THE EXALTED CROSS
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ NUMBERS 21:4-9; PHILIPPIANS 2:6-11; JOHN 3:13-17 ]
Christianity is a strange religion. Whilst most religions and philosophies of life seek to help us to avoid the crosses of life, Christianity speaks highly of the cross. We speak of the cross in exalted terms. Indeed, the symbol of Christianity is the cross! Christians extol the cross of Christ. For Christians, the cross is an instrument of our salvation. It is the cure to all sufferings and the hope to triumph over the greatest of all enemies, namely, death. As St Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:26) Therefore, Christians are not ashamed of the cross. They proclaim proudly that their master and Lord died on the cross. (cf 1 Cor 1:22-24)
The cross is in contradiction to the world where pain and suffering is to be avoided at all costs. The world is afraid of suffering. The world seeks to hide the reality of pain and sorrow. The world fears death. They seek to postpone death. They give us a makeover to make us look as if we have many years to live. In addition, if suffering is imminent or unbearable, they advocate taking lives, whether of unborn babies or the elderly. When death can no longer be masked, then even at funeral service, one is no longer encouraged to grieve and shed tears. We are urged to be stoic in approaching death. To cry for our loved ones publicly is considered undignified.
How is the cross an instrument of our salvation? Firstly, the cross reveals to us the reality of man and the world. The cross reveals to us the consequences of sin. It is because of man’s greed and selfishness that we are always discontented, like the Israelites in the desert. They were demanding for more and more. They complained that they did not have bread and water and God supplied them manna from heaven and water from the rock. Then they lamented that they had no meat and God sent them meat. The truth is that nothing on earth can satisfy the human person. His heart is always craving for more and more. No matter what he has, he will be unfulfilled. Ironically, the Israelites said the right thing, “we are sick of this unsatisfying food” but they did not have the right answer. The things of this earth alone cannot quench the thirst or satisfy the hunger of the human heart.
The cross reveals to us the injustices and crimes committed by man against God and against his fellowmen. Because of greed for things and power, selfishness and lust, so many sins are committed. The cross of Jesus reveals the immensity of what sin can do to man. Man kills each other for more wealth, power and glory. Indeed, cheating, killing, slander, manipulation and oppression are all because of the selfishness of man. To protect ourselves, we destroy others because we fear suffering and death. Jesus was nailed to the cross for His perceived threat to Judaism and the Roman authorities.
The cross reveals to us the shame of humanity. Jesus was the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. In His ministry, Jesus portrayed Himself to be a man so in control of Himself that He had no fear of the authorities but spoke His mind clearly and courageously. However, on the cross, Jesus was stripped totally of His dignity. He was naked upon the cross for all to see and condemn. He was scourged, humiliated and taunted by the soldiers. Because of our pride, we would do anything to protect our reputation and our image before the world. Because of our pride, we would do everything to win glory and honour from the world. But often this is done at the expense of truth, love and justice. Our freedom is the cause of our misery. Jesus on the cross emptied Himself of His freedom for God and for us.
Conversely, if we see the cross positively, the cross becomes the antidote to the sins and sufferings of humanity. The cross is the symbol of God’s mercy. In the cross, we see the mercy of God. St Paul says, “The state of Jesus Christ was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” Jesus became one with us so that He could identify with us in our suffering. Having been tempted in every way without sin, and having gone through the depths of suffering, “he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Heb 5:8f) Indeed, the author of Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb 4:15f) In our sinfulness, we know that God is ever ready to forgive us our sins because on the cross He not only made excuses for us that we were ignorant but He interceded on our behalf to His Father to forgive us for our sins. In the gospel, Jesus made it clear, “For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.”
Secondly, the cross is the symbol of God’s self-emptying love. In the gospel, Jesus said, “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” Such is the depth of God’s love that He would empty Himself of His Son to save us from our folly and suffering. In the letter to the Romans, St Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom 8:31f) God did not keep His only Son for Himself but gave Him up for us sinners. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (cf Rom 5:6-8) This was the prayer of Jesus before He left this world when He prayed, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (Jn 17:25f)
Thirdly, the cross is the symbol of hope. Christ’s death on the cross did not end without the resurrection. When Christians glorify the cross, it is always in view of the resurrection. The cross without the resurrection would be tragic; but the resurrection without the cross would be powerless. It is the cross that shows us what love entails but it is the resurrection that reveals the power and victory of love over sin and death. Indeed, because Christ submitted so humbly, “God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” So the cross is not the end but a prelude to eternal life because sin and death is conquered by love and life.
In the light of what the cross has revealed to us about the reality of sin and at the same time the symbol for our salvation, if we want to find strength, direction and healing for our sins and sufferings, then we must look to the cross and contemplate on the Crucified Christ. This was what Moses said to the people. “Make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live.” This fiery serpent is a foreshadowing of the cross when Jesus was lifted up as a sign of God’s mercy and love for all. “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” How can this contemplation heal us?
By contemplating on the cross, we are reminded of our sins and the consequences of our sins. Most of the suffering in life is caused by our selfishness, greed and pride. Only when we look deep into ourselves, will we then not look for scapegoats as the Israelites did in their suffering. Very often, it is not the external circumstances that make our life miserable, but it is the wounded, greedy and selfish heart. When we reflect on how our sins have hurt humanity and our fellowmen, then we can seek repentance. So long as we exonerate ourselves and put the blame on others, we will never grow or learn from our mistakes.
Secondly, by contemplating on the cross, let us find strength and healing from our Lord’s suffering, mercy and love. Knowing how much He carried our sins and infirmities in His body, we too will learn to carry our crosses humbly and selflessly after Him. But we do not carry the cross like a stoic. We carry it with Jesus as an act of humble love and service for humanity. All sufferings are healing and liberating when we do not suffer for ourselves but for the love and good of others. With St Paul we say, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10f)
Let us take heed of the warning of the psalmist. “Never forget the deeds of the Lord.” It is when we forget the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for us that we become ungrateful. In our sufferings we tend to think only of our present pain but we forget the blessings the Lord has given to us, most of all in His passion, death and resurrection. So the way to remember His love is precisely through the celebration of the Eucharist where we are called to “Do this in memory of Him.” By contemplating on His love in the Eucharist and imitating Him in His death, we will share in the resurrection. Indeed, the cross is the means to triumph over sin, suffering and death.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
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