Homily for September 14

Homily for the Exaltation
of the Holy Cross

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

The scene in the first lesson today reminds me of those old westerns where the medicine man would arrive in town, set up shop on his buggy, and peddle a remedy for snake bites!

What Moses does here may seem to be primitive superstition or magic but there’s an abiding wisdom in this story, one we’re familiar with – but without the bronze serpent. The wisdom is this: the first step towards healing is naming one’s demons. That’s what Moses did for the people, at the Lord’s instruction. He lifted up an image of the demon snake, the consequence of the people’s grumbling dissatisfaction with the manna, their God-send in the desert. And in facing the image of the demon snake, a vivid reminder of the sin, the people found healing.

It’s obvious why such a scripture passage would be chosen for this feast and paired with the gospel which quotes it. Two of the most important words in today’s gospel are these: “Just as…” Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so was Jesus lifted up on the cross.

Of course, Jesus is not our demon – he’s our redeemer! But the lifting up of Christ on the cross allows us to confront our own failings, our grumbling dissatisfaction's, our sin. As the snakes and their lethal bites were the consequence of the Israelite’s sin, so is the suffering and death of the crucified One the consequence of our sins. Christ, dying, is the vivid image of the pain, the hurt, the death our sins visit on us and on others when we are not faithful to the law of love, the law of God who so loved the world that he gave us his only Son.

There are times when we lift our gaze on the crucified Jesus to remind ourselves both of our need for the Lord’s mercy and the depths of the mercy he offers us. And there are times, like today, when we lift up the cross as the sign of victory. Christ’s victory over death is the healing he offers us: forgiveness of our sins and the promise of life forever.

What demons do you and I need to face this morning? What sins of ours need confronting?
What demons do our world, our church and our culture need to face and confront so that in naming them, in confessing them, we might open ourselves to receive God’s healing?

Just as the Israelites began to take for granted the gift of manna, falling from the heavens like bread, so might we sometimes begin to take for granted the image, the power, the healing of the cross of Christ.

Today the scriptures and our prayer invite us to “lift high the cross” that it’s healing light might illumine our need for the mercy it offers and give us the strength and courage we need to name and face our demons.

At this table, prepared in the shadow of the cross, we share in the meal Christ prepared for us first by offering his body and blood on the cross, his innocent life for the forgiveness of our sins.

May the sacrifice of his body and blood, broken and poured out for us in the eucharist, remind us of the sacrifice he offered for us and in his name.

May the cross of Christ, lifted in glory, be our hope, our life and our peace.

(I used our bronze processional cross and a "saraph serpent" as visuals at the beginning of my homily, affixing the serpent to the cross as I spoke of Moses' actions and then turning it around and showing it to the whole assembly illustrating that "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so was Jesus lifted up on the Cross..." Click on the images for larger versions.)



  1. Just curious...how did your parishioners react to the snake "crawling" on the cross? It was no doubt an attention getter. I actually thought of suggesting to my pastor that perhaps he could do the same. I never did because I thought folks would be too shocked and others would have an Indiana Jones reaction..."I hate snakes!!" It was all fine though...Father had us focus on the beautiful cross above the altar.

  2. Anne: a good question! Over the years I've used a number of visuals in my preaching so there's some context for my having done so yesterday.

    Although I produced the snake from a woven basket, I don't think anyone (not even the kids!) believed it was real. A few folks did mention after Mass that they don't even like fake snakes. Some mentioned that they didn't even like looking at the picture of the snake on my post here earlier in the week!

    Using the prop did help connect the image in Numbers with Jesus' words in John.

    At the end of Mass I announced that we'd leave the processional cross in place at the altar so that those who wanted a closer look could have one. Lot's of children and their parents - and others - came forward after the closing song.

    We have a very large crucifix over our sanctuary and in the course of my homily I directed the assembly's attention to it since that's the one they see during the whole liturgy every week.

    As I said to folks after Mass, "If that had been a real snake, you wouldn't have found me within 10 yards of it!"

  3. Concord Pastor,
    Your twist of the wrist really made this snake come alive. I am an adult and for a few seconds I thought it was real! This was an unforgettable image that will serve, for me at least, as a vivid reminder of the message of the Gospel. I think it was most effective.

  4. Thanks! Truth be told, I actually PRACTICED that twist of the wrist to make the "saraph" move!

  5. I was curious about how you felt behind the altar blessing the eucharist while looking at a snake?

  6. I wasn't very much distracted by the crucifix with the snake during the Eucharistic Prayer. When I was aware of its presence, I was more conscious of the crucifix because I've been reading that in some places (incuding St. Peter's in Rome) there's a move to have a crucifix and six candles on the altar facing the priest.

    During the Eucharistic Prayer my attention is generally on the elements, on the people, on the book and, in my church, on stained glass window of the risen Christ directly opposite the altar.


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