Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
The Gaze that Brings Life
Reading: Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalms 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17
How did it work? How did it come about that the Israelites in the first reading were saved when they gazed upon the bronze serpent? Your guess is probably as good as mine. Still, although we may not understand the exact mechanics of it, many of us will probably have had some experience of how an object like a bronze serpent can be relied upon to bring healing or good luck or protection against evil spirits. The practice is prevalent in many other religions. Some of the Chinese among us, for example, will have encountered the practice of wearing amulets – perhaps containing something blessed by a temple medium – for the same purposes. Taoist families, for example, also sometimes hang an octagonal shaped mirror above the front door. And many Catholics do the same with crucifixes and images of the Sacred Heart. We use medals, religious images and other sacramentals as they are called. In my own personal devotions, I too make use of sacred images and statues, rosary beads and crucifixes, candles and even incense.
But isn’t it interesting to ponder over how such objects work? Do they actually repel evil spirits? Do they actually bring healing to the sick, prosperity and good fortune to the needy? If so, how? And how do we use them? How do we avail of their power? Do they serve as talismans for us, the way they seem to do for others? Is it sufficient simply to hang a blessed object around one’s neck or above the front door or around the rearview mirror of one’s car?
Thankfully, at least for those of us who are Christian, today’s feast and its accompanying readings help us to deepen our reflection on how sacramentals are meant to work – from where their power comes, and how we avail ourselves of it. Clearly, however finely crafted or precious its material, the power does not come from the object itself. And even though it probably does make a difference to our sense of devotion, neither does the holy object’s efficacy depend so much on how holy is the person who blesses it or how many prayers are said or how much holy water is used. For us who are Christian, all power for our salvation comes to us from God through the Cross of Christ. That is the meaning of the feast we celebrate today: the exaltation of the Holy Cross. To be more precise, the power comes not so much from the cross itself, as it does from what it symbolizes, from the meaning, the event, to which it points. The power comes from the fact that he who shared God’s nature actually emptied himself, humbled himself by accepting death, and as a result, was raised by God, and given the name that is above every name. God sent his Son into the world… so that through him the world might be saved.
What happens then, when we gaze upon a crucifix or the image of the Sacred Heart, or finger a rosary bead, or light a candle before a statue of a saint? Are we not somehow accessing the power of Christ’s dying and rising, appropriating it for ourselves as well as for those for whom we pray? And in order to do this, a kind of submission needs to take place in us, a kind of faith-inspired trusting in the power of Christ, the power signified and mediated by the holy object. This submission is expressed not only in the use of the object, but also in the way in which we live our lives from day to day. In other words, whether or not a sacred object works depends also on how we use it, on the faith with which we gaze upon it.
How do we gaze upon the cross today?