Once again, a special feast trumps a Sunday in Ordinary Time—this one honoring the Holy Cross. This is not a celebration of planks of wood. It has been said, with no small amount of snark, that if someone assembled all the existing relics of the “True Cross," they could form a giant redwood. True or not, that statement betrays the great devotion Catholics have shown throughout the centuries to the Cross.
On every liturgical day the Church is celebrating our Incarnate Savior. In his letter to the Philippians Saint Paul reminds us that, by becoming man, God the Son set aside the glory of divinity (though not divinity itself). That “emptying of self” is what enabled Jesus to live a full human life, with the full array of joys and sorrows—in particular rejection and scorn, and above all the pains of His passion and death.
And yet God also experienced much of this from us prior to the Incarnation. Take, for example, the Israelites’ rejection of God at various points along their trek in the wilderness. Time and again Israel set aside the true God by worshipping foreign gods and treating people unjustly. Israel understood her chronic tragedies as God’s response to their sins, while in reality those tragedies were the consequences of participating sinfully in a sinful world.
While it is not accurate to portray God as fickle and sensitive as we human beings often are, this much is true: God is not pleased with sin, and He wants it out. In the account from Numbers, God instructs Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a pole so that the afflicted can look upon that serpent and be healed. What is really happening in this transaction? God is holding a mirror up to the people’s faces, so that they can see what their sin has done to them, how it has disfigured God’s image in them to the point of nearly becoming unrecognizable. Only then can they acknowledge their sins and turn to Him who would restore them by His mercy to a greater beauty than before.
There is the wonder of the Cross: it is the instrument of our salvation because on it our Savior was lifted up in mingled shame and glory, thereby allowing us to perceive the double truth of our alienation from God in sin and God’s drawing us to Himself in love. With joy and gratitude we draw near to the Cross, and to its Occupant, for by that Holy Cross He has redeemed the world.