1 Cor 1:18-25; Gal 6:11-18, Col 1:19-20; Numbers 21:4-9, Exodus 15:22-26; Proverbs 3:11-18
And so we come to one of the oldest feasts in our church year, all but forgotten by most Protestants today. No doubt this is because it focusses upon a holy object, the elevated Holy Cross, and the Reformation cast doubt on the use of such things in worship, focusing upon God’s connection with the spiritual, rather than the material world. But it was attention to the Holy Cross that actually catalyzed discussion among ancient theologians concerning the difference between reverence or veneration, and sheer worship, which is given to God alone. Our faith, given to us by Holy Tradition, deals in the material and not only the spiritual. God became incarnate to do something about death and not only something about sin. Jesus healed as well as taught. He commanded Baptism and the Eucharist, and through His apostles, Holy Unction (James 5:14), which employ water, wine, bread, and oil. So central to our faith are material things that even some Protestants have had to concede, as C. S. Lewis amusingly puts it, that “God must love matter [because] He made it [and] He uses it to put the ‘God-life’ in us.”
To my Protestant friends who are afraid that relics and holy water are simply superstition, or worse, idolatrous, I frequently point out that the Holy Scriptures themselves (which they honor) have many stories about life-giving things. It helps us to remember these, too. To begin, there are fascinating stories in the Acts of the Apostles concerning the clothing of St. Paul, or the shadow of St. Peter, healing those whom these things touched. St. Luke, who records these, knows well enough about the allure of witchcraft, and speaks about the mistaken ideas of a magician who thought he could buy the Holy Spirit. He also rejoices when those who practiced witchcraft burned their books. But he has no difficulty in understanding that God uses physical things to benefit human beings. The clothing and shadow of the apostles were associated with those men to whom they belonged, and these men worshipped the Lord Jesus: somehow holiness is attached to the very accoutrements of these apostles. These are the earliest examples we have from New Testament times of relics.
Then there are the OT passages associated with this feast of Sept. 14, Exodus 15:22-26 and Proverbs 3:11-18. Both of these feature God’s wisdom as associated with an object. Exodus 15 concerns the people of Israel travelling through the wilderness, and their encounter of bitter water at Marah:
When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah [which means, “bitter.”] And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.” (Ex 15:23-26)
So, the Lord does not simply sweeten the water, but shows Moses a particular log, and when he throws it in, the water becomes potable. This miracle is followed by the Lord’s instruction that they should listen to wisdom, and be obedient. What is the connection between the divine words of wisdom and a tree in the bitter water? Ancient rabbis reasoned that that the tree must have been something special. Some went the symbolic route in their interpretations, and said that it referred not to an actual log, but to a particular teaching of Torah, or the basic laws of Torah that dealt with social relations. But the Jewish philosopher Philo, who wrote about the same time as Paul, said that it was a real log—a piece miraculously preserved from the tree of life and shown to Moses by God (Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 11:15). God both spoke life-giving words, and used life-giving objects in teaching and healing the people. Our ancient fathers in the faith also believed that God could use wood, and they link this story with Proverbs 3:11-18, which speaks of Wisdom, calling her “a tree of life to those who take hold of her.”
Of course, we understand Jesus’ cross to be the TRUE tree of life, foreshadowed in Eden. It is by His cross that we have life, and that the whole world is reconciled. As St. Paul puts it, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19-20). Notice how PHYSICAL this statement is. Jesus united all created things by the blood of His cross! The apostle could simply have said that he united all things by his death. Instead, he calls attention to the numerous created objects in heaven and on earth, to the blood, to the cross, and even to the incarnate body of Christ, in which the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. There is no doubting it—God loves material things, which He called good, and very good on the creation mornings. And so it is that relics take an honored place among us. We could call the cross the greatest of relics.
It has a “borrowed” power because of the One who hung on it, just as the very name of Jesus triumphs over God’s enemies. God has power over and can indwell, and use material things, not simply ideas or memories! Indeed, the objects can often convey memories and ideas to us in a powerful way. And so it is that we celebrate this feast that dates back to the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the site of Christ’s tomb) in Jerusalem about 335, after Queen Helen is said to have excavated and rediscovered the true Cross. Until that time, the spot had hosted a temple to Aphrodite and Zeus, which Helen had ordered destroyed to make way for the Church now to be placed on the traditional site where the Cross was found. On Sept 14, the newly discovered Cross was brought outside of the newly-dedicated Church to be venerated (not worshipped) by all those in attendance. The Queen followed up this action by opening numerous churches, especially the two more built in Constantinople and Rome, which, like Jerusalem, hosted parts of the Cross. The feast-day also calls to mind the restoration of the Cross to Jerusalem in the seventh century after it had been pilfered by the Persians: Emperor Heraclius, who returned the Cross, entered the city in great humility, with bare feet and without royal insignia, because it was the cross of Christ that he carried. Helen and this later Emperor’s actions call us to remember that only the Cross is worthy of our complete allegiance, and that our salvation comes not by “victories” of any earthly sort but by Christ, who trampled down death by death, and calls us to carry the cross, as well. “God forbid that I should boast in anything except the cross of Christ…. for the foolishness of God is more powerful than the wisdom of men” (Gal 6:11). The Cross is our boast, our exultation.
