The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:7-9)
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)
Holy Cross Day is, along with Good Friday, one of the two great occasions in the Church year when we focus on the cross. The character of Holy Cross Day is distinguished from Good Friday by its sense of triumph and joy. It also has a practical quality: it asks the question “where do I look for salvation?” in matters great and small.
The scripture readings from Morning Prayer today point out the cross’s significance to believers by recalling the connection Jesus drew between himself and the story, recorded in the Old Testament book of Numbers, of the brazen serpent God instructed Moses to make when the people were dying from snakebite. This image of death, when raised up on a pole, would provide an antidote--if they would but cast their eyes upon it.
During their nighttime conference, our Lord reminded Nicodemus of this old and mysterious story. Jesus connected the serpent on a pole to his own impending crucifixion (“lifting up”), and forecast the reality for all who would follow him: We must look to the crucified Christ for salvation, for triumph over sin, death, and the power of darkness. This is the only path to eternal life. All others are false and point only to death.
Right now, as always, the world disagrees with this message. It says we must look not to the cross but to our screens for salvation. It demands focus on hatred, division, and bitterness rather than on God’s love in Christ. The world’s love of arrogance and violence is exalted in each news cycle, while for Christian disciples it is the humility and peace of Christ which sets the standard for our behavior. This shows in interesting, often small ways.
In recent years, with the advent of social media, it has become common for people to put down entire swathes of humans as “sheeple.” This portmanteau word made from sheep and people is never meant as a compliment. It is always a verbal sneer, usually written by folks who might be called “professional sneerers” – the sort of people who mocked Christ at the foot of the cross. I find it interesting when people who call themselves Christians employ this term: Christ himself was called the Lamb of God, and we are to be his sheep. For us, being a sheep is actually a compliment: we are one of the Lord’s flock, and we look to the Good Shepherd for life, guidance, and peace. It is that "looking" we are thinking about today.
To look at Christ upon the cross means not to look down, but up—up from the earth and its ceaseless round of demeaning and demonizing others—to focus on the One who loves all people as they are, without precondition. This is eternal life. Do we get this from looking at our phone or our computer? Are our comments, postings, and positions worthy of the Lord? Are we becoming more like Christ, or more like the mockers at his crucifixion?
This motion—of looking up to Christ and seeing in him the source of love needed for us to serve, care for, and honor (not judge or demean) our neighbor—is the motion of true Christian humility for the “sheeple” God loves and for whom Christ died. Once we learn this movement, we will question our own smug self-assurance, and will become revolted by the toxic, embittered words and actions we may formerly have engaged in, let pass, or shamefully enjoyed.
Holy Cross Day is a good time to see just where I am looking for salvation: to ideology, or perhaps to some unassailable position from which I may look down on others? If I look to anything other than Christ lifted up on the cross, I am simply an idolater, “and the truth is not in me.” But, if I turn to Christ in humble repentance and love, I am being healed from the serpent’s bite, and can journey on in God’s love and strength, so that I may see Christ in my neighbor and do the reconciling work of the Gospel in justice, truth, and mercy.
The Collect for the Feast of the Holy Cross
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.