Moses accordingly 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 lived.
Numbers 21: 9
Strangely enough, it can be very difficult for us to receive a gift. it is really much easier to receive what we think we are owed than to receive a gift that in no way we deserve. There is a core dynamic to Christian faith with which the secular and ego-psychological tenor of our culture is most uncomfortable. We tend to believe that the greatest developmental task is to build up one’s ego and self-esteem. The form that often takes for us is to point out, or as we like to say to affirm, the other’s goodness. Today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, however, suggests a very different perspective. It is captured in the final words of the reading from Numbers, which speaks of the healing given to those who had been bitten by the serpent who looked at the bronze serpent which Moses had mounted on a pole. The bronze serpent was a source of healing to those who were afflicted by the fatal bite of the the serpents. The Exaltation of the Cross makes little sense to us unless we are aware of how desperately we need it.
Jesus does not die for us because we are good and deserve it; he gives his life for us because he loves us, even in our sinfulness and ignorance. There is a powerful paradox in the life of the spirit. The more we are touched by the light and love of God, the more we recognize and experience our sinfulness. When we know nothing of love, we are able to live the illusion and distortion of our own righteousness. When, however, we are touched, even ever so slightly, by God’s love for us, we realize how much we settle in our lives for a weak and limited version of real life. We keep struggling to create for ourselves and others a person who is worth something. Yet, we are not made for ego satisfaction or cultural acceptance. We are made for love, a love that never ceases to pour itself out for us. In this light our concerns for recognition, acceptance, success, and status of one kind or another can be seen as the impoverishment of real life that they are.
We celebrate the Cross not as a sign of Christian domination of the world, but rather as the manifestation of the true meaning and significance of life. We have been made in and for love, but so often we find ourselves living a counterfeit version of our true destiny. We struggle through our days seeking and hoarding scraps of possessions and adulation, feeding our drives and ambitions while starving our hearts and spirits. We are versions of Plato’s cave dwellers, thinking that the shadows we are striving for are reality because we have not known the light. As the light dawns on us, however, we are overcome by our own pettiness, humiliated by our refusal of the love we are always being offered. This growing sense of our own sinfulness does not, as we seem to fear, diminish us but rather allows us to recognize the love that God is offering us in our sinfulness as the free gift of God for which we are truly made. Our pursuit of the wrong kind of self-esteem, self righteousness and self-justification keeps us from knowing our true worth, which we can only know when we see ourselves with the eye of God’s love for us, a love that pours itself out for us on the cross that we might finally recognize it.
The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works. Thou doest the truth, and comest to the light. How is it thou doest the truth? Thou dost not caress, nor soothe, nor flatter thyself; nor say, “I am righteous,” whilst thou art unrighteous: thus, thou beginnest to do the truth. Thou comest to the light, that thy works may be made manifest that they are wrought in God; for thy sin, the very thing that has given thee displeasure, would not have displeased thee, if God did not shine into thee, and His truth show it thee. But he that loves his sins, even after being admonished, hates the light admonishing him, and flees from it, that his works which he loves may not be proved to be evil. But he that doeth truth accuses his evil works in himself, spares not himself, forgives not himself, that God may forgive him: for that which he desires God to forgive, he himself acknowledges, and he comes to the light; to which he is thankful for showing him what he should hate in himself. He says to God, “Turn away Thy face from my sins:” yet with what countenance says it, unless he adds, “For I acknowledge mine iniquity, and my sin is ever before me?” Be that before thyself which thou desirest not to be before God. But if thou wilt put thy sin behind thee, God will thrust it back before thine eyes; and this He will do at a time when there will be no more fruit of repentance.
St. Augustine, Tractates on John, XII, 13