Sunday, September 14, 2008

Look and You Shall Live--Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

September 14, 2007, Year A

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Twenty-Fourth Sunday In Ordinary Time

Reflection On The Readings

By Dennis Hankins

Theme:  Look and You Shall Live

Jesus, rejected and despised, refuses no one who looks upon him lifted high on the cross.

Isaac Watts wrote the Hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross;  based on Gregorian Chant. He begins this great hymn with: When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.  

Pride and indignation had led Israel to complain bitterly against Moses and the Lord.  This was not a matter of folks disagreeing agreeably.  "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness," they murmured?  A chorus of contempt was unleashed from their hearts and mouths.  So the hedge was let down a little bit and fiery poisonous serpents plagued the people.  Realizing their complaint against the Lord and Moses was an act of disobedience they implore Moses, their leader, to pray for them.  The Lord directs Moses to make and place a bronze serpent on a pole.  He directed everyone who was bitten to be brought to this icon serpent pole upon which one could look and live.  

If you are asking, "Why would God have his people look upon the very image of the serpents that were hurting and killing them, that would be an excellent question.  Today Jesus tells us this event prefigures his being lifted upon the cross.  What do the two have in common?

First, the spectacle of the cross is meant to draw our attention.  Especially since every one of us have been bitten by the serpent, our need to look upon the Son of God to have eternal life is imperative.  The second stanza of Watt's hymn continues: Forbid it Lord that I should boast, Save in the death of Christ my God; All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.  Alienated from God and each other, the poison of sin deludes us to boast in our own strength.  Let us remember, nothing but the blood of God, poured out as a libation rids the heart of the false gods of our making.

Second, the God of love, who is not willing that any should perish, so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  There was no other mediation for the poisonous snakes among Israel than the serpent lifted up on the pole in the wilderness.  The message of the cross is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.  There is not anything particularly inviting about the serpent pole or Christ hanging from a cross.  Isaiah had prophesied the crucifixion stating there was 'no beauty in him' that we 'should desire him.'  When St. Paul says Christ became obedient to death, even death on a cross, it is meant to reveal both the necessity of salvation, that is, except we are born again we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, and the only way salvation is mediated is by the cross, that is, without the shedding of blood there is no salvation. 

Third, Israel had to look upon the judgment of their sin to receive healing for the bite of the serpent.  The power of the poisonous snake had to be seen subdued, conquered, destroyed; powerless in the hands of God.  The bronze serpent represented their sin for what it was; poisonous, filled with death and destruction and alienation from God and each other.  When we look upon the crucifix, we see him who knew no sin who became sin for us.  In Him we see sin, our sin for what it is.  Heaped upon Christ is all of our rebellion and hatred of God and those made in his image.  Christ endured the judgment of our disaffection for holiness and love and God and neighbor.  In Christ we see our sin for what it is; humiliating, poisonous and filled with dying and death. We also see there on that cross nailed the decree against Satan the Serpent which says, "The power of sin is broken."  Everyone who looks upon the crucified Christ can find in him the remedy to the disillusion, the poison, and the wages of sin which is death.  Another stanza from Watt's hymn says, See, from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down; Did e'er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown? 

On this Feast Day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we embrace the crucifix in all of its glory.  We have Christ on a Cross in our parishes to remind us not only of the price of our salvation, but to remind us of what sin does to us and with us but can never more destroy us if we will but LOOK!  Look and You Shall Live!

Let us pray: Dear Jesus I pray in the words of Isaac Watt's hymn: Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.  Amen

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