Fr Mark Elliott-Smith: Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Given on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, during a Mass according to the Divine Worship Missal, as part of the London Eucharistic Octave 2021 on Tuesday 14th September 2021

How quickly faith can give way to doubt!

Here we are, reading from the book of Numbers, a book which describes the struggles of the people who, having been miraculously delivered from captivity in Egypt, now languish in the wilderness. The first generation, those who could remember their previous lives of slavery and misery, is frequently described as ‘stiff-necked’ and ‘stubborn’.

Most often, this stubbornness, the hardness of heart, manifests itself as ingratitude, and a loss of trust in God’s ability to provide and guide, and a rose tinted nostalgia for what went before. Slavery might have been ghastly, but at least there was food! We might have been treated like dirt, but we could at least be guaranteed a roof over our heads. Here we are, stuck in the middle of nowhere, wandering, stateless, hungry and thirsty: what does God think he is up to?

Human nature hasn’t greatly changed since the first reading was written: we were moany and quick to lose faith and trust in God then, and we are equally so now. But God is eternal and unchanging: we might lose faith in Him, but He never gives up on us. Despite our ingratitude, our fickleness and lukewarmness, and self pity, God never gives up on us. He loves us, because he made us.

And so we were made for love. We weren’t made to be stiff-necked and ungrateful. We were made to sing songs of thankfulness and praise, to be reunited with Paradise, and walk in friendship with God, where no serpent can work its way into the human soul, and corrupt it, to our undoing.

I wouldn’t advise anyone to get bitten by a King Cobra, or a Russell Viper, but if by any dreadful misfortune you did, you would be given an anti venom injection. It takes three years to produce one pint of anti Cobra serum in the labs that make it, and yet the serum that saves your life can’t be made without the snake that bit you in the first place.

Three years.

‘So Moses fashioned a bronze serpent which he put on a standard, and if anyone was bitten by a serpent, he looked at the bronze serpent and lived.’

Such was the world of the unhomed in the wilderness. But Moses, who spoke with the Lord as with a friend, was given a foretaste, a type, of the means by which humanity would be healed at the root: a radical cleansing and restoration, with hearts of stone made flesh, eyes opened, ears unstopped, tongues released; and the dead raised to life.

The Cross, and the Lord who hung upon it for our salvation.

Today we remember one ‘who did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are.’ (Phil 2:7)

The ancient serpent is about to get his comeuppance, to pay the price of pride, and of thinking that he can wrest control from God through lies, deceit, power and control, and lead his chosen people, not to the promised land, but to perdition.

He is about to find out that “it belongs to your boundless glory, that you came to the aid of mortal beings with your divinity and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself, that the cause of our downfall might become the means of our salvation.”

Today, we are invited to contemplate the Cross, and the face of our Crucified Lord.

Today’s Gospel relates part of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus, and that in itself is food for contemplation. Nicodemus is an enigmatic figure: a Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night. While he seemed to have struggled with Jesus’ teaching, he stoutly defends him to his fellow Pharisees, and it is he who provides the one hundred pound mixture of aloe and myrrh for his burial. Nicodemus often stands for those engaged in that intellectual struggle between heart and mind and faith: ‘how can a man be born again?’ That’s just nonsense!

Ah, but is it? That was the pebble in Nicodemus’ shoe. Did the darkness lift, and the message of Jesus finally find a home in his heart? Yes, surely, because like woman who brought the pure oil of nard to anoint the Lord’s feet, so he would bring the aloes and myrrh to anoint the Lord’s body in death. Both were acts of love, pure and simple.

So Nicodemus came to love the Lord. In those encounters by night, the light of the Lord’s face became visible, and the love of his Heavenly Father was revealed. However, it was only when he was lifted up from the earth on the Altar of the Cross, was the mystery of Divine Love revealed as the Truth that leads to Life. All the venom of the serpent, the hatred and the violence, all that which blinds, sickens and kills, is drawn not by force, but by love.

So, let us look at the glorified Lord, lifted up. Not just a passing glance, but in heartfelt contemplation: at the outstretched arms, embracing the whole world, and in High Priestly prayer before his Heavenly Father; salvation has a name and a face and a heart.

This week we especially contemplate that face in the Eucharist, “the sacrament of Christ’s great love for us, a love which He showed us by His sacrifice on the cross for our salvation. Christ is really present in the Holy Eucharist, and through the Eucharist He strengthens our charity.” [1]

Finally, we might also contemplate the Cross through the eyes of Mary, who says ‘do whatever he tells you’ and who stood at the foot the Cross when the fruit of her womb died. We contemplate the sword of sorrow, the tears of a mother, and a woman who glorified the Lord, and who now reigns as Queen of Heaven.

She shows us how to contemplate the Cross and the face of the Lord: in trust and hope, in faith and love. The Cross then, now, and forever, stands firm, and we look to it with grateful hearts as a pledge of future glory.

[1] words of Bishop Jugis on the announcement of the theme of the Eucharistic Congress

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