The Feast of the Holy Cross - Reflection

‘[Jesus said] when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.’ - John 12:32

"Snakes.why'd it have to be snakes?” ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’ is the newest film in the Indiana Jones franchise, however, right from the very beginning Indiana has had a fear of snakes. I know how he feels! I love animals. I grew up on a small-holding and have taken care of hens, ducks, geese, turkeys, dogs and goats, but, for me, snakes is one step too far. Like Indiana Jones, if I ended up in a bush-tucker challenge with our no-legged friends, I’d be shouting: "Snakes.why'd it have to be snakes?” So I guess for me it is easy to get on-board with the biblical imagery that snakes represent evil, from Genesis 3 onwards. Certainly in our Old Testament reading the snakes which are mentioned are not meant to be caught and kept as pets. These snakes are poisonous and in biting God’s people created a wound which was fatal, not instantaneously to be sure, but fatal nonetheless. Indiana Jones, myself, and the People of God are right—at least in this example—to be worried by snakes. This morning we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross—in some traditions it's called the Exaltation of the Holy Cross—and let’s just begin by appreciating how odd that is. It’s easy in our culture—with over 1500 years of Christian witness—to miss the shock which this would have had on the pre-Christian world. The cross is probably the most excruciating way to die and today we celebrate it?! It’s a little bit like celebrating the Feast of the Electric Chair or the Exaltation of the Lethal Injection. It’s weird and it should be weird if you’re not a Christian. So today, I want us to see why Christians celebrate the cross, why we wear them round our necks, make the sign of the cross on ourselves, put crosses on the top and at the front of our buildings, and why the cross is a crucial part of the high point of the Christian year, at Easter. Today we celebrate the cross… why?

To answer I want to begin with our Old Testament reading, and Indiana’s least favourite reptile. As a parish we’re in a good place to understand the context of this reading. Having just finished our study in Exodus we know that God’s people are walking from Egypt to the promise land, and despite God giving them everything they need—in food and water—the Israelite’s keep complaining. We’re told: ‘the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’ Talk about ungrateful! Talk about short memories. Not so long before they were being brutalised as slaves, and ethnically cleansed! Where they are now—in the desert being given quite literally manna from heaven—is a million times better than being in Egypt; but how easily we forget. Discipline is necessary for all loving parents, and it’s no different for God with His people: ‘the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.’ This is when Indy or I would be shouting: "Snakes.why'd it have to be snakes?” Some snakes—these included it seems—bit their victims creating a wound which is full of poison. According to the Rattlesnake-bit health line—yes, that does exist—left untreated, a bite can lead to organ failure and death in two to three days. What you need is anti-venom, what you need is a hospital, but neither of those were particularly handy for the Jewish people out in the desert. However, fundamentally what they had done was break their relationship with God; and what they first needed to do was to fix their relationship with God. Whilst this isn’t always the case, of course, in this particular situation, for their physical wounds to be healed, they needed first to be healed of their spiritual wound, their lack of faith in the God who had already saved them. To be fair, the people get this straight away: ‘the people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us’.’ And God, who is always ready to forgive, responds immediately: ‘The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.’ Looking in faith to God’s sign healed them, spiritually and physically. However, by now you may well be wondering: what does any of this have to do with the cross? 

Well come now—with the Old Testament fresh in our minds—to today’s Gospel reading. In John’s Gospel chapter 12 marks a turning point; the point at which Jesus moves from teaching in Galilee to deliberately going to His death in Jerusalem. Jesus makes that clear when He says: ‘Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.’ Sin has been likened to a great wound, perhaps not unlike a snake bite. When we do things which harm ourselves, harm others, and ignore God, it’s like getting a spiritual wound in our souls, which we cannot heal by ourselves. It is, as if, there is spiritual poison running around our veins, and we need some spiritual anti-venom. In another part of the Gospel, Jesus compares Himself to a doctor who has come to heal the sick, which is great news because that is exactly what we need. We all have this sin-sickness, this spiritual wound, this spiritual poison, in our souls. Like the Jewish people in the desert we have been fatally bitten by a snake, who is the devil, and we will die spiritually if we are not given a cure; and Jesus, the doctor of our souls, points us to that Old Testament story to explain His cross. How were the Jewish people in the Book of Numbers healed? By looking in faith to the snake lifted up above the earth. How can we be healed of our spiritual sickness? Jesus says: ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.’ Jesus deliberately compares what will happen to Him on the cross to what happened to His people all those years before. Understanding the story in the Book of Numbers helps us to answer our question: ‘Why on earth would anyone celebrate the cross?’ As we’ve said, we all have sin-sickness, but if we look by faith to Christ—as the Jewish people looked by faith to the bronze serpent—He will heal us of our disease and give us eternal life. Looking to the bronze serpent healed people from physical disease; looking to Christ on the cross heals us from spiritual disease. The Old Testament story, however, also helps us to understand two other truths of the Christian life. First, nobody could look at the bronze serpent for another person, each dying person had to look for himself or herself; in the same way the salvation Christ offers is personal and individual, each of us must look to Christ by faith for ourselves, no one can do it for you. Second, no matter how hard they tried the dying Hebrew couldn’t save himself or herself, the only remedy, the only salvation available was what God had kindly provided, reject it and you died; in the same way we cannot save ourselves from our spiritual wounds the only salvation available is what God has kindly provided through the cross. This cure might seem foolish to some but it is the only cure.

Now perhaps, we can begin to glimpse why Christians honour the cross. Why we celebrate it today and every Sunday in the Eucharist. Why we exalt it, wear it on our bodies, make the sign of the cross over ourselves, and decorate our buildings with it. The cross is the only way to be healed of our spiritual wound, and the only way that anyone can enter heaven. Understanding the cross in this way should mean we do three things: first, make sure that the cross is always at the centre of our worship, both in Church and at home; honour it in our hearts, remind ourselves in symbols, and at focus on the cross at every communion. Second, we should share the cross with those we meet. If looking to Christ’s cross is the only medicine, the only way to be healed, then everyone—our friends and family included—need to know about the cross and look to it in faith to be saved. We have the antidote to all spiritual illness, the only pass key to eternal life, we must not keep it to ourselves. Third, and finally, we should respond with joyful thanks to the God Who has been lifted up on the cross that we might look with faith and live; we could not, we cannot save ourselves, but thank the Lord that He has already provided our salvation, and thus joyful thanks is the only right response. The cross is our only medicine, the only place of our forgiveness, and thus our only hope of salvation. As the bronze serpent was lifted up so that all who had faith in God and looked could be healed, so Jesus was lifted up on the cross, that anyone who has faith could be healed and given eternal life. Let us, then, be sure to centre our lives, centre our worship, and centre our hope and joy on the cross which we celebrate and exalt today, and on the God who died that we might live. Amen (from Fr Mike).