Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Cycle A)
I read a story about Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Sheen was scheduled to speak at the Town Hall in Philadelphia and decided to walk from his hotel to the Town Hall. And sure enough, he got lost and stopped some teenagers to ask for directions which they happily gave him. And then one of the teenagers asked Sheen, “What are you going to do at the Town Hall?’ and Sheen replied, “I’m going to give a lecture.” “About what?” asked one teenager. “On how to get to heaven? Do you want to come along?” asked Sheen. And a teenager simply responded, “Are you kidding? You don’t even know how to get to the Town Hall.” So much for Fulton Sheen stories.
Some of you may know that some universities invite faculty to give what is called “The Last Lecture.” It’s the wisdom a professor would communicate to students if it was his/her last chance.
At Carnegie Mellon University, Randy Pausch, a computer science professor, accepted the challenge - but there was one difference. This really was his last lecture. He had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and had less than a year to live.
The lecture was about his life: humorous, emotional and thoughtful. He spoke about the importance of honesty and truth, of perseverance, of gratitude, of passion in the pursuit of your dreams. Good things tend to happen, he noted, when you try to do the right thing; people generally show their good side if you’re patient enough; and there’s no substitute for hard work.
He spoke about his love for his wife, his three children. He described how he managed to scale the so-called “brick walls” that stood in the way of achieving some of his dreams. Above all, in the time left to him, the most important thing was his family.
Did you ever wonder what you would write if asked to give “A Last Lecture?” And it really was your last lecture? You knew you were at the end-of-life. What would you write to your children, grandchildren, colleagues and friends? The lecture would tell you what you prized most in life, which virtues you tried to live and how you found purpose in life.
I don’t expect you to write that last lecture this weekend but I hope you’re thinking about it. It’s a good tool that can motivate you and me to try to “put our life together better,” so to speak.
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, today’s feast, was indeed Jesus’s last lecture to humankind. It wasn’t done on paper, but wood.
This feast which we celebrate commemorates the finding of the cross in the 4th century Jerusalem by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. The cross is the symbol of Christianity. The cross was once a Roman device for executing criminals often by suffocation. The surgeon Pierre Barbet, in his classic book “A Doctor at Calvary” graphically describes death by crucifixion in Roman times.
Yet the cross is now a symbol of the triumph of life over death. Why? Because hidden in the tragedy of Good Friday is the triumph of the Easter Resurrection.
Now the Word of God proclaimed today takes us back in our imaginations over 3,000 years, to the wanderings of the Hebrews in the Sinai wilderness after their exodus or liberation from Ancient Egypt. And here, the Hebrews are complaining about their life.
And in particular, poisonous snakes are everywhere in this wilderness. And God hears the prayer of Moses for his people; and Moses makes a pole with an image of a snake atop. And all who look upon the pole live—a Christian allusion to the saving power of the cross.
The passage from the letter of Paul to the Christian community at Philippi in Greece is a thrilling hymn about the tragedy of the cross and the triumph of the Resurrection: a paradox: tragedy/triumph all in one.
Paul sings that Jesus, though one in glory with the Father, became a weak human being. Jesus learned how to totter and talk like a child; studied Joseph’s trade; felt hunger and joy; wept; got so tired he fell asleep in a boat during a storm; was afraid to die; and died in an indescribable agony.
Jesus did not cling to the glory he had with his Father. He emptied himself of his glory. A profoundly theological hymn which captures the central truth of our faith.
And in the Gospel according to John, Jesus compares the image of the serpent lifted up in the wilderness to the image of Jesus himself lifted up on the cross.
Just as that image of the serpent in the wilderness healed, so too Jesus, lifted high on the cross, healed humankind, bestowed upon you and me God’s favor, God’s eternal life. Yes, out of Jesus’s death came God’s eternal glory. Jesus is indeed our Savior.
But think about it: what do we want to be really saved from today?
We live in a culture that advertises countless phony forms of salvation. Madison Avenue advertises everything from expensive cosmetic surgery to the latest drugs. Yes, these will save us – from old age, from anxiety, from obesity, from pain or illness or whatever. We will look and feel better if we only do this or take that.
But St. Paul puts it best. Salvation means that we possess within our fragile human selves the gift of God’s life by virtue of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul uses several words to describe salvation: “liberation”, “justification” or “having a right relationship with God.” That is salvation for Paul: the gift of God’s life within us.
Salvation is really a process, not a “quick fix” that happens in an instant. We continually have to struggle against the dark side of human life. And so salvation not a single event, but rather a process that culminates with life with God forever. In other words, life, not death, is what human life is all about.
The word “salvation” tries to answer a fundamental question: What is the ultimate purpose of my life? Whether we are powerful or powerless, rich or poor, no matter our intellest, no matter our national origin, the purpose of life is to be in relationship with God. That’s why we are here: to be in relationship, friendship with God forever.
The Catholic answer to the question “why are we here” acknowledges the brevity of human life.
It also acknowledges our freedom to choose good over evil, right over wrong, the true over the false. And hence all of us are responsible, accountable, for the way in which we choose to live. Tragically, people in fact do choose evil sometimes. And why? Because there’s something not quite right with us. The Catholic tradition calls this “original sin.”
Yes, things are definitely not right today. In fact, things seem to be a mess in many ways. Soldiers creating havoc in the eastern Ukraine, Jihadists terrorizing innocent people, and regions unstable. Yes, there’s plenty wrong in this universe of ours, there’s plenty wrong with people. Things definitely are out of kilter. Human beings cry out for freedom, peace, justice and truth. They cry out for Salvation!!!!.
But who can save us? Some of course have sought human solutions to human problems. They have looked for answers in the world of things, in other persons, in the great “isms” of the 20th century.
The Catholic tradition looks beyond the world of things, to a power beyond ourselves.
This overwhelming power beyond ourselves – God -- is not indifferent to our human situation; for our God is a gracious God. This gracious power beyond ourselves became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and is alive by the power of the Spirit in our midst today—alive especially in the sacramental life of the Church, the community of disciples: water, bread and wine, oil.
Yes, we possess within our fragile selves the treasure of God’s life. We are in relationship with God. But we must continue to struggle, as the prophet Micah said centuries ago, to do the right and to love goodness and to walk humbly with our God.
Salvation, like the words “healing”, made whole”, “wellness”, “restoring to right order” describes an overwhelming good, a good beyond our wildest imaginations. God’s life within us forever. That’s what salvation means. That’s what the cross signifies.
And I pray that, whenever you see the cross, the central symbol of Christianity, you will remember the purpose of your own life: to be in relationship with God here and hereafter.