Sep 14, 2008

Homily for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross - given at Bundeena on Sept 14, 2008

2. “The Son of Man must be lifted up” (Io. 3, 14).

Today the Church makes special reference to these words which Christ spoke to Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was a man who loved God’s word and studied it with great attention. He had a hunger for the truth, an eagerness to understand and a desire to know answers to the great questions of life. It is to Nicodemus, that Jesus speaks these words which still have meaning for us today: "The Son of Man must be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life in him" (John 3, 14-15).

When Christ said this to Nicodemus, Nicodemus had no idea that this one sentence would summarise the entire mission of Jesus. Nicodemus would not have imagined that Jesus was referring to his death at Calvary when he said that “The Son of Man must be lifted up”. In order to be understood, Jesus referred to an event from the history of the Jewish people which Nicodemus would surely know about, namely, Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert, written about in the book of Numbers.

Let me take you on a journey. Moses and the Jewish people were walking in the desert. They had escaped from Egypt and they were trying to find their way to the land promised to them by God.  This journey lasted forty years and was full of tests, maybe similar to a season of the TV Show Survivor: Moses and the Israelite people "tested” God with their unfaithfulness, their lack of trust, their disobedience; God responded to the Jewish people by providing obstacles in order to strengthen and purify Israel’s faith.

Near Mount Hor a particular test took place, and this involved poisonous serpents. These serpents "bit the people" with the result that many of them died (Nu. 21, 6). Then Moses was ordered by God, to make “a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he recovered” (Nu. 21, 9).

We might ask: why such a test?

God intends to save the people of the world. The bronze serpent in the desert is a symbolic representation of Christ on the Cross. If someone was poisonously bitten and then looked at the bronze serpent "lifted up" by Moses, then that person was saved. That person remained alive, not because he had looked at the bronze serpent, but because of the belief in the power of God and his saving love. In this way, when the Son of Man is lifted up on the Cross, when Jesus is crucified, "all who believe will have eternal life in him" (Jo. 3, 15).

There exists a deep connection between the bronze serpent in the Old Testament and the Cross of Christ. These two stories go together hand in hand. Salvation and healing came to the Jewish People in the desert through the lifting up of the bronze serpent, and salvation and healing came to all the world through the lifting up of Jesus Christ on the Cross.  

This connection, Pope John Paul II said:  “becomes even more striking if we keep in mind that the salvation from physical death, a death caused by the poison of the serpents in the desert…” was a death which began in the Garden of Eden with the serpent or the snake tempting Adam and Eve. Salvation and healing from this death, a death that was caused by the actions of a man Adam – this salvation and healing came through a Man, through the Son of Man "lifted up" on the Cross.

You may be thinking, where on earth is Deacon James going with this. My friends, the Old Testament as we all know prepares us to listen and to hear the message of Christ.

In the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus in today’s Gospel, Jesus prepares an eager student of the Scriptures, so that in time he will understand the saving mystery contained in the Cross of Christ. Nicodemus did understand in time, but not straight away.

What, then, does this "being lifted up" mean?

In today’s second reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, "being lifted up" means "being brought low." God become man. This is the first dimension of "being brought low", and at the same time it is a "lifting up". God is brought low, God becomes man, so that we man, humanity, may be lifted up, so that humanity may become as God.

Why? Because "God so loved the world". Because he is love itself and God desires our friendship, love and relationship.

"God so loved the world that he gave his only Son". GOD GAVE. This emptying is itself the gift. It is the source of every gift and we can’t truly understand how to love or to give without understanding what happened on the cross. In this emptying, this is the beginning and source of every "lifting up."

The Church puts before us the Cross of Jesus Christ. My friends, the cross is not just the image of a criminal being humiliated and killed. This image is the perfect image for the Christian and for humanity.

We look around the world and we often see the crucifix displayed as jewellery or as an ornament. Many don’t understand why the cross is important, but deep down within us there is a sense that this is an amazingly powerful image, relevant even for us today.

My friends this Sunday is my last Sunday here at Bundeena. In 9 days time I will depart Cronulla to begin further post graduate studies of theology in Rome. I ask you to pray for me and to pray for the people of Bundeena and for the faith of our families, friends and those around us.  The church here at Bundeena could be a thriving centre of hope and love for our world even more than it is already.

Unfortunately it is difficult for Bundeena because in essence you never have a full-time priest. So the responsibility and mission of building up the faith here in Bundeena falls in a very special way to each of you.

I would love to return to Bundeena in 5 or 10 years time and see a church packed with young people, young children and young families. The role of leadership in this community needs to be more tangibly passed onto the next generation. Our Bishop Ken and Dame Cath can’t keep it going forever.

The Cross and the message of Jesus Christ are powerful. By looking towards the cross with faith and belief, we receive healing and salvation, as the Jewish people received healing when they looked at the Bronze Serpent while in the Desert.

Jesus is lifted up on the cross but before he is lifted up, God came down to our level so that each of us can be lifted up and enter into the eternal glory of Heaven. God has given us something wonderful. The Cross shows us and enables each of us, you and me, to empty ourselves for another, and at the same time, by emptying ourselves we will be lifted up.

I thank you very much for all your support over the past 11 months. I have tried a few different things while I have been in Bundeena and in the parish of St Aloysius and the friendship, hospitality and kindness which have been extended to me have been exemplary.

As I finish my homily, I ask invite of you to look at our crucifix for about 1 minute and pray about how the cross has an impact in your life – does it give you healing, does it encourage you to empty yourself for another as true gift and do you believe that you will be lifted up be emptying yourself.

“The Son of Man must be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life in him.”

Let us pray.