The cross is a symbol of our salvation. Each time we look upon and venerate the cross; each time we cross ourselves in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, we profess our willingness to take Jesus seriously, to live the radical Gospel fully, and to die for our beliefs, our values and commitment to God, to Jesus and one another (Sanchez, PD, NCR for 8/29-9/11).
1st Reading – Numbers 21:4b-9
What logic is behind this reading and command? Why should a victim have to look at that which can kill them? The reason becomes a bit clearer if we look at the meaning of the snakebites which is the same thing as looking at the nature of sin, since the people had revolted against God and Moses. They were not even grateful any longer for the free bread that came to them from heaven. God sent the snakebites to punish them – not vindictively but as a ‘reality-check’ –considering how their sin and ingratitude had distanced them from God, the source of life – discovering later in their pain that they were suffering, lonely and God-forsaken. The only answer is to open the door again, and so they do that. They own up to their sin and ask for God’s help once again. Moses is told to make a serpent out of bronze, and so he does. This serpent has no sting; they can look on it without fear and without death. They can face their wrong-doing knowing that it has been taken up into the splendor of God’s on-going love which has brought them out of slavery to new life – a love that will continue to lead them if they but follow. (Fr. John Foley, S.J., “Spirituality of the Readings, http://liturgy.slu.edu.)
2nd Reading – Philippians 2: 6-11
This early Christian hymn that Paul is using should help us to appreciate how freely God gives his love to us and how completely this love is revealed in Christ Jesus, our Lord – the only one that is worthy and safe to be called Lord.
This is the Paschal Mystery: that by emptying ourselves, we may rise to new life. Ronald Rolheiser in the Holy Longing says, “Like all things temporal, our understanding of God and the church too must constantly die and be raised to new life. Our intentions may be sincere and noble, but so too were Mary Magdala’s on Easter morning when she tried to ignore the new reality of Jesus so as to cling to what had previously been, “ (p. 162). What needs to be emptied in you to bring about new life?
In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, he talks a lot about this emptying as a way of detachment. In making personal decisions, we should pray to get to the point where we could go either way in deciding (emptying ourselves). That way, we are truly leaving it in God’s hands to make the decision, and thus doing God’s will. He says, “One strives earnestly not to desire that money or anything else, except when one is motivated solely by the service of God our Lord; in such a way that the desire to be able to serve God our Lord better is what moves one to take or reject any object whatsoever,” (#155).
The Gospel – John 3: 13-17
God: all life begins with God; it is God who sent Jesus.
Loved the world: Here is the motive for all of God’s activity – God is love!
Gave his only Son: God gave in two senses – first, in the Incarnation God’s Word, God’s Message became flesh in the world; second, this Son in whom God is perfectly present endured death, the ‘lifting up’ on the cross.
Believes: God asks us to respond to his love – believe in Jesus. This believing in John’s gospel is always an entering into a deep and abiding personal relationship with Jesus.
Not perish/eternal life: God’s plan is NOT for human destruction, condemnation, or punishment. God wishes us to trust his love so that this love can lead us to an eternal life where death is destroyed, wrong is righted, and peace/shalom is established forever. This is the Good News we exalt on today’s feast.
(“Working with the Word”, http://liturgy.slu.edu)
In Elizabeth Johnson’s Consider Jesus, she compares 2 theologians’ views on the cross. Jurgen Moltmann, a German Reformed theologian, was a prisoner of war during WWII and wrote The Crucified God. His view of salvation is that out of love, God freely chooses to be affected by what affects others, so that when people sin and suffer this influences the divine being. He saw the cross as an event between God and God. While Jesus suffers on the cross, both Father and Son are suffering, though in different ways. Each suffers the loss of the other, yet they have never been so deeply united in one love. In their common loving will to save the world, regardless of the cost, what is revealed is the Holy Spirit, who is the Love of the Father and Son. At Jesus’ death his Spirit, God’s Love, is let loose on the world. Only if all disaster is within God can God affect salvation. (Think of all the current disasters today and how God may reveal Godself in them.)
Compare Moltmann with Edward Schillebeeckx, a Belgian Roman Catholic who is a Dominican and contributed greatly to Vatican II. He says God wills life and not death, joy and not suffering, both for Jesus and for everyone else. The cross reveals the tension between God and sinful humanity. God, as pure positivity, enter into compassionate solidarity with Jesus on the cross, keeping faith with him, not abandoning him. God is present in the mode of absence. He keeps vigil until human freedom has played itself out and Jesus is destroyed. Then God overcomes the evil of death through the act of resurrection, conquering and undoing the negativity wrought by human sinfulness. We are saved not by the cross but despite it
Neither theologian is right or wrong…it is all just thinking aloud about knowing God. Jesus is the Compassion of God. Jesus is in solidarity with us, and we are all united with God in Jesus by being in compassionate solidarity with all those who suffer.
The Gospel: Matthew 26: 14 – 27: 66
Thoughts on the Gospel at the Procession:
In Jesus’ day the Jewish people had hoped that the Messiah would come with military power and might – and that with that power he would free them. But Jesus came and opened a new way. Just as he rode to Jerusalem on a donkey, an ass, a pack animal, rather than arriving with armies and angels, so he opened a new path for the reign of God, the Kingdom of God. He preached about God who cared for the least, who sought the lost and the poor and counted the hairs of one’s head. This God reached out to the Gentiles, the enemies of the Jews and spoke of loving one’s enemies as if it were possible. His idea of the reign of God and how a Messiah might act was incomprehensible to many of the people. This was not the way a messiah ought to act. This could not be God or God’s servant. (Celebration, April 13, 2002)
What does the word Passion mean for you?
