Saturday, September 13, 2008

His Descent Is Our Ascent

(Exaltation of the Holy Cross)

Today we celebrate a contradiction, a paradox. Indeed, it’s the contradiction and paradox which is at the heart of our faith, at the heart of Christianity. It’s right there in the title of the solemnity we celebrate today: The Exaltation of the Cross. We exalt the Cross, meaning that we lift it high and make the Cross of Christ something we look up to. But what is this Cross which we exalt? It is one of the cruelest and humiliating means of execution known to the ancient world. It’s a sign of us human beings at our worst, at our least human, at our most evil.

So what does it mean to say that we exalt, that we lift up and venerate this sign of ourselves at our worst? Let us attend to the Sacred Scriptures we hear today. As Paul says in the great hymn of the letter to the Philippians, the Son of God, the Eternal Word, “emptied himself” of all that it should mean to be God, and “took the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” In Jesus Christ we see God descending, letting go of all divine prerogative, and entering into the deepest and most horrible consequences of sin—the violence of us human beings torturing, humiliating, and killing one another.

This is the meaning of the Cross: God identifying with us in the pain and torment we have brought upon ourselves with our sins, even to the point of feeling ourselves alienated from God altogether: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.” Behold the Cross and see God himself taking on the suffering that we earn for ourselves with our sins and violence against one another. This is an almost indescribable love and kindness, that the all-powerful God should empty himself and take on the burdens of our faults. But that’s the overwhelming Love we call God, a Love that is literally just dying to save us from ourselves.

The good news is that this descent of God becomes our ascent out of the prison of selfishness and sin and into the new life of grace. Just as the Israelites were able to look up to the serpent in the desert and be healed, so we, if we turn our gaze to the Cross, God will reveal to us the path to new life.

That’s the secret. We have to look up to the descent of God. For God descends into our suffering and pain in order to rob it of its power from the inside. Jesus Christ, though he was able to die in the humanity he borrowed from us, could never die in his divine nature. And so he bursts forth from death, taking his transformed humanity with him, into the New Life we call the Resurrection.

Let us look up the humility of God, for God’s humiliation is our exaltation. Let us turn the gaze of our hearts and minds upward to the Cross of Christ, for the descent of God is the ascent of our humanity into freedom from violence and sin.

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