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Breath of the Spirit

Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.

Breath of the Spirit is our electronic spiritual and liturgical resource for our members and potential members. Nothing can replace your chapter or other faith community but we hope you will find further support here for integrating your spirituality with your sexuality and all the strands of your life.

The essential question for those who carry on Jesus’ ministry is how are we to carry on his dying and rising? Only the most radical would encourage someone to actually be physically crucified.

SEPTEMBER 14, 2014: EXALTATION OF THE CROSS

Readings:

Numbers 21:4b-9
Philippians 2:6-11
John 3:13-17

Early Christians wouldn’t have understood our practice of displaying crucifixes depicting a suffering Jesus. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe Jesus suffered and died for us. But, when they wanted to create a symbol which conveyed the meaning of that unique event, putting a suffering Jesus on a cross didn’t really do it. During the first four or five centuries of Christianity, a “crux gemmata,” not a suffering Jesus cross, was the norm; they couldn’t come up with a better way to express their belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection. One need only Google the 5th and 6th century churches of Ravenna Italy to find multiple examples of this kind of crucifix.

In its most common form, a crux gemmata has the shape of the traditional cross, but instead of a suffering Jesus, the cross is covered with jewels. The cross is an obvious symbol of Jesus’ suffering and death; the jewels convey our faith in his resurrection. The perfect Christian symbol, a crux gemmata is an outward sign of our belief that by dying with Jesus, we rise with Jesus. Years ago, when I showed some grade school students an example of a crux gemmata, a little girl raised her hand and spontaneously blurted out, “That’s a happy cross!” It’s against this background that we must hear today’s three readings.

The irony of Yahweh’s command to Moses in today’s first reading to “make a seraph and mount it on a pole,” and have the stricken people “look at it,” revolves around the fact that such seraph snakes are actually killing the Chosen People. Contrary to popular wisdom, in this situation focusing on the instrument of death brings life, not death.

The first followers of Jesus could certainly testify to this reality. The very thing which brought death to Jesus also brought him life. John’s Jesus, in instructing Nicodemus on what it means to be “reborn,” refers back to this Numbers pericope. And he employs one of his double and triple meaning phrases – “lifted up” - to convey his meaning. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Lifted up can easily have three meanings: simply to be raised up above others, to be exalted above others, or in an ancient middle-East context, a colloquial way of referring to crucifixion: he or she was lifted up on a cross. Which meaning does John expect us to take away? All of them! When Jesus is lifted up on Golgotha on Good Friday, he’s literally put above others, and action which will cause his death. But it’s also an action which brings about his exalted new life, the life he now shares with all his imitators.

The essential question for those who carry on Jesus’ ministry is how are we to carry on his dying and rising? Only the most radical would encourage someone to actually be physically crucified.

As frequently happens, Paul supplies the answer. But he reverses John’s lifted up image. For the Apostle, Jesus’ road to divinity revolved around “going down,” not going up. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” He became one with those whom people in his day and age regarded as expendable. A real death even in our own day and age.

Women can testify how difficult it is to identify with men; men with women. Straights can find it rough to put themselves in the place of gays: gays have the same problem putting themselves in the place of straights. In the midst of this, it’s essential to know that one way Jesus found life was to become one with all of us.

Maybe it would help if we lobbied for more crux gemmatas in our churches.

 

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