[Sept 14, 2014, Numbers 21:4-9, Phil 2:6-11, John 3:13-17]
Today we celebrate the exaltation of the cross. It is not an invitation to become masochists but to appreciate the great victory won by Christ on the cross. It reminds me of the conversion of Constantine the Great (we can thank him for the spread of our Catholic faith in the Church’s early history.) His conversion came about in a decisive moment in a battle. He looked up in the sky and saw a glowing cross with the words “in this sign conquer.” He then commanded is soldiers to paint the symbol of the cross on their shields and they went on to win the battle. We can have that confidence that in the struggles and challenges, when we are trying to sincerely do the will of God, his grace will conquer and the suffering is not in vain!
The gospel today describes the exaltation of Christ on the cross: “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” In the desert Moses mounted the deadly snakes on a pole so that all looking at them would be saved. Christ is lifted up on the cross and all who fix their gaze on him and believe in him will be saved too. God’s mercy is so great that it can reconstruct broken lives and restore a person to their original beauty. It is like the famous statue of the Pieta in St Peter’s basilica. Once, a deranged man attacked it with a hammer, striking Michelangelo’s sculpture, breaking the marble nose and arm of the Virgin Mary. After painstaking reconstruction the statue was restored. Part of the mission of the Church is to restore damaged lives, through the sacrament of reconciliation, through her charitable works to give back dignity to lives that have lost their shines and to eyes that have stopped sparkling. Like the religious sisters here who have an orphanage for abandoned children. One of them was found on a garbage tip. But now after being rescued she is once more smiling again.
The second reading from Philippians talks about humility. Ouch! What is that? St Teresa of Avila says humility is “andar en la verdad”—to walk in the truth. A good way of staying humble is admitting our mistakes. It reminds me of an archery competition in Medieval England. The first archer had to shoot a water melon off a man’s head at 50 yards. He was successful and announced, “I am Robin Hood.” Round two was more difficult—an apple. The successful archer declared, “I am William Tell”—another famous archer. For the third and final round and a prize of 50 gold coins the winner had to shoot a grape off the man’s head. A contestant came forward and reassured all that his vision was fine despite his thick glasses. His arrow ended up in the eye of the man. “I am sorry,” he declared. It is not easy to admit our mistakes even when we are obviously wrong. Often we can try to justify and defend. This can be the sin of pride.
God shows us his humility by becoming man, becoming a servant and going to the cross. St Paul tells us “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself.”
Humility is not always easy. When my father was in the military the motto of his regiment was “Hard to be humble”! But to stay in pride is much harder!!! For example pride leading to lack of forgiveness. I remember meeting one lady in Manila. She was telling me “Oh, the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness is very hard. To forgive your enemy is very difficult.” She then went on to tell me how she was so angry with her enemy. I asked her who it was and she told me it was her own brother. He had not paid a debt to her for many years. The woman was grinding her teeth and admitted that she could not sleep but told me that the situation was not really bothering her. Of course I was surprised on asking her how long it had been going on for and she said more than five years. What is more difficult? To humble our pride and forgive or to experience five years of hatred, grinding your teeth and not sleeping? What is actually hard is not the teaching of the Gospel but our heads! Our hearts! That is what is hard. We are hard headed and hard of heart. Matigas ng ulo!
Lord may the love you show us on the cross conquer our hard heads and hearts! Amen!