14th September, apart from being my Mum’s birthday is Holy Cross Day and this year, 2014, it falls on a Sunday.  It is good to reflect on this day and its importance  

The reading for Holy Cross day is from John

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I'm always very thankful that I live in a country which has only one variety of poisonous snake and a variety moreover which doesn't grow to enormous lengths and which is seldom seen. Happily, adders are shy creatures which generally vanish at the sound of human footsteps and which only bite when attacked. People do get bitten by adders every summer, but only a relatively small number, and although the bites are nasty and usually require hospitalisation, they're rarely fatal.

I can't imagine the horror of living in a country which not only had lots of different varieties of poisonous snakes, but from time to time might suffer a plague of them. This was what happened to the Ancient Israelites as they were wandering in the wilderness under the guidance of Moses. We're told that "the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way" and they moaned to Moses. They were tired, they were fed up with always eating the same old food, and looking back, the days as slaves in Egypt began to seem quite rosy. But the result of their complaints was that God sent fiery serpents among them which bit the people and we're told that many thousands died.

I can't imagine a worse horror, and neither it seems could Moses, for he called upon the Lord. God told him to make a brass image of the serpent and put it upon a pole. The pole was to be lifted up high where everyone could see it, and anyone who was bitten was to gaze upon the pole, whereupon they would be miraculously healed. To this day, the medical profession have as their symbol a serpent twined around a pole, a symbol of healing.

It seems quite ironic that the serpent which caused the original furore in the Garden of Eden which resulted in the expulsion of human beings from the garden, should then become a symbol of healing and salvation.

John relates the death of Jesus on the cross back to that ancient story from the time when the Ancient Israelites were a nomadic tribe wandering in the wilderness. He says, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."

Just as the symbol of something bad and terrifying and bringing death - the serpent - was lifted up and became a symbol of healing and life, so the symbol of something bad and terrifying and the bringing death - the cross - has been lifted up and becomes the ultimate symbol of healing and life.

As St Paul knew, the cross was a stumbling block to both Jews and gentiles. A stumbling block to Jews because the Jewish scriptures clearly stated that anyone who died "on a tree" died under God's curse (Deuteronomy 21:23). In Jerusalem there is a "Scripture Garden" which has been constructed to demonstrate some of the features of life in first century Palestine and earlier. There's an ancient olive press, and the sort of tent Abraham probably used, and the type of well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman. There's also the type of cross which was used by the Romans for crucifixions, of which there were many thousands as it was the punishment of choice to put down any civil or criminal disobedience. The cross is not a tall structure made of polished wood so beloved of artists, for the Romans wouldn't have used such precious materials and such precious labour to construct an implement of punishment for common criminals. Instead, they used olive trees which are very common in Palestine, and nailed a rough-hewn crossbar to the tree. Thus those who were crucified were only a short distance from the ground and were literally hanging on a tree. In Jewish eyes, there was no question that they died under God's curse.

For gentiles too the cross was hated and feared as the most vicious and inhumane form of punishment. It must have been well nigh impossible to see how someone who died on a cross could possibly be the Saviour of mankind, and is a tribute to Paul's theological insights that the cross became accepted as something special. Even so, the Christian symbol in the early Church wasn't the cross, but was a fish, symbolising the Greek letters ICTHYUS, the initial letters of the words, "Jesus Christ, Son of God".

We are now so far removed form the days of crucifixions that we've become somewhat sanitised to the image of the cross. But we're less sanitised to other symbols of state executions, such as the hangman's noose or the electric chair, so we can perhaps begin to imagine what it would be like to follow someone who was hung by the state for crimes committed or who was sent to the chair for crimes against humanity. And we can perhaps begin to imagine what it would feel like to wear a hangman's noose or an electric chair on a slender gold chain around our necks, as an ornament.

What exactly did Jesus do on the cross? Well, he accepted the worst form of pain and shame known to humanity. None of us will suffer worse than that, so he experienced our worst possible sufferings. He accepted that terrible punishment without complaint, even though he was not only innocent of any wrong doing, but purer and better than any other human being before or since. And through all this, he never stopped loving human beings and he never stopped believing in and trusting God. He offered love and forgiveness to those who actually nailed him to the cross. He offered love and forgiveness to those who engineered his death. He offered love and forgiveness to those who deserted him. He offered love and forgiveness to those who turned up to enjoy the spectacle of a public crucifixion. And he did all this virtually alone, for only his mother, some of the women and John remained with him throughout his death, and he felt that even God had deserted him.

No wonder the cross has become such a powerful symbol of healing and love and life. It tells us that we too will rise through bad times, times when we feel deserted and alone, or in devastating pain, or facing a cruel death. It tells us that God knows what we're experiencing during those times, for God himself has already experienced it. It tells us that it is possible to hang on to love and forgiveness and faith, even through the worst of times. It tells us that we too will experience resurrection, both during this life after the bad times, and in our new life after death. It tells us that we need not fear God's judgment after we die, for the judgment took place by human beings at the crucifixion, and any penalty was paid on our behalf by Jesus. But above all, it's a symbol of God's huge love for us, that God himself experienced all this in order that we might have life with a capital L.

Let us give thanks for the cross of Christ, on Holy Cross Day.

Reverend Canon Stuart Ansell


Holy Cross Day

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