Only once every six or seven years does today’s feast fall on a Sunday. We are blessed that 2014 is one of those years when we are called to reflect on and celebrate the Holy Cross on which Jesus won our salvation.
Today’s feast commemorates the finding of the true cross in Jerusalem and the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the site where they were found. In the fourth century, when Christianity was legally recognized by the Emperor Constantine, his mother, Saint Helen, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the places where our Lord lived. Of particular interest to her was finding Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, and the empty tomb.
During her pilgrimage, she was led to a place which the local peoples had always identified as the site where Jesus had been crucified and buried. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Romans had previously filled the area in with dirt and built a pagan temple over it. Saint Helen ordered that the temple be torn down and the area around it excavated. In the course of digging up the site, three crosses were discovered which were taken to be the cross of Jesus and that of the two thieves crucified with Him. It was unclear which cross was the one Jesus died on until a woman who was at the point of death came to the spot, touched one of the crosses and was healed. Saint Helen then directed that a church be built there, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the true cross could be venerated.
We commemorate those events to this day as we celebrate the Holy Cross of Jesus as our source of salvation and healing.
In today’s first reading from the book of Numbers, the people, weary from travel and from lack of food, grumble against God. We can understand their fatigue after so long a journey. However, their sin is not so much that they are complaining about the conditions of their journey, but that they ask God, “...have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert...?” Such words show a mistrust in God’s goodness, a suspicion that He is up to no good. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they think that God is holding back something from them, that He is not being entirely truthful with them. Just as the serpent was the source of temptation for Adam and Eve, so in this story it is serpents which now attack the people. The point is clear - when we rebel against God, nature rebels against us.
However, God continues to be merciful and directs Moses to cast a serpent in bronze and mount it on a pole so that whoever looks upon it can be healed. As He so often does, our Heavenly Father looks past the sinfulness of His people and takes what was the cause of their suffering and turns it into the source of their healing and salvation.
In today’s gospel, Jesus refers to this story to describe His death on the cross. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Just as the people in the desert were healed by looking at the serpent mounted on a pole, so we find healing by looking upon and contemplating the Holy Cross of Jesus Christ.
Let us look at a few ways we can find healing in the cross.
First of all, the cross heals us of hatred. When we look upon Jesus’ nailed to the cross, we see the greatest expression of God’s love. As Jesus tells us, “...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.” Though He was innocent, Jesus embraced all the tortures and suffering that went along with His death out of love for you and me. If God has loved us so much, what right do we have to hate another person? If Jesus could forgive those who crucified Him, what right do we have to hold a grudge against our brother and sister? As we contemplate the love Jesus had for us, hatred, bitterness and anger melt away. Our hardened hearts are healed.
Secondly, the cross heals us of temptation. As weak human beings, we are subject to so many temptations throughout the day. However, looking upon the cross can strengthen us. When we consider that it was for our sins that Jesus died, the resolve to not offend Him any more can carry us through when we feel weak. The simple prayer, “Passion of Christ, strengthen me”, can keep us determined not to fall. The cross of Christ can lift us up when we fear that we may fall.
Finally, the cross heals us of despair. Jesus’ death on the cross is the source of our hope. Because of His love, He transformed the most cruel and degrading of deaths into the source of salvation for the world. By following His example of love, we can transform our daily humiliations, difficulties and pains. They no longer have the power to break our spirits, make us miserable or cause us to live in fear. By contemplating the cross, we can find the strength to endure whatever life sends our way. We become hopeful, joyful and peaceful persons.
For those with faith, the cross is no longer a symbol of humiliation and defeat. Rather, it is a sign of victory, of salvation and healing. Just as the true cross healed the woman in Jerusalem, so by looking on the image of Jesus offering Himself on the cross for us we can find healing for our minds and souls. We find the courage to love, the resolve to confront evil and the strength to endure whatever trials may come. All this because, in the shadow of the cross, we see the dawn of the resurrection, Christ’s ultimate victory.
We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you. Because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.