Saturday, September 13, 2014

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

I have always been greatly moved by Jesus' comparison of His being lifted up on the Cross with the bronze serpent God told Moses to mount on the pole, which image God used to save those Israelites who were perishing as a result of being bitten by poisonous snakes in the desert. The parallel is so obvious: just as the Israelites were beset by poisonous serpents, we are daily beset with them too. Perhaps not actual serpents, but ones that are not merely as deadly, but ultimately more deadly than those that fell upon Israel in the desert. We are often beset sins that not only kill the body, but the soul, resulting in eternal death. To think that this is not a possibility is to be greatly deceived and to live in denial of reality.

The good news is truly good news, which is why Christians call sharing this good news "evangelization." The good news is just what St Paul, likely quoting an early Christian hymn, sets forth for us in our reading this Sunday from his Letter to the Philippians: "he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:8). It is because Jesus humbled Himself for my sake and for yours that the Father "greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name" (Phil 2:9). This is conveyed beautifully and simply in our Gospel for this glorious feast: "For 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16-17).

In light of the connection the Lord made between His being lifted up on the Cross and the bronze serpent Moses lifted up, let's extend our Gospel reading one verse further: "Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:18). Faith is our response to God's initiative towards us. God's initiative towards is Jesus Christ. Hence, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Can you muster enough faith to just look?

Christ on the Cross, by Heinrich Bloch, 1870

Christ died to redeem everyone, but not everyone will be redeemed because not everyone will receive the gift of salvation God offers through Christ. One indication of this can be found in the words of consecration during the Eucharistic Prayer, which words remain consistent throughout Eucharistic Prayers I-IV:
This is the chalice of my Blood,
the Blood of the new and eternal covenant,
which will be poured out for you and for many (emboldening and italics added)
for the forgiveness of sins...
Redemption is an objective fact, without it not one person would be saved. It is true that some will be saved extraordinarily, that is, not necessarily by coming to conscious faith in Christ and being baptized, but by responding in faith to what God reveals to them, living in accord with the law written in their hearts, seeking to order their lives to truth as an act of love, the result of which is usually beautiful. Bl Teresa of Calcutta urged us to make of our lives something beautiful for God. We are justified by faith, by our response to the gift God offers us. Once we respond in faith, then we are on the road to sanctification, to being made holy, to being fully conformed to the image of Christ. This is nothing other than the fundamental good news, the kerygma, the basic message of Christianity.

The road to sanctification, to what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls our "sabbath rest," is often a twisting, winding path over hills and through valleys, even the valley of the shadow of death. When we are beset by sin along the way we need not despair. In such peril all we need to do is to look to Christ on the Cross. Among other things, this means availing ourselves of the grace offered through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. The most efficacious means of receiving God's grace are the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance.

As Paul Tripp observed in a tweet not long ago, "Yes, you are called to worship God above all else. No, God will not reject you in that moment when an idol grips your heart." This is the assurance God gives us through the Cross of Christ. This is why we can say, "We adore you O Christ and we bless you. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world."

During the week following tomorrow's feast we have the opportunity, though not the obligation, to observe "Holyrood" Embering. What are Ember Days? See my post "Whitsun Embering: Observing Pentecost Ember Week."

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