Three times in the Gospel of John, Jesus said he would be lifted up (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32). He was talking of his death. And that Friday in Jerusalem 2000 years ago he was. And today in our liturgy he is again lifted up. Today the Cross is lifted up over us, over all believers, over the whole world. And why is the crucified Christ lifted up? I offer three reasons: to be seen by us, to shelter us, and to flower in us.
Think of how many standards, banners, emblems, symbols, flags have been lifted up over us humans throughout history. Think of the hammer and sickle, the swastika, the rising sun, the imperial eagles – all promising shelter and security, unity and victory. And how often they are simply lies and abuse of power! How often they just march us to death! But the Son of man is lifted up so “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:15). And for the Gospel of John, believing means seeing.
It’s isn’t easy to look at the Cross. It shows a horrible thing: an excruciating death, the killing of an innocent man. The early Christians were ridiculed for preaching a crucified God. In AD 79, the Italian city of Pompeii was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. When centuries later the ruins were excavated, there drawn on a wall was an anti-Christian cartoon: a crucified donkey. Then again, at times, Christians themselves have used the Cross to legitimate crude aggression and oppression. It isn’t always easy to look at the Cross. St Paul speaks of it as a scandal, a stumbling-block, as craziness.
‘Behold the wood of the Cross’, though, says the Liturgy. Don’t just look, but ‘behold’, see with the eyes of faith, with inner eyes opened by the Holy Spirit. It’s a matter, let’s say, of seeing salvation.
For the year 2000, Neil MacGregor, then the director of the National Gallery in London, decided to put on an exhibition called precisely that: Seeing Salvation. It featured paintings of Christ, many of them naturally crucifixions. He was told by the chattering classes and intelligentsia that it was a waste of time, if not offensive. None of the Gallery’s potential commercial sponsors would touch it. In the end it proved by far the most popular exhibition in Britain with 5000 visitors a day and the 4th most popular in the world.
There’s a story about three Jewish boys in France. I have to say clearly, it’s not an anti-Jewish story, but there is a point in the boys being Jews. As a prank, they decided to go to confession, and to make up extravagant, lurid sins. So the first one went in and came out, laughing at what a fool he had made of the priest. The same with the second. In went the third. The priest now realized what was happening. The boy told his fantastic tales. So the priest said, ‘For your penance go and stand beneath the crucifix in the church, look steadily at Christ’s face and say three times: ‘You did all this for me and I don’t give a damn.’’ The boy was surprised. He went. He looked at the figure. And he said the words twice. He couldn’t bring himself to say them a third time. He left the church changed. Years later, he was the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris.
Christ is lifted up to be seen.
Christ is lifted up to shelter us. ‘I will draw all people to myself.’ Christ is lifted up today and we will go to him and kiss the Cross and put ourselves under the shelter of its grace. Think of the millions doing that today! I think of a man I once saw at the sanctuary of Chimayo in New Mexico, distressed, on his knees before the image of Christ on the Cross, arms outstretched, shouting for mercy. We think of the three Marys beside the Cross: Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. We think of the beloved disciple. We think of the “many women” who had come from Galilee whom St Mark mentions. Jesus’ “acquaintances” St Luke speaks of. The centurion who says, ‘Truly, this man was Son of God.’ These people were the beginning of the Church: the first of a crowd that will grow and grow. And over us the Cross is like a benign eagle, overshadowing us with its wings. The Cross stretches out its arms to gather us. It embraces east and west, north and south, Jew and Gentile, male and female. The Cross is like a great tree bending over us. On the Cross there is ultimate goodness hidden under the evil of others. Strength underneath weakness. Grace beneath apparent disgrace. Gathering despite the marginalization. Hospitality overcoming hostility. Space beyond the constriction. Life defeating death. And on the cross, like a throne, reigns the King, not just of the Jews but of the whole world. A suffering king doing good in return for evil, dispensing bounty, favours, good things, giving shelter: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ Bequeathing a seamless tunic, symbol of a new unbroken unity, of the Church gathered together. Saying, ‘woman, behold your son’ and, to the disciple, ‘behold, your mother’: a new family created. Gift upon gift. ‘He bowed his head and gave up his spirit’: the Holy Spirit, the divine Breath. Blood and water from the broken side: blood / forgiveness; water / life; water / baptism; blood / the Eucharist. Grace upon grace. The power of Satan broken, evil exhausted, shelter and protection. So, let’s go to the Cross, let’s kiss the Cross, let’s put ourselves under its wings, let’s take the fruit from its branches.
Lastly, Christ, and his Cross, is lifted up to flower in us. To be planted in our hearts and grow its flowers and fruits in our bodies and lives. On Good Friday, something new was born in the world. All the negativities are still here, but now they’re stamped with an expiry date. Now there is something else and greater among them. Now there are flowers in the wilderness. There is a springtime. It was illustrated just the other day, when the French Gendarme, Arnaud Beltrame, took the place of a woman hostage in the French supermarket siege by an Islamist terrorist, and paid the price of his life. Such sacrifices, the French President said, ‘honour and elevate us’, lift us up. Indeed they do. They lift up the Cross too. They flower from the Cross. Arnaud Beltrame was a practising Catholic, converted in 2008. He had been preparing for the last two years, under the guidance of Fr Jean-Baptiste, for his sacramental marriage to Marielle. What a loss for her, but what pride she can carry in her heart forever for having loved such a man, who did such a Christ-like thing! She and the priest were with him when he died in hospital in Carcassonne. And another woman lives too. And we have all been lifted up.
May the Cross flower in us as well!
Let St John have the last word: ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another’ (1 Jn 4:10-11).
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 30 March 2018)