Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Elevation of Objects & The Emptying of God


Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 77:1-2,34-38; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

Sisters and brothers, there is an advertisement for a watch, which is sometimes screened in local movie theatres. Perhaps some of you have seen it before. It tells the moving story of a pair of lovers, who share a special favourite place. A forest. It is in this forest that he once presented her with the gift of a watch. Hidden, for her to find, in the knot of a tree. It is in this forest that he proposed. Here also was where they came for the last time, as a couple, when she was stricken by terminal illness. And then, after she had gone, it was back to this same forest that he returned alone. To the same tree. To deposit the watch he had given her.

Years later, a fire burns down the forest. Frantically, he returns once more. Desperately searching for what he had left behind. The tree is burnt. But, amazingly, not only does the watch remain, it still works. And, as he gazes upon that precious object, he remembers what she had told him when they were here last. He had been carrying her in his arms. You’re tired. She had said. Please put me down. It is then that he realises that she would be happy only if he allowed himself to be happy. Only if he was willing, finally, to let her go. Finally to begin living his life anew.

Sisters and brothers, I mention this advertisement, not because I want to sell you a watch. (I’ll leave that to Apple.) But because I think that it helps us to understand how an ordinary object is changed into something extraordinary. How it comes to be elevated. Filled with meaning and power. The power to change us. To transform our losses into hope. Our burdens into motivations. Our endings into beginnings. Our dyings into new life. Of course, in itself, however carefully it is made, and whoever its maker, a watch is... still a watch. It’s function is to tell time. But what elevates this watch is the story it recalls. The memory of the love between two people. A love stronger than sorrow. A love willing to forget itself. Willing even to die. Just so that the beloved might live anew.

Isn’t this, my dear friends, something like what we are celebrating today? On this Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we celebrate the elevation of an object beyond the particular purpose for which it was made. Not a watch. But a cross. An instrument of torture and punishment. Of suffering and death. Something that should strike fear into the hearts of all who know the purpose for which it was made. And yet, we who call ourselves Christian dare to claim that we see this thing in a way different from how others see it. Our boast is that, for us, this terrible thing has been exalted. Elevated. Lifted up. Transformed into its opposite. How does this happen?

The first reading provides us with a clue. For here too we find an object being elevated. Not a watch. Or a cross. But the image of a fiery serpent. A statue of something whose bite brings certain death. But, when lifted up, it becomes a channel of life. What should be an object of fear is transformed into a symbol of hope. Deadly poison is changed into its own antidote. How does such a marvellous transformation come about? How does it happen that a simple look at a bronze serpent can have such saving effects? The reading doesn’t give us the details. All we are told is that Moses interceded for the people, and the Lord answered him. To deepen our reflection, we have to turn to the other readings.

In the gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus the secret to why God answered Moses. The reason is none other than love. The love that God has for us. The same love that brought us Jesus. Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son... And God chose to give us his Son in a very particular way. The Son of Man must be lifted up, Jesus says, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. As you know, sisters and brothers, the words lifted up have more than one meaning. Literally, they mean to be physically raised up. But, figuratively, they also mean to be exalted. To be given glory and honour and praise. And this is also what we believe happens to Jesus on the Cross.

This is precisely what St. Paul is describing in the second reading. Jesus was God. His state was divine. Yet he emptied himself. He chose to forget his own divine dignity. Lowering himself to become a human being like us. Humbling himself even to the extent of accepting death, death on a cross. So that, quite paradoxically, when Jesus is lifted up on the Cross, he is at his lowest point. And it is from this point that God exalts him. Raises him high. Gives him a name above every other name. Isn’t this how the Cross comes to be exalted? Elevated? Transformed? Only because Christ Jesus chose to lower himself. To sacrifice himself. To empty himself. To humble himself. To forget himself. And for our sakes. So that through him the world might live. So that we might live. You and I.

And this exaltation of the Cross is not just something for us to talk about in theory. It is a living power that can move and transform us. The way that watch in the advertisement transformed the one who gazed upon it. The Cross has this power, because when we look at it in faith, we are reminded of the story it represents. We are drawn into the memory that it recalls. The Mystery of Faith that we celebrate at this Mass. When we eat this Bread and Drink this cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again. When we gaze upon the Cross, we are reminded of a timeless Love. That is willing to lose itself for us. So that we might find new life.

But, in order for us to tap into this transforming power, we first need to do what that man in the advertisement did. We need to return to the burnt-out forests of our lives. To the places where we may be saddened and searching. Lost and confused. Anxious and afraid. Disappointed and disillusioned. Resentful and rebellious. Burdened and stressed out... Wherever it is we may be suffering. And there, from these places, to fix our gaze firmly upon the Cross of Christ. The Cross on which was hung the salvation of the world. For when we do this, perhaps we too will hear words of comfort and encouragement. Not put me down. Or let me go. But come to me. Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest (Mt 11:28).

Sisters and brothers, whether it is a watch, or a statue, or a cross, an object is exalted, lifted up, when it calls to mind the memory of a lover who empties herself. Loses herself. So that the beloved might find new life. How willing are we to be reminded of this story of our salvation. To come to Christ, our Beloved. And to find new life, by losing ourselves in Him today?


1 comment:

  1. Thank you Fr Chris for the lovely homily this morning ... gave much food for reflection... on one of my fav Feastdays - The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

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