So, as in Holy Week, we consider the cross again, tarrying at the pierced feet of Jesus, as did Mary and St. John the Baptist. The scene may seem all-too-familiar, but we need to realign our hearts and minds to be astonished once more at God’s justice, love, and mercy. Let us always remember that a cross was not a pretty thing. We may class it with the guillotine, noose, or the electric chair, though God has made the ugly beautiful because of the One who ascended it. As early back as John’s Gospel, the “lifting up” on the cross was understood as a kind of coronation, counter-intuitive though that might be. Yet, even in that Gospel, when God’s glory is seen suspended in mid-air, when water and blood pours in life-giving energy upon the world, when Jesus compassionately cared for his mother, and majestically gave over the Spirit, its ugly side is not obscured. Remember Jesus’ own words to Nicodemus at the first reminder of the crucifixion: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14). Here the Lord is content to be identified with a snake in the desert. And to gaze on that snake may have brought healing to the Hebrews, but it also reminded them starkly of their sin. They had been grudgingly following Moses, and had actually re-enacted the sin of Eden, refusing to give thanks for the provisions of God— in their case, miraculous manna—and rebelling against not only their human leader but against God Himself:
And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Num 21:4-9).
The ungrateful people rebel, God sends a punishment that involves death, they come to their senses and ask for Moses’ intercession that the snakes would leave them; instead Moses is given instructions to make an effigy of a serpent to put on a pole. The snakes may be rendered inoperative, but the reminder of them was ever with the people. Whenever they looked at the effigy, they were reminded of their rebellion, and of the consequences of sin—and in that state of humility, they were healed. When Jesus takes this emblem upon himself, though, something changes: he consents to become the snake, the symbol of sin. As St. Paul puts it, “the sinless One was made sin for us.” And something else changes, too. Those who look to Jesus are not only healed, but transformed, “The sinless One was made sin for us so that, in Him, we might become the righteousness of God!” (2 Cor 5:21). The OT story puts forward a kind of contract that no doubt involved some humility on the part of the bitten person, and that ended in his or her recovery. But the NT story show the HUMILITY OF GOD, who Himself takes on our weakness, so that we might not only be healed, but assume His glory! St. John Chrysostom marvels at this, saying,
Had He achieved nothing else but only [rescued us from death and sin], think what great a thing it would have been to give His Son . . . But [the apostle] mentioned that which is far greater than this . . . Reflect therefore how great the things are that He bestowed on you . . . ‘For the righteous,’ he says, ‘He made a sinner; that He might make the sinners righteous.’ But he doesn’t say it that way. Indeed he says something far greater . . . He does not say ‘made [Him] a sinner,’ but ‘sin;’ and not only ‘He who had not sinned,’ but ‘He who had not even known sin,’ that we also ‘might become’ (he does not say ‘righteous,’ but) ‘righteousness,’ and ‘the righteousness of God.’ (Hom 2 Cor. 11.5)
Today we stand amazed at the humility and greatness of our LORD Jesus Christ, who was able by his glory to make the very cross a throne, and to turn an instrument of horror into a means of hope. He trampled down death by death. Along with the Resurrection, the Cross is one of the “first things” of our faith (1 Cor 15:3-4) —it was St. Paul’s focus, and he commends it to us as a potent sign of the life of humility and sacrifice that we are to follow, in gratitude to God.
The apostle was a learned man, both in Hebrew and classical thought, but beside the cross everything pales in significance. As one of our readings from Paul puts it, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Because of its simplicity, the message of this sign has been rejected by some. It is probably not an accident that a cult like the Jehovah’s Witness insists on changing its shape, and referring to a mere “pole”. But to those who treasure God’s Word, and the life of the Church, the cross displays the power, wisdom, and the love of God.
St. Paul, of course, had to contend with those Gentiles who wanted something else as the center of their attention, and with those Jewish believers who were nostalgic for the old days of Torah. To them, he was completely forthright, almost to the point of rudeness, and declared, in another of our readings “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal 6:15). This new creation that he proclaimed has its own contours, its own mindset, its own demands. It is focused upon the New Human Being, Jesus, who told us to “take up” our own crosses and follow. This is a hard saying. But for those who do as Jesus says, it will become apparent that His burden really IS light. For in carrying it, we are doing what human beings were meant to do—giving glory to the King of Glory.
For Queen Helen, carrying the cross meant putting her busy court life on hold, looking for what must have seemed a needle in a haystack, then building churches around the empire. For the Emperor of the seventh century, it meant taking on the same humility as King David before the ark, and arriving in Jerusalem not with pomp and circumstance, but with meekness. What does lifting up the cross mean for us, today? What does it mean for us to bear, in our bodies, “the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:7)? In what ways will we follow the Way of Christ, who both fulfilled the desires of the nations, and insulted the pretending powers? How are we called to be content living on the margins of society, not claiming power we could easily grasp? Where must we dare to speak, even if it means earning the scorn of others? Where are we to give up our privilege, our comfort, maybe even our livelihood, because we are carrying the cross that God has given to us? As we exalt the Holy Cross this week, let us consider these questions, knowing that the Holy Spirit will show us how.