting to fully recover because she has learned to live with illness.  Dealing with health would mean changing his habits. I recall learning that one of the hardest things a recovering alcoholic has to contend with are spouses or children who have become accustomed to dealing with the addictive behavior, and don’t know how to respond to sobriety in their partner or parent, they unconsciously support the old addictive patterns. 

Thus, the Israelites were “bitten” by the serpents of fear, laziness, willful refusal to mature; until faced with the natural outcome of death by such a lifetime of escapism, they pleaded with Moses and God to help them.  God instructs Moses to place their sins (in the form of a serpent) on a pole and “lift it up in front of them.”  To enable them to see what is destroying them.

Similarly, Jesus, “who did not know sin” chose to take on the sin of all humans (to even “become sin itself”) and is lifted up in front of us so that we can see the truth of sin in our own lives and in the world. The sins of violence we contribute to by taking more than our share of the earth’s goods, of demeaning other humans for any reason whatsoever, of despair and infidelity, until finally, sin is placed, with all the horror of unintended or intended consequences, in front of our consciousness and we see the Truth.

It is no accident that St. Ignatius insists that one cannot engage the Spiritual Exercises that free us to really follow Christ, until we see something of the truth of our sin.  This is hardly a popular topic, and on a lovely September day with all of nature stretching toward its winter death, it may be the last thing we want to face.  But IF we desire life, IF we desire the poisoned bite of the serpent to be healed, THEN we must take on the pattern of Christ, “Who though he was in the form of God did not deem equality with God something to be stolen.”

The Exaltation of the Cross invites us to desire God’s Will above our own.  It challenges us to become what we most desire but cannot accomplish for ourselves – to be utterly free to love and to be loved perfectly.  Only in God is such a gift possible.  We were made for this, we long for it, but we allow ourselves to be satisfied with life with a snake in our bosom . . . the enemy of our flourishing who will engage any lie that we will listen to in order to prevent us from knowing the love of God perfectly revealed in Jesus’ death on a cross that forms the doorway between life and death.

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