by Br. Adam Dunbar McCoy, OHC
Scripture: Isaiah 45:21-25; Galatians 6:14-18; John 12:31-36a
We exalt the Cross because it is the symbol of victory. And in the opening of today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells us what this victory is: the ruling power of this world is put to flight. Christ on the Cross will reunite the human community.
Who is the ruler of this world? A thorny question, perhaps, but let me take a stab at it. The natural human tendency is to seek and honor manifestations of divine power. This is a good thing. This is also not new. The cave paintings of France and Spain celebrate the power of large, beautiful animals and the craft and skill of killing them. Animistic and pagan religions look for and revere manifestations of natural power of all kinds, large and small – sun and moon and stars, springs or water, rivers, lakes and seas, earthquakes, the weather, the cycles of time and growth. They look for and revere manifestations of power in human life as well – in war and in peace, in the genius of cities, in beautiful men and women, in love and lust, in health, in wealth, in the arts of agriculture, metalwork and skills of every kind. Every manifestation of power you can imagine has been the object of worship by our ancestors.
This kind of religion has advantages. In the first place, it’s obvious. Who can resist nature? The irresistible power of love drives storytelling, drama, and song in every age. The love of money drives people in strange directions. We will do almost anything to restore health. In every case we want to find the key to unlock the door that gives access to what we don’t have. If you find yourself in the path of the hurricane, you might find yourself seeking out and consulting the relevant divine authority.
And not only by our ancestors. Think of the components of worship apart from the narrow box we label religion. Substitute the word celebrity for the word god. Then think of the honor and praise we give to movie stars and musicians and politicians, the things of value we dedicate to them as we attend their concerts, see their movies and respond to their appeals, the amount of time we spend thinking, even dreaming, about them. If we cross a certain line, is this not a sort of worship? The worship of their power – their vitality, their beauty, their skill, their intelligence. We worship it because we want it. We want what they have. If I buy the product, If I come near the celebrity, I will in some sense become like the one their power represents. If I see the movie I can enter into communion for an hour and fifty minutes with this wonderful being. It’s worth $12. Well, that’s what it’s worth in New York City now. Perhaps communion comes a little cheaper in Ulster County. I hope so.
I shook Jack Kenndy’s hand. I heard Louis Armstrong on my twenty-first birthday. Fred Astaire once told me he liked my sermon. I sat next to Catherine Zeta-Jones at a preview production of “Hairspray”. Were these nice experiences? Yes. Were they life-transforming, giving me my meaning and purpose? Well, not exactly.
Of course, celebrity is not the only way in which we worship false manifestations of power in our time. Think of all the manifestations of power to which you mgive your money, your time, your imagination. Do you cross the line into worship?
The interesting thing about the worship of the manifestations of power is that it is absolutely natural. The things we worship really are beautiful, desirable, powerful. They evoke deep longings deep down inside us. We want what they promise – beauty, health, skill, wealth, influence. These are good things.
One of the most moving things I can think of doing is to go to a museum and look at the magnificent Greek statues of young men and women. Of course they represent gods and goddesses and heroes, but they are also human beings at the peak of physical perfection. They inspire awe and longing, and as you get older, a kind of affection for what one’s youth perhaps was, or might have been, for a fleeting time. And that’s the point. They are poignant because, if you think about their context for just a moment, you realize that the vast majority of humanity is not like them. Back then, many, perhaps the majority, of infants died in their first year. Their mothers also died in great numbers. Young men died in war, or more likely, from the festering wounds of war. Everybody was subject to malnutrition, disease, the accidents of life. Such a very, very few were like the statues. To look at them is to see the ideal of a human society which was rarely attained, and when it was, for a heartbreakingly short time.
This is where the Ruler of this world comes in. He – it – draws our attention away from our own truth, small and frail and incomplete. If we had beauty, it will fade, or already has. If we had health, likewise. Or wealth. Or political or social power. The trick played on us is to make us think that what counts in the divine scheme of things is that moment of perfection, being at the peak of health, wealth, beauty, influence. Our lives, the Ruler tells us, should point toward perfection, and when if we ever attain it, we should clutch it close and hold on for dear life. Literally. For being the winner in the lotteries of life is the point. Winning is what makes life dear. And if you are a loser? The Ruler of this world would say to you, Get over it. Attach yourself to the winners, bask in their power, serve it, give your life to it. You will share the glory reflected from the golden glow of the one to whom the divine has shown its favor.
This is the Ruler which Christ on the Cross has overthrown. When we say that Christ’s death and resurrection have given us life, we mean it literally. Instead of living our lives as shadows of someone, something else, we find, to our amazement, that our lives, ordinary as they are, have become, through the love of Christ, manifestations of divine power, if we will only let them be.
The title of today’s feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, seems a little odd. It is a commonplace of Christian preaching to make a point of this: We exalt the Cross because by dying as a slave on a cross, Christ triumphed over death, death in one of its worst possible forms. That’s why we lift up the cross, that’s why we adorn it in beauty, why we put it on buildings, why we wear it, why it is the universal identifier for Christians. In his death and triumph on the cross we are saved.
In taking the form of a slave and humbling himself to death, even death on a cross, Christ identified the power and love of God with the entire creation. Not just the outstandingly successful, healthy, beautiful and influential show forth the love and power of God, but the lowest and least as well.
The Cross shows us that the love of God is so great that not one created thing escapes his embrace. His love was there, from the first quasars or quarks or whatever was at the beginning, to the stirrings of inorganic matter into life; from proteins to cells to amoebas to organisms; from plants and animals to the world as we see it now. From whatever primordial awareness the universe had of itself from the beginning to human consciousness, God’s love is there. In the birth and reproduction and death of every living thing, God’s love is there. Infinite means without limit. We say with John, “God so loved the world”. That is the affirmation of the Cross, of the Christian faith. That the material universe began, developed and exists in the love of God. And not one single bit of it exists, or can exist, outside God’s love.
The Ruler of this world wants to direct our attention away from the love of God for us, to channel our energies away from our true relation to God into temporary, fleeting, and ultimately illusory goals. The Ruler of this world tries to trick us into thinking that we are the “losers” in life, and as “losers”, we should attach what we have and indeed what we are to the “winners”. The Ruler of this world lies and wants us to live a lie. It is a lie to think that because you are small, weak, unfavored, you are a loser. It is a lie to think that you can derive value for your life from someone or something bigger, stronger, more favored than yourself instead of from the God who made you and loves you.
Christ’s death on the Cross seals God’s solidarity with us all, the weak as well as the strong, and especially with the weak. His resurrection shows the promise of Christ’s victory to God’s creatures when we accept the truth that what we really are is what God loves.
Are you young, strong, healthy, beautiful, wealthy, influential, or some of the above? Give thanks. God loves you. Are you older, weaker, not so well, plain, poor, powerless? Give thanks. God loves you. There is no condition of life God does not love and visit with his power.
If we only let him.
Take up your Cross and follow, Jesus says. It sounds so grim. Actually, it is the path to liberation, joy, fulfillment, and peace, because the Cross is where the truth is proclaimed. God loves not just the best bits, beautiful as some of them may be. He loves us all. All. Right now, right here, you are loved by God. By God who himself took on worse than you are or have probably yet known so that you might find, so that you might know, so that you might live in, the light of his truth, the light and truth that stream from the Cross of Jesus Christ. Be drawn to Christ.
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