Homily for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross
“As the serpent was lifted up in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
In the first reading we heard the account of what happened to the Israelites in the desert. The Lord Jesus referred to this episode in order to explain the mystery of salvation.
The journey the freed slaves had to make from Egypt to the Promised Land was long and hard. It was a trial. The Lord had promised His people that He would provide for them and get them to the land of milk and honey, but He did not “beam” them there like Scottie on the Starship Enterprise—they had to make the long and arduous pilgrimage.
In this way, the journey of the Israelites is an image of human life. God starts us out on the journey to heaven, and He accompanies us the whole way. But most of us have to persevere and bear up under the strain of traveling a long distance. We don’t get beamed-up to heaven until we finish the work the Lord gives us to do here, whatever it may be.
The Israelites did not bear up well under the strain. They grew tired and impatient with God’s plan. Therefore, they were subjected to the attack of poisonous snakes. Many of the Israelites were bitten and died. The poison in these snakes is also an image for us: It represents the weakness of our human nature. The poison in us is our propensity to selfishness, pride, self-indulgence, cowardice, and malice. The snakes in the desert would have been harmless if they weren’t poisonous, just as our human nature would not be dangerous to us if Adam and Eve had never fallen. But as it is, our flesh does have poison in it. The poison can strike us and kill us spiritually, which is what happens when you or I commit a mortal sin.
As the Lord Jesus explained it, though, the imagery from the Old Testament reading does not end here by any means—thanks be to God. What did the Lord command Moses to do to heal His people who were poisoned? He ordered Moses to mount a bronze serpent on an upright pole for the people to gaze upon. But the serpent on the pole was not full of poison. It looked like the poisonous serpents which had stung the people. But the bronze serpent was itself perfectly pure and free of poison.
As the Lord Jesus explained to Nicodemus: The mounted bronze serpent–in the image of the poisonous beast but itself free from poison–is the image of the Son of Man sacrificed on the Cross. God hung on the Cross in the likeness of our sinful flesh, even though He was completely free from sin. Those who have looked upon Him without faith saw nothing but a criminal being executed in the notorious Roman way. But those who know Who the Crucified One truly is see something else: We see a perfectly pure and innocent man offering Himself to the Father on our behalf.
Dear brother, dear sister: you and I deserve to be on the cross. For forsaking the truth, for pouring contempt on the weak, for smiling at evil, for distracting ourselves from our duties, for running my brother down behind his back, for putting me, me, me in the center—for these and countless more faults, wrongs, and sins, you and I deserve agony and death. God owes us nothing; all we have is a gift. And we have not been grateful, submissive, and obedient like we should be.
But the man on the Cross was never ungrateful. He was never disobedient; He was never selfish. He was never petty or mean; He never lied or prevaricated—to anyone else or to Himself. He walked in this world with the gentleness of a doe, the deft strength of a lioness protecting her cubs, and the pure beauty of a lark singing.
There has never been one ounce of poison in the flesh of the Son of Man. On the contrary: His humanity oozes healthful medicine. When He walked the earth, it was as if His hands secreted aloes and balms that soothed every wound He touched. The same healing powers flow out from His heavenly Body which He makes present to us on the altar.
Christ made His pilgrimage on earth with perfect abandonment to the will of the Father. He preserved what the Israelites lost in the desert. God was leading them to the Promised Land, but their way there passed through the desert, and they ran out of trust. The Father was leading the Lord Jesus to the Promised Land, too. His way there passed through the Cross. He walked calmly to it. The Lord’s execution did not take Him unawares. He knew and accepted His mission with serenity from the beginning. He had come to suffer our punishment for us, so that we would not have to suffer it.
The purity and innocence of Christ’s obedience to the Father is reflected in the pure and innocent obedience of His saints. Today our Holy Father Pope Benedict has gone on pilgrimage to the place where St. Bernadette humbly and simply obeyed the orders of the heavenly Lady 150 years ago—Lourdes, France.
Pure water flows out from our Lady’s spring in the grotto there, water with the power to cleanse and heal. Lourdes water is an image, too—an image of the cleansing, invigorating spiritual water that flows from the Sacred Heart of the Crucified One. This spiritual water flows out onto all those who gaze upon Him in faith. Let us draw near to the holy altar of Calvary to bathe our souls.