14 September 2009. Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
Numbers 21, 4b-9; Psalm 78; Phil 2, 6-11; John 3, 13-17
The first verse of the Gospel today gives us a parallel, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” What happened during the time of Moses? When the Israelites were on the way to the Promised Land, they complained against God and Moses. They regretted their having to leave Egypt. As a punishment, Yahweh sent serpents so that many of them died. In their distress, they asked for mercy and healing. And Yahweh instructed Moses to “make a fiery serpent, set it on a pole” so that “everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Moses then made a bronze serpent, and those who looked at it lived (Numbers 21, 5-9).
This serpent scourge was interpreted therefore as a divine judgment upon the people’s rebellion. A footnote of the RSV Bible tells us that the Israelites remembered this incident; with the bronze serpent (Nehushtan) as a popular object of worship during the Israelite monarchy (2 Kings 18,4). William Barclay mentioned that they began to ask whether the bronze serpent was worshipping an idol. The rabbis said that the bronze serpent was not the source of healing, but it made the Israelites turn to God who instructed Moses to construct it. The bronze serpent therefore enabled them to focus themselves on God. The bronze serpent then was a symbol that reminded them of Yahweh.
This is the image Jesus painted of his passion and death. Just as the serpent reminded them of their suffering, it was also their salvation. And just as Jesus was lifted up on the cross, it would also bring us eternal life.
We therefore ask two questions: When can a cross be salvific? or When can suffering be healing? Verse 16 of the Gospel gives us a simple answer: For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. The nature of God is revealed in the cross — God totally gives Himself for the love of us. Thus, suffering is meaningful and salvific when it is for someone whom we love, or for something of greater value such as faith (in the case martyrs) or the love of country (in the case of soldiers). The blessedness in all our sufferings, our hurts and aches in our hearts is that when we totally give ourselves, we find ourselves. When God gave Himself totally to us, we also get a glimpse of the nature of God: God is total self-giving. We invest our hearts deeply — as marriage does — though we know that investing our hearts to our friends and loved ones will cost us the price of sufferings and goodbyes. But we believe that the investment of our love for them is worth it. Think of the parents at graduation. Graduation is the triumph of their suffering. Think of the excellent marks a student gets, they are the triumph of their cross of discipline in studies. Think of the artists whose works dazzled the world, their applause is the triumph of years practice and self-giving. God so loved the world: for Him, we are worth all of it.
Second, the value of symbols. Bishop Chito Tagle said that symbols make present one who is already present. Symbols do not fill in an empty space: Jesus is already present. But in order for us to feel or experience him tangibly, symbols are essential. As Jewish rabbis explained of the bronze serpent on the pole, symbols direct our focus on God.
Unfortunately, we are losing our symbols and the meaning behind the symbols. We have been influenced by the many sects that accuse us of worshipping idols because of the images we have in the Catholic faith. Here we see that we do not worship these images of wood, stone or paper. Think of the numerous symbols of God’s presence at mass — the Book of Readings, the presider, the people who attends it.
Let us surround ourselves with symbols: those that direct our minds to remember Yahweh. The Responsorial Psalm says, “Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget You.” As we placed our family picture so that we don’t forget them, we can also place pictures of God or saints to help us remember what God has done for us. As coffee shops put pictures and objects that complete the theme and ambience of their cafes, we can also carry with us the symbols of our faith such as the cross and the rosary in our pockets. They lead our thoughts to God.