“By the Cross we are healed from our infirmities”
Homily for the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Cross
By Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros
By the Cross we are healed from our infirmities
(the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Cross -John 3,13-17)
On September 14 of every year we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross. A tradition relates that Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great, discovered near Golgotha the three crosses on which Christ and the two criminals had been crucified. Bishop Macarios identified the true Cross of Christ as the one whose touch immediately returned a dying woman to perfect health.
The Holy Cross was preserved in the Basilica of the Resurrection in Jerusalem until May 4, 614, when the Persians conquered the city and burned down the basilica. In 628, Emperor Heraclius defeated the Persians and returned the Holy Cross to Jerusalem on the 14th of September. And from that date, the Church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross of Christ.
The Gospel of today is chosen in preparation to that feast. Jesus refers to an event that happened in the Old Testament. The Jews during their journey in the desert were bitten by serpents, (as we read in the book of Numbers: “With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food’. In punishment the Lord sent among the people serpents, which bit the people, so that many of them died.) To heal the people, Moses, following God’s order, made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he recovered” (Numb. 21,5-9).
The specific principle at work in the utilization of the bronze serpent is sympathetic magic. In this instance one combats pernicious snakes by enlisting in the cause a more powerful snake, or, to be precise, an empowered snake capable of destroying the hostile one. The term “sympathetic” means the identity in form or in nature of the friendly power with the hostile power. In modern immunology one uses serums of the same composition as the disease or virus to fight its infectious effects. A bronze image of a snake is, therefore, an appropriate artifact for the purposes involved. The gaze of the afflicted person set in motion the curative powers of the serpent. It may be that the bronze serpent was thought of as returning the gaze, or radiating power, and in so doing destroyed the poison in the body of the afflicted person.
So comparing his cross to the serpent of bronze lifted up by Moses, Jesus tells us that all those who are bitten by the serpent of sin can be healed by a look of faith to the lifegiving Cross. The moment a sinner does that he is saved, just as God said to Moses: “if anyone who has been bitten looks at the bronze serpent, he will recover”. Anyone who has been bitten; no matter how far the poison had advanced in its progress to a fatal issue, if he but looked he should live. Such is the Gospel declaration: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not die, but may have eternal life”. Whoever: there is no exception. Not sin but unbelief can bar the sinner’s way to the Savior.
At the cross of Jesus there were three men looking at him: two sinners, the criminals hanging in crucifixion near him, and an unbeliever, the centurion. One of the criminals blasphemed him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us”. But the other one rebuked him: “Have you no fear of God, seeing you are under the same sentence? We deserve it after all. We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong”. Then he said: “Jesus remember me when you enter upon your reign”. And Jesus replied: “I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise”. Notice the two looks: the look of the impenitent and the look of the repentant. The third one who looked at Jesus on the Cross was the centurion. We read in the Gospel according to Saint Mark: “The centurion who stood guard over him, on seeing the manner of his death, declared: ‘clearly this man was the Son of God'” (Mk 15,39).
God has given us eyes to look. Jesus came to teach us how to look. He said: “The eye is the body’s lamp. If your eyes are bad, your body will be in darkness. And if your light is darkness, how deep will the darkness be” (Mt. 6,22-23)..
Man became a lost sinner by a look, for the first thing recorded of Eve in connection with the fall of our first parents is that “the woman saw that the tree was good for food” (Gen. 3.6). In was a look of lust. And in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “You have heard the commandment: You shall not commit adultery; what I say to you is: anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in thoughts” (Mt.5,27 -28). Jesus came to purifiy our look. The Christian life begins by looking, as we read in Isaiah: “Look unto me, and be safe, all you ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is no other” (Is. 45,22). And the baptism is called “illumination”, or “enlightment”: the Christian sees by the light of Christ. The Christian life continues by looking, as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “let us run with patience the race which is set before us, looking unto Jesus who inspires and perfects our faith” (Heb. 12,2). And at the end of the Christian life we are still to be looking for Christ, as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “We have our citizenship in heaven; it is from there that we eagerly look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3,20). And in the eternal life we shall see God “face to face”. From first to last, the one thing required is looking at Jesus Christ, and through his light we see God’s light, as we sing in the Great Doxology: “For with you is the fountain of life, and in Your Light we shall see the Light”.
In the Holy Eucharist we look at Jesus Christ crucified for our salvation and risen for our holiness, we unite with him, and from him we receive the Holy Spirit, as we sing after the Communion: “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity who has saved us”.