Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Lent – “The Sign of the Cross”

Deacon Patricia M. O’Connell

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

We are more than half-way through Lent. Over the course of the last three Sundays, we have been viewing Lent through a baptismal lens, with a focus on the promises of God to the people of God.

  • Following the Great Flood, God promised Noah that water would never again be used to destroy the earth.
  • God made a covenant with Abram to make him the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” by blessing Abram and Sarai with a child, though they were well beyond their time to bear a child. In making his covenant with them, God gave them the new names of Abraham and Sarah.
  • On the Third Sunday, the worship of God alone was central to the day’s lessons. The commandments which are essential to our baptismal call were laid out by God in Exodus.
  • The theme continues today with a promise that God makes to Moses that those who look on the bronze serpent will live.

In that appointed reading from Numbers, the serpent is lifted up; and in the gospel of John, there is the lifting up of the Son of Man.  Jesus said, “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.”

Deliverance for the people of God comes through the sign of the cross. We receive this sign through our baptism. On the cross, Jesus performed the ultimate service to God and for us, the sacrifice that sealed the covenant between God and God’s people once and for all time. Paul tells the Ephesians that it is by grace that we have been saved. This grace is a gift from God to God’s people. This grace has been given to us in baptism that we may do the good works that God has prepared as our way of life. The cross is that way of life, the way of Jesus–the way of love, the way of humility and servanthood, and eternal life for those who believe.

As Christians, we hold the cross in high esteem.  By definition, a cross is an upright post with a transverse bar that was used by the ancient Romans for execution. A crucifix is a representation of a cross with a figure of Jesus Christ on it. Christian churches have either a cross or a crucifix hanging in close proximity to the altar. There are many different kinds of crosses, each holding various symbolic meanings. There are Greek, Latin, Byzantine and Patriarchal crosses and traditional crucifixes and those that depict a resurrected Jesus, just to name the most popular.

The cross is probably the symbol most associated with our Christian faith. It is also the one symbol, that in and of itself, speaks to the contradiction that is our Christian faith. John’s gospel states, “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.”  We worship a God who allowed his only Son to die on a cross to bring life to all of God’s children.

Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians, which is not one of today’s readings though it is more relevant to today’s gospel, that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Corinthians 1:18)

So, as I reflected on today’s readings, I found myself asking the question, “What is the significance of the cross for me?”

For now, what I believe can be summarized in the terms “service” and “oneness”. The why and wherefore of my belief basically comes from two defining experiences, beginning with one in my childhood.

For such a dominant symbol, I do not recollect a cross or a crucifix being hung in either of the two homes that constituted my childhood. My Roman Catholic family home had a picture of “Jesus, Light of the World” facing the front door. That was the only religious symbol in our home to my memory, though we attended church and went to confession regularly, and the first ten of us spent some time attending catholic school. My other home, that of my devout Methodist aunt, did not have a cross displayed either. She did have a King James Version of the Bible prominently placed on a coffee table in her living room.

And while there were no crosses or crucifixes, there was modeling by my parents and my aunt of what was important about their Christian faith. It was a message of faith-based service within and outside of the church. They demonstrated for me and my siblings the love, humility and servanthood, that we know to be the way of Jesus, the way of the cross.

I do recall participating in the Stations of the Cross devotion every Friday during Lent as a child. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, though that I took a deeper interest in considering the cross of Jesus and its relevance in my life.  At that time, I was introduced to John of the Cross. John of the Cross was a Sixteenth Century Spanish Catholic priest who was a Carmelite friar, a mystic, and a poet. John of the Cross wrote of his own hardships and spiritual experiences that led to the cross becoming of central importance to his life as a Christian disciple.  His beliefs about the power of the cross can be reduced to this one maxim attributed to him: “Do not seek Christ without the cross.” John’s writings reflect a devotion to the voluntary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as a means to draw nearer to God. For John, establishing a union with Christ, that embraced suffering as a transformative act, had the effect of bringing joy out of suffering.

His poem, “Dark Night”,  known more by its subsequent title “Dark Night of the Soul” , illustrates this concept of being guided by God.  It concerns the purpose of the soul’s journey to unite with God, a mystical journey towards an unknown destination. John describes what he refers to as “a dark night in which the only light is that which burns in one’s soul.” I was in a dark spiritual place at the time. Latching on to the cross as a means to turn my suffering into joy was very attractive to me. And over the years, it has been a source from which I draw nearer to God.

The sign of the cross has become for me a balance between action and contemplation in my Christian life—living a life of service and journeying to a deeper unity with God, to a oneness with God, knowing full well that there can be no oneness with Christ without the cross.

The cross is the foundation of the covenant that our God offers to all of us, to be one with God, through the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the cross—the way of love, the way of humility and servanthood, the way to eternal life for those who believe.

For this homily to be complete though, I turn to you to ask the question, “What does the cross mean to you?” and invite you, as you are able, to share your response with all of us gathered here.

Amen.

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