24 OT – 14 September 2014 – The Cross of Possibilities
While traveling in Ecuador some years ago I visited a small church in the village of Otavalo. Inside I noticed a woman bringing her little son to a large tall cross propped up against the back wall. It had no image of Jesus on it but it was decorated with vibrant colors. The mother was showing her son how to venerate that cross with a kiss and a hug. I was moved by the tenderness as they touched the cross. Surely I thought, their lives are filled with many unrewarding challenges. Maybe she was introducing her son to a symbol of hope and sustenance.
Today we join other Christians to celebrate the exaltation of the cross.  As I think of today’s readings about serpents, sins and salvation and as I try to imagine what went through Nicodemus’ mind as he encountered Jesus, that image of the mother and child sticks with me.
What does the cross mean for us today? What is conveyed on all those signs waved at sporting events proclaiming John’s gospel 3:16 – God sent God’s only Son to save us from our sins? Is it a judicial expression associating repentance and forgiveness with acts of penance and suffering? Is it an expression of retaliation? Could it be an expression of restorative justice?
No doubt looking at an image of a suffering, bloodied Jesus executed on a cross can fill our minds and hearts with feelings of remorse and gratitude. However, Richard Rohr in writing about the mystery of the cross reminds us that Jesus’ death as an act of atonement or a heroic sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin was not the normal interpretation held by Christians in early centuries. 
For many generations they were scandalize by the very thought that Jesus suffered such violence. In fact, early crosses had no images of a suffering Jesus on them.
This way of thinking, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Mat 5:38), suggests that to counter evil and hardship something has be sacrificed, that blood has to be shed, that someone has to be killed. According to Fr. Rohr this attitude is what “creates religions of exclusion and violence.” This is not what a community that practices radical hospitality stands for.
Still we are challenged. Many biblical texts and devotions, prayers and lyrics in our songs continue to employ retaliatory images like Israelites killing opponents in their way or Jesus as the Lamb of God dying to take away the sins of the world.
Jesus was the real life icon of an invisible compassionate God. He exposed injustice, upset the status quo and suffered a humiliating form of capital punishment. Rather than looking at this history as some form of violent action carried out on our behalf we can also see it as an act of love. It is a gift to be accepted and shared with others. The cross represents both the evil in the world and the possibilities for doing good by people who identify with that cross.
We are invited to embrace the cross that symbolizes the injustices in the world — lack of education, inadequate health care, a broken immigration system, and sex trafficking — one might say, everything the Nuns on the Bus are trying to remedy. By embracing the cross we stand ready to bring hope in the world.
Moses lifted up a serpent on a pole to cure people from wounds inflicted by venomous snakes. Early Christian writers compared that image with Jesus nailed to a cross beam and dropped on a pole to save people from damnation. The cross is a sign of hope in the face of despair and victory against all odds. I believe that is what that Ecuadorian mother was teaching her son.
The cross and image of Jesus in our renovated place of worship will no longer be mounted on a distant wall out of reach. Rather, it will be placed in our midst reminding us of our duty to pick up where Jesus left off; to lock arms with others to advance causes of peace and justice.
In our enhanced place of worship we are placing a new eight foot high cross, and the body of Jesus we have looked at for years, within our reach and the reach of our children. It will beckon us to touch and embrace it in thanks for the possibilities we enjoy in life and in covenant with one another to work against injustices.
At times our cross will not have a suffering body of Jesus on it. Instead it might be decorated with ribbons and flowers to remind us that the death of Jesus, a first step to restore creation to its original goodness, is a gift, an act of hope and love, that you and I are called to share.
1 The date for this feast is based on the day after the dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre September 13, 325 when the cross was brought out of the Basilica to be venerated. According to legend St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, found what is believed to be the cross that Jesus died on.
2 Rohr, Richard. “The Mystery of the Cross” in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. Chapter 9