A dictionary says that it means strong emotion and agitation, such as ardent love, eager desire, even rage. It also means intense suffering. Jesus is the face of God: “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1:15) What do we learn of God in his passion?
Jesus does not want followers who seek after suffering; he does, however, want followers who seek after truth and love and are willing to suffer in order to live this truth and love in their real lives.
Thoughts from Prof. Dr. Joseph Ratzinger’s (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) Theology of the Cross from his book: Einfuhrung in das Christentum (Introduction to Christianity):
In many devotional books we encounter the idea that Christian faith in the cross is belief in a God whose unforgiving justice demands a human sacrifice – the sacrifice of his own son. This somber and angry God contradicts the Good News of God’s love and makes it unbelievable. Many people picture things this way, but it is false. In the Bible, the cross is not part of a picture of violated rights; the cross is far more the expression of a life which is a ‘being for others.’
This is an appalling picture of God, as one who demanded the slaughter of his own son in order to assuage his anger. Such a concept of God has nothing to do with the New Testament. The New Testament does not say that human beings reconcile God; it says that God reconciles us.
The fact that we are saved ‘through his blood’ (Hebrew 9:12) does not mean that his death is an objective sacrifice . . . In world religions, the notion which dominates is that of the human being making restitution to God in order to win God‘s favor. But in the New Testament the picture is the exact opposite. It is not the human being who goes to God, to bring him a compensatory gift or sacrifice; rather, it is God who comes to human beings with a gift to give us. The cross is not the act of offering satisfaction to an angry God. Rather, it is the expression of the boundless love of God, who undergoes humiliation in order to save us.
Christian worship is not the act of giving something to God; rather, it is the act of allowing ourselves to receive God’s gift, and to let God do this for us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian who died at the hands of the Nazis on April 8, 1945. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, he talks about cheap grace and costly grace:
Cheap grace is when we look to ourselves for what we have in life. The blessings we have are taken for granted. We can do what we want without retribution. Cheap grace places ourselves in the center. It is easy. There is no personal responsibility, unless it is to take credit for the good. But it is empty. No, grace was bought at a price in Christ Jesus (I Corinthians 6:19-20). There is more to life than living in cheap grace.
Jesus died on the cross to save us. He was without sin, yet he died for all of our sins so that we would know eternal life. That is costly grace. Living in that grace understands that. It is looking to God for what we have in life, knowing it is all from God. God is the center. It is being a disciple, wanting to do what is right because that is what Jesus did. It is wanting to please God, knowing God’s grace is a free gift but having the desire anyway. It is a fulfilled life. It is, “…water on parched ground, comfort in tribulation, freedom from the bondage of a self-chosen way, and forgiveness of all sins,” (Bonhoeffer, p. 52). Costly grace is living with the knowledge of what Jesus had to do to allow us the freedom of eternal life, and being grateful for it.
“Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ, as so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world, “(Bonhoeffer, p. 60). There is a freedom in knowing you are living the way you were meant to live. That you are answering a call, or at least attempting to do so.
Jürgen Moltmann, another Geman theologian, witnessed the Allied fire-bombing of Hamburg and was held as a prisoner of war by the British. It was there that he developed his theology of the cross. From Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God (p. 61):
While his Son is dying on the cross, God the Father suffers too, but not in the same way. The Father suffers the loss of his Son, experiencing infinite grief. There is total separation between them; they are lost to each other. At the same time, however, they have never been so close. They are united in a deep community of will, each willing to do this for love of the world. As a result, the Hoy Spirit who is love, the Sprit of their mutual love, flows out into the broken, sinful world. Their Spirit justifies the godless, rescues the abandoned, befriends the lonely, fills the forsaken with love, brings the dead alive, and guarantees that no one will ever again die godforsaken because Christ is already there in the depths of abandonment.
Here are at least two other lessons we can learn from the cross:
- The cross shows us just how cruel, and destructive evil actually is. Evil hates; evil killed the kindest, gentlest, most loving person who ever lived. Evil tries to destroy all love, kindness, friendship, and truth.
- The cross also shows us the power of love, of good, of God. No matter how powerful Evil can seem to be, it is false. God and his love are greater than ANY EVIL OR PAIN. God can redeem (set free), save (bring to health). God can recreate and give life if we trust him and live in relationship with him (faith).
(Thoughts taken from Jesus, The Carpenter’s Son, by Richard J. Reichert)
Caution concerning Matthew’s Gospel (and John’s also):
It is always important to understand that by the end of the 1st century Christians were struggling to define themselves apart from their Jewish roots and to try to find their place in the larger Gentile world. In the process they began to realize they were not merely another Jewish sect. Antagonism grew on both sides. In Matthew’s passion story we see an effort to blame ‘the Jews’ – really meaning the authorities for the most part – and to exonerate the Gentiles. Be careful not to read into these statements more than what is there. Anti-Semitism is never right, nor is it what the inspired Word of God is trying to teach us. Power-hungry men, some Jewish and some Gentile, who wanted to play ‘god’ were responsible for Jesus’ suffering and death. In a true sense, responsibility lies where it belongs, with evil and sin. (Living Liturgy, Year A, 89 & Monika Hellwig, Jesus: The Compassion of God)