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Pub Talk: “When Beauty Hides no Longer: Exploring Grace, the Cross and the Glory of it all”

This is the podcast of a pub  talk I gave at “Truth on Tap”, in the Broken Bay Diocese earlier in the year.  You can listen to it at the XT3 website here:   You can also download the podcast from the XT3 site.

The basic thrust of the talk is this: that faith is the result of an encounter with Christ the Beautiful One. Christians are fundamentally lovers of Beauty. It examines the difference between a theoretical or purely conceptual encounter with Christ, and the actual encounter with Christ. Christ is beautiful, even and especially as the Crucified. These topics are explored through the story of one young man’s encounter with Christ.

The talk draws upon the theological project of  Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The Triumph of the Cross

Yesterday I received a royalty cheque from St Pauls, the publishers of In the Light of the Cross.  With the cheque came the notification that they have sold the final copies of the book.  So there may be the odd copy in bookstores around the country, and I have a small supply left, but otherwise the print run is now exhausted.  As the book is closely tied to World Youth Day 08, I’m not envisaging that there will be a second printing.

Fr Tom Rosica, the CEO of WYD Toronto in 2002, once said to me that we need to keep telling the stories of our respective World Youth Days to remind people of the days of grace that we experienced.  So with Fr Tom’s encouragement, I hope you find the reflection below on the Triumph of the Cross (today’s Feast) illuminating and inspiring.

Each year on September 14, the Church celebrates the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. We were in Townsville for the actual feast in 2007, but it could sometimes seem like every day was the Triumph of the Cross on the Journey of the Cross and Icon because people frequently chose to celebrate the Mass of the Triumph of the Cross when the WYD Cross came to town.

The First Reading for this feast is strange. It is taken from the book of Numbers and tells the story of the people of Israel in the wilderness. They lose ‘patience’ with God and Moses, complaining that the manna that God had provided was not sufficient. Fiery serpents then ravage the Israelite camp, killing many. At the people’s urging, Moses then intercedes with God to save the people. God tells Moses to make a serpent and raise it on a standard. Moses did as God asked and made a serpent out of bronze and anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent and lived (cf. Num 21:4-9). It seems an odd choice for the First Reading.

One rationale for the choice of this reading is that the Gospel for the feast includes a reference to Moses’ lifting up the serpent in the desert. In the Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that: ‘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’ (John 3:14-15). The Gospel continues with the famous verse: ‘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’ (John 3:16).

It might seem then that the reference to Moses in the Gospel and the odd choice of First Reading are just a prelude to this crucial verse. The truth however is stranger and more interesting than that. A helpful key to understanding the relevance and significance of these passages is to remember that the feast being celebrated when we hear these readings is the Triumph of the Cross. In other words, these passages tell us something about the Cross.

Let’s take the First Reading for a moment and reflect on what is happening in this strange tale. When Moses fashions the bronze serpent, he is making an image of the very thing that has been killing the Israelites. The serpents are the agents of death, killing people by their venom, but, at God’s instigation, an image of the serpent – the creature that is killing the people – becomes the instrument that saves them from death. The reason for Jesus’ use of the image in the Gospel is now probably obvious, as he is saying to Nicodemus – and to us – that when he (Jesus) is raised up as the bronze serpent was raised up on a standard, people will be saved from death. The standard that Jesus is hoisted upon is, of course, the Cross. The worst instrument of torture and death known to the ancient world becomes the very instrument that God uses to bring about ‘eternal life’ or salvation.

This is the ‘triumph’ of the Cross – that the means of execution has become the balm of healing. The ‘great reversal’ of the Cross’s meaning that we see here has become a favourite theme of authors down the centuries who have sought to shed light upon the power of the Cross. To take just one example from the tradition, Theodore of Studios, who lived in the eighth and ninth centuries, wrote:

How splendid the cross of Christ!

It brings life, not death; light not darkness;

paradise, not its loss.

It is the wood on which the Lord,

like a great warrior,

was wounded in hands and feet and side,

but healed thereby our wounds.

A tree had destroyed us;

a tree now brought us life.

The strongest symbol of this reversal is in the last sentence, where the Cross is described as the tree of life. The Cross is the tree which undid the damage caused by the fruit of the tree that our first parents ate in disobedience to God. This image speaks of the new life that has flowered from the Cross of Christ. I was reminded of this image throughout the journey whenever flowers were placed on or around the WYD Cross.

(The passage from Theodore of Studios was printed in the booklet for Morning Prayer with the Cross and Icon at the Broome campus of the University of Notre Dame. Sr Jill Shirvington had prepared the text.)

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