Friday, September 14, 2012
THE CROSS AND NINE-ELEVEN
You may remember that September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday, as it was this year; and so the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross fell on the following Friday, as it did this year. This post is a reflection on what happened to me on the following Sunday, September 16, 2001. It is an excerpt from my book Walking in Valleys of Darkness: A Benedictine Journey through Troubled Times.
I was filling in that Sunday morning for the vacationing pastor of Queen of Angels’ Church, an African-American parish not far from the monastery. The ten o’clock mass was filled as usual with spirit and energy thanks to the exuberant singing of the gospel choir and the rich, lively chords that the organist was coaxing from the old pipe organ.
I had just finished proclaiming the gospel, and now I walked to the center of the sanctuary and knelt on the floor, facing the altar, with my back to the people. The congregation and choir, still standing, began singing their customary “prayer over the preacher,” asking the Holy Spirit to help me to give a powerful sermon. Kneeling there realized that I really needed their prayers in a special way that day, Sunday, September 16, 2001. Just a few days before, about 14 miles from that spot, the two World Trade towers had collapsed and disappeared in clouds of smoke like a vision of hell itself. The horrendous images of the collapsing infernos were still being replayed constantly on television – and in everyone’s mind. Millions of people around the country and around the world were still stunned by the enormity and horror of the tragedy.
As I knelt there the chorus of the traditional hymn filled the church: “Sweet Holy Spirit, sweet heav’nly dove, stay right here with us, filling us with your love…” I sensed that the people at mass that morning were hoping for a word or two of encouragement to help them deal with last Tuesday’s immense, unthinkable catastrophe. I realized that this was not going to be an easy time to preach, so I was grateful for their prayers, and added a few of my own. When the hymn ended I stood up and walked slowly back to the pulpit, hoping that I might find a word of hope to offer the church. As it turned out, I did indeed find a word -- quite literally.
I began by reminding everyone that two days ago the church had celebrated the solemn feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In my own meditation on the readings for that feast, I told the listening congregation, I drawn a lot of comfort from the passage “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (John 12:32-34). In fact, since then I had been meditating on one particular word in that sentence. And so I started to share as best I could some thoughts about the verb hupsoō, “to lift up.” Let me tell you a little about this extraordinarily interesting word. It's pronounced "hoop-so’-oh", and means “to lift up, exalt, elevate to a place of honor;” it's from the preposition huper, “above."
Most of the time in the New Testament it was used figuratively for “lifting” someone to a position of honor or power: “Whoever exalts [hupsoō] himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted [hupsoō]” (Matt. 23:12). But John used it in its literal sense when referring to a scene from the book of Numbers in which Moses fashioned a bronze serpent so that the Israelites who were being punished by being bitten by "fiery serpents" could gaze on the bronze figure and be healed (Num. 21:4-9). This literal use of “to lift up” in the Old Testament provided John with exactly the image he needed to express Christ’s being physically “lifted up” on the cross: he wrote “And just as Moses lifted up [hupsoō] the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [hupsoō] so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
One of the doors at the rear of the church opened quietly and three people came in and slipped into a back pew.
With his love for double meanings, John would continue this image of “lifting up” later on, in Jesus’ ambiguous promise, “And when I am lifted up [hupsoō] from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (John 12:32-34). Did this “being lifted up” refer to Christ’s being literally lifted up onto the cross, or to his finally being lifted up in glory to the right hand of God in heaven? Or did it refer to both at the same time? John’s deliberate ambiguity pointed up the mysterious nature of the crucifixion and of all human suffering. But he also gave us a central insight about human suffering when he wrote that by being lifted up on the cross Christ “draws all to himself” (Jn 12:32-33): Calvary was just the first step in a process. After being “lifted up” onto the cross Jesus would then be “lifted up” out of death by his Father and finally raised on high to sit at the right hand of the Father. And – here is the crucial point -- we too are to be lifted up along with him as he draws us all to himself.
As I scanned the faces in the pews, I was encouraged by the number of interested expressions. I could sense that they were listening and, I hoped, starting to get the point of my sermon: the link between our own suffering and Christ’s triumphing over his suffering and death on the cross.
John, by playing on the double meaning of “lifted up,” deftly links our human suffering with the mystery of Calvary, and then, with the cross as the starting point, describes a single upward surge in which all of creation – including our darkest valleys of sin and suffering – is embraced by Christ and lifted heavenward by him and with him in the vast, infinite and inexorable power of divine unconditional love.
Thus, Christ’s cross becomes the very means by which all of us, too, are lifted to salvation. Suffering is a mysterious but somehow an integral part of the ceaseless upward movement of divine love.
I then shared with the congregation a powerful image that had come to me early that very morning as I was praying over what to say in that sermon. My vision began with the now too-familiar image of the twin towers collapsing amid billows of dust and smoke, but it didn’t end there: when the collapsing buildings had crashed into the earth there was a momentary pause, and the whole world fell silent, as if in shock. Then slowly the towers began to be lifted back up, and then all of Manhattan started to be drawn upward after them in a single mighty surge. Next the entire New York metropolitan area, including Newark and Queen of Angels church was swept upward, then the whole country, until finally the whole world with all its misery and pain, all of its sin and suffering – began to be lifted heavenward as well, caught up in the relentless, irresistible power of Christ’s infinite, unconditional and universal love. He was keeping his promise: “When I am lifted up [hupsoō] from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
“Yes!” said a voice in the congregation. “All right!” agreed a member of the choir.
Heartened by their responses, I continued, telling how this vision had filled me with confidence and peace, and that I hoped that it might do the same for someone in the church that morning.
We are not able, I went on, to understand right now just how it is that the evil and suffering of our lives or the terror and the tragedy of the past week all fit into the picture, and so we pray that we may be blessed with the eyes of faith when we look upon our troubled times – just as when we look upon a crucifix. With those eyes and with the help of John’s beautiful image we may be able to see that we and our dark valleys, and indeed the whole world and its struggles, are continuously being “lifted up” by Christ in that single inevitable heavenward motion. A motion that will finally be completed on that day when all creation has been transformed, and every tear wiped away, and when every evil has been overcome and every pain forgotten amid the eternal joys of heaven.
“Amen!” came a comment. “Thank you Jesus!” someone else prayed.
As I left the pulpit, my pulse still racing with the emotion of preaching, I realized just how much I had needed to hear that sermon myself. I whispered a word of thanks to the Lord as I took my seat in the celebrant’s chair.