Sunday Scriptures

The Paradox of the Cross

by Father Robert M. Powers

Perhaps it is because I am not very learned in science that the idea of a vaccine for me is intriguing. And also somewhat frightening.

I remember as a very young child watching a movie on television, probably shot in the 1930s, about Edward Jenner, the English surgeon who in 1796 advanced the use of the cowpox vaccine as an immunization against smallpox. Jenner heard that local milkmaids who experienced minor infections of cowpox on their hands never succumbed to small pox when others in town were infected and quickly died. He took some pus from the cowpox vesicles from the hand of a milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, and inoculated the fluid into the arm of an 8-year-old pauper, James Phipps.

In this movie, the mother of James Phipps cries out as Jenner is inoculating her son, “You’re going to kill him! He’s going to die!”

Jenner’s human experimentation on James Phipps was certainly repugnant according to today’s principles of medical ethics. But his subsequent inoculations of the child with smallpox, more than 20 in all, proved the effectiveness of the cowpox vaccination against the deadly disease. James Phipps never contracted smallpox. The lifesaving solution to exposure to a virus was, oddly enough, exposure to another virus.

Today’s reading from Exodus tells of a strange remedy for the fatal snake bites that God inflicted upon the disobedient people of Israel. God tells Moses to mount a saraph serpent on a pole and to tell the repentant Israelites to gaze upon it. All who looked upon this source of death were healed of the saraph’s deadly venom. A devastating source of death became a source of healing and life.

Jesus saw in the Exodus passage the prefiguring of His death on the cross. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” He tells Nicodemus, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”

Worst Possible Scenario

The horror and disgrace of the cross – the worst possible scenario for death – was necessary in order that the glory of eternal life be gained for us.

This is why the crucifix, not just the cross but the cross with the corpus, is such an essential image for us to gaze upon in our homes, in church and elsewhere. The crucifix is ultimately an image of Jesus’ Resurrection and glory that resulted from the cross and a reminder of how inseparably bound are those two dimensions of the pascal mystery.

I remember 10 years ago when Mel Gibson’s very fine film “The Passion of the Christ” was released. I was shocked by a number of practicing Catholics I know who declined to see the film. They felt it was “too violent,” as though its realistic depiction of the suffering and death of Jesus put the Passion in the same category as the gratuitous violence of an action film. Possibly the cross had become too distant an entity in their lives.

We ought not to distance ourselves from the image of the crucified Jesus.

Two weeks ago at Mass, we heard Peter’s anxious reaction to Jesus’ announcement that He must die in order to rise again. “God forbid, Lord,” Peter cried, “No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

Jesus rebukes Peter, reminding him that His future death is in accord with the wisdom of God, far deeper and more truthful than human wisdom.

In that same Gospel, Jesus expresses the central paradox of discipleship: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wishes to save His life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

It is noteworthy that these words appear in all four Gospels. Acceptance of the cross, a symbol of death, produces eternal life. It is an even stranger paradox than the virus that protects one from deadly infection by another virus, or the image of the saraph serpent that brings healing to those who gaze upon it.

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross reminds us to embrace the wisdom of this paradox.[hr]

Readings for the Feast of The Exaltation of The Cross:

Numbers 21: 4b-9

Psalm 78: 1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38

Philippians 2: 6-11

John 3: 13-17[hr]

Father Robert M. Powers is the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, Long Island City, and the chaplain at LaGuardia Community College.

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