Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. John 3:14
Today we celebrate the Feast of Exaltation, the joyous victory and celebration, of the Cross. Now the cross is just one of those things that the closer you are to it the more you are likely to overlook its amazing significance. The more familiar it gets as a holiday, as a piece of jewelry, as a liturgical prop, the less we remember that this was the instrument of death of the most beautiful person who ever lived. The instrument of death of the founder of our religion. How is it that we can possibly exalt and celebrate this means of torture and death, this cross?
To help enter into the mystery and power of the cross, I want you now to bring to mind something you may have seen one hundred times but probably never paid much attention to. When you drive home from church today looked up and notice those big gray cylinders, transformers that hang atop telephone poles every few hundred feet. Now, I am a priest not an electrician, but I do understand the principle of how transformers work. Power coming into this gray box from the power plant is at a dangerous level-100s of thousands of volts-which in itself, is unusable and destructive. But whatever happens in this box, the electrical current is transformed into something safe and useable- 110volt power which gives us light to work, preserves and cooks our food, makes the world run. Now hold onto that in your heads, because that is a great way to understand the power and the victory of the cross. Something dangerous and destructive comes in and is transformed and changed into something essential to life as we know it.
This is seen in the context of our first reading today from the Gospel of John, which recalls when the people of Israel were wandering through the desert and had been bitten by snakes. Moses, inspired by God, tells the people to do something very strange. Fashion a bronze snake, hang it on a tall pole, instructs Moses, and all those who gaze up upon it will be saved. What is this strange magical, pagan stuff? Well it is a lot like what we now call a vaccination or inoculation. You give people just enough of the disease to help them overcome it. You give them just enough of the disease to help them know they have a problem and shock them into a solution. A poison or disease that will kill us, is transformed into something that will save us. That is the mystery of the cross.
Jesus on the cross, takes into himself the full voltage, the full poison of mankind’s tragic history of war, violence and prejudice, but unlike any other person or leader who ever lived, he does not repay the anger, violence and prejudice in return. He becomes the victim, but does not create victims in return. ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Lk 23:34) That’s a big picture view of the cross, as transformer, as vaccination which transformed sin and death, by forgiveness and life.
But now let’s bring it down to our level, to see how we might be a transformer, exalt the cross in the day to day. Let’s say someone has spoken unkindly or even untruthfully about you behind your back. If you do the same back to them, you have missed the victory of the cross, missed your opportunity. You didn’t act as a transformer. When someone does evil to you or me, is unjust, or unfair, if we by the grace of God can find the space, the calm the freedom to not pay back evil with evil, we at that moment are enjoying and continuing the victory of the cross.
This is hard to do, it is a crucifixion. It is death to our selves, to our egos. It is much easier to go through the exterior motions of being a Christian. To have a cross decorating your home, your car, or your chest, but not have a living cross within your home, your car or your chest. But on this feast of the Exaltation the lifting up of the cross, we are reminded that it’s only the living cross within us by which we are lifted up, exalted in our lives and before God. So today I pray that God exalt the cross within me and you, that it act like a transformer, taking in whatever dark energy the world has to offer, holding it, and then transforming it, by the grace of God, into light. This is not easy to understand, and less easy still to practice. But this is the victory of the cross, and the only victory in this life that is ultimately worthwhile. For it is only those who join Jesus on the cross who will continue to transform the human heart and this world, ushering forth the kingdom of heaven, and life everlasting; amen.
This sermon adapted from Richard Rohr’s ‘Feast of the Holy Cross: How is the Cross any kind of victory?’ 09-14-2014