This Sunday, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross takes precedence over what would be the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings show us how the Cross teaches gratitude.
The first reading, one of the stories about the Exodus in the Book of Numbers, begins with one of the Bible’s most amusing stories, about ingratitude. God has brought his people out of slavery in Egypt – and they complain, “against God and Moses,” “We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
The Exodus is the central story of the Old Testament. This humorous little story of ingratitude takes us to the heart of Scripture.
God’s response foreshadows the Cross. He punishes them, with biting serpents. But why does God punish?
The punishment leads them to ask God for deliverance: “Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.” The punishment takes them from complaining to trust, from ingratitude to a rediscovery of gratitude.
God’s way of salvation is even stranger, at first glance, than is his choice to punish. “Make a saraph [a serpent] and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” The poisonous snake on a pole becomes the symbol of healing. (We still see that symbol on ambulances, and are reminded of it – and of the strange old union between barbers and medicine – in barber poles.)
The whole dynamic is of gratitude. To look at the bronze serpent is to be reminded that everything comes from God: the punishment, the good things we were punished for not appreciating, and the healing from that punishment.
Our sufferings cease to sting when we discover that they too are a gift.
Our reading from Philippians, the great Christ Hymn, gives us another angle on the same story.
“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” The Philippians hymn teaches us about two kinds of grasping.
The first is our grasping. We think everything is ours for the taking. We demand food – and delicious food! – in the wilderness, we demand an end to our suffering. We demand even equality with God. But Jesus teaches us that equality with God is not something to be grasped. Like everything else, we can only receive it as a gift. We need a savior.
And that savior himself does not grasp, and so shows us what it looks like to accept God as Father. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . . . He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death.” Jesus models the humility that alone can lead us to God: the humility that grasps at nothing, and is obedient even to death on a cross.
John’s Gospel simply states the thesis. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
People often insert a word that isn’t there. “God loved the world so much”? But that’s a different word (ever clearer in the Greek). It doesn’t say this is how much God loved the world. It says this is the way he loved the world.
The particular way God chose to love us was by giving his Son to die on a cross – “just as,” the same passage tells us, “Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.”
He could have loved us a different way: could have given us more delightful food, could have shortened our wanderings in the desert. Instead he gives us the Cross – both the fangs that sting us, and the sting of death lifted up in our sight.
“He gave his only Son,” John tells us, “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life . . . that the world might be saved through him.”
We can look at our crosses and think God wants “to condemn the world.” Rather, he wants to remind us that “no one has gone up to heaven” without being taken there by Jesus; “equality with God is not something to be grasped.”
Like the serpents in the desert, our crosses, paradoxically, can teach us not to complain, but to cry out to God for help. When we cry out, God does not give us the deliverance we expect. He shows us the Cross of Jesus, to teach us that our crosses are gifts from him, just as everything is, and that the true relief is his presence, his union with us. He alone is our peace.
What parts of our life do we fail to receive with gratitude?