HOMILY for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross II
Num 21:4-9; Phil 2:6-11; John 3:13-17
Many of you will probably have had your parents come to Edinburgh this week, and I suppose you’ll have been making new friends, and finding your way around the city, and maybe seeing some of its tourist sights. Although this is my fourth Freshers’ Week, I’ve been doing this too. So, my mother came to stay and spent the week with us, and I met a group of French seminarians last Monday. Between taking my mum to see Holyrood Palace and going to the CSU barbeque, I squeezed in a very quick tour that ended up in the National Museum of Scotland. We rushed around from one room to the next but one display made us stop and had us transfixed with morbid fascination.
The Frenchmen thought it was a French invention from the 18th-century. So, they were amazed to discover that some two centuries before the French Revolution, in Edinburgh in 1564, the Scots were using a machine in public executions for beheading people. It’s called ‘The Maiden’, and over 150 people have died by it. And here it was, in the museum, taking centrestage in one of the rooms; we stopped and just looked.
Today’s feast also seems to put at centrestage an instrument of execution and death, and it may appear somewhat gruesome or shocking, or even repulsive, to celebrate the cross. For execution on the cross was shameful, humiliating, the worst kind of death devised by the Roman Empire for those deemed public enemies. And it would indeed be morbid and gruesome to celebrate the cross were it not for who the Victim of the Holy Cross is, and what he accomplished through this instrument of deathly torture.
For Christ Crucified is the Victim of Love, divine love. As St John says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16a). Have you ever fallen in love and given your heart to someone else? It’s entails a kind of sweet pain, I think. Well, in becoming Man, God gives not just his heart but his whole self, his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity to you and to me. And the agony of sacrificial love is displayed for all to see on the Holy Cross. For when Jesus freely chose to mount the wood of the Cross, he chose to show the world the depths of God’s love for Mankind. His arms are stretched out horizontally to breaking point to embrace sinful humanity, so that in his own Body, Jesus reconciles God and Man, and he also draws us closer to one another. Vertically, he is stretched upwards to the heavens, for he is the Bridge that makes it possible for us to cross over to his Father in heaven, and to be united to God in friendship.
At the same time, Christ’s wounded and bleeding Body on the Cross reminds us of the sufferings and torments of humanity. We have all seen this summer the gruesome and horrific things that Man is capable of inflicting on their fellow Man including crucifixion. So, looking at the Cross, then, we see what our sins do to one another, and also to ourselves, and to God in Christ. For sin not only harms our neighbour but it also wounds and disfigures us; it makes us barely recognizable as rational human beings; it causes human misery and suffering, which Jesus, through his Passion and Death on the Cross, chooses to share in. Indeed, St Paul says that for our sake [God] made [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin (2 Cor 5:21). What this means, I think, is that Jesus on the Cross shows us the effects of sin in his broken body so that when we look at Christ Crucified, we also see sinful Man. We see ourselves, in fact, in the way that God sees us sinners: as wounded, frail, and mortal people in need of mercy, healing, and compassionate love.
Hence, as St John says, “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world” (Jn 3:17) but to save and heal and lift us up. And so, when we look up at the Crucified One, we look not into eyes that accuse us, or condemn us, or make us feel guilty. And if that is what you see, then you need to look again. Today’s feast, then, invites us to stop and just look at the Holy Cross. As Moses said to the people of Israel, we need to look and live (cf Num 21:9). For what we look into are the eyes of the Divine Mercy, and the Victim who we see raised up on the Cross is the Victim of Love. So when St John says that “whoever believes in [Jesus] should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16b), he means, first of all, that we need to believe who the Victim on the Holy Cross is: he is God’s Love and Mercy made visible who has come not to condemn and accuse but to forgive and reconcile us. Jesus is stretched out on the Cross to re-unite heaven and earth; God and Man.
And this is what Jesus accomplished on the Cross. For by reconciling us to God in friendship, Christ makes it possible, as the Gospel says, for us to not perish (as human beings naturally would) but to have eternal life by becoming like him: not just human but also divine; one with God who is Life and Being itself. But how does he do this, and what does this mean?
Well, think of what we do every time we come to Mass, and whenever we receive Holy Communion with the right disposition. The very word, communion speaks of an intimacy and unity with God that is born of love. For in the Mass what happened once and for all on the Cross is made present for us; we stand on Calvary with the Crucified One. Thus, in the Eucharist and in Holy Communion, we experience and taste how “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”; Christ gives himself entirely to you and to me in one great Act of sacrificial love as he once did on the Cross.
This is the Mass, and while you are here in this University you have an opportunity that will be unmatched later in life. You have the chance to come to Mass every day with relative ease and convenience because there are two Masses in this chapel every weekday, and there are at least another four at different times of each weekday in churches within 15 minutes walk from here. If you know the pain of falling in love, do you know, too, the agony of unrequited love or of being distant from your Beloved? Do not let God’s gift of himself – a daily Eucharist – go unwanted and unrequited. But let us do our utmost to come to Mass as often as possible with gratitude, with adoration, and with love. It’s not just the highpoint of your week but should become the centre of your day, of your life.
For it is through the Eucharist that we are made one with God and so receive eternal life; through the Eucharist that the Crucified One is lifted up on high, and we with him. For the Eucharist is Christ who is the “living bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). And when we receive the Eucharist we receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Risen Lord Jesus so that we, too, may be lifted up with Christ in the Resurrection, and be “highly exalted” into heavenly glory as he was (cf Phil 2:9). As Jesus says to Nicodemus, only he has ascended into heaven (cf Jn 3:13), so we need to be united to him through the Eucharist if we’re to share in his resurrection, ascension, and eternal life; if we’re to be united with God in undying love.
Therefore, we don’t glory in an instrument of torture today, nor are we morbidly fascinated by it. Rather, we rejoice in what Jesus has done for us through the Cross, and is doing for us now in this and in every Holy Mass. As the Entrance Antiphon said: “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (cf Gal 6:14).