HOMILY for HOLY CROSS SUNDAY 2014
The discovery of a possible vaccine against Ebola has reminded me how as a little boy I was fascinated by the way doctors found a vaccine against Smallpox. It seems amazing really that you give people a small dose of the very thing that might kill them, and it is that which protects them from getting the actual disease.
Today, this is the image given to us as we meditate on the Cross of Jesus Christ. Our Gospel (John 3:13-17) tells us that the cross is like that. Some of you may remember me mentioning before my atheist aunt, who shuddered at us weird Christians putting a symbol of death up on our walls. Yes, that’s what the cross is isn’t it? It appears to bring death to us, to shove this horrific death right into our face. Indeed at every Mass we not only have the cross up there in front of us, but the prayers the priest says on our behalf right at the heart of the Mass – the very words of Jesus – “This is my Body which will be given up for you” remind us of his death every time. And just to punch home the point we all then say one of the acclamations – “We proclaim your death, O Lord… until you come again.” Yes, we don’t just remember his death, as we might remember the death of a loved one, but we proclaim his death as a moment of glory and triumph ; and some might well say with my aunt “What a strange thing, even an unnatural thing, to do!”
But of course it is no stranger than giving a dose of Ebola to someone who is afraid they might catch it. In each case the very thing that appears to bring death actually brings protection. It means that we are, as they say, immune. But the death that the Cross protects us from is not ordinary earthly death. We Christians are all going to die like everyone else. What it does is protect us from eternal death because we have already, by the cross, been given eternal life.
Another great image that expresses this is the idea that the power of evil and death, the power we call the Devil, is like a great dragon eager to gobble up and destroy all living things. God knows this, and thus presents himself as a victim for the Devil to consume. The Devil does not recognise that this is God; why, because God has done the most peculiar thing possible, God has become a man, a human being. This is Jesus, of course, whom we heard of in our 2nd Reading (Philippians 2:6-11) who “became as men are… even to accepting death, death on a cross.” Now we know now, although the Power of Evil along with many others didn’t know at the time, that this man Jesus is also God. We hear this from the beginning of St John’s Gospel. Jesus is not just a life, but Life itself. “All that came to be had life in him”, and this life, this light, is something that “darkness” that is the power of evil “could not understand” (John 1:4-5) So when Jesus is consumed by death on the cross, death (the power of evil) is actually consuming Life itself, and thus the power of Life enters into death, into eternal death, and destroys it.
For Christians therefore there can be no fear of death. Because Jesus has already faced death for us, we may fear the process of dying, but death itself is for us an entry into life. Death is thus the point at which we meet the one who has died for us – the one who told us that we are his friends. Yes, in death we meet our friend, and his name is Jesus. But in our friend, in the one we love, we also begin the process of being drawn by him into union with God, and so we may well say to Jesus, as St Thomas did after all his doubts, “My Lord and my God”.
It is not enough therefore for us Christians to have the cross, this great symbol of eternal life, in our churches, and in our homes. If we look at the cross like that, we are like someone, examining the Ebola or Smallpox vaccine, but not actually being vaccinated. We have to look not just at the external figure on the wall before us, but through it to Jesus himself. We must look at the cross then, but always look through it, and so speak to Jesus who calls out to us to accept and imitate his love.
As our Gospel says “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost, but may have eternal life.” We are not lost. We may have doubts, we certainly have many failings, but God’s sacrificial love, provided we allow it to work in us, is more powerful than all our doubts and sins. It is this love that we celebrate today, and indeed at every Mass, a love that brings us eternal life.
“Were the whole realm of nature mine.
It were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so Divine.
Demands my soul, my life my all.