I would do anything...” That’s a phrase we hear often. It may even play an important role in our own lives. “I would do anything to have your good looks”—and some people go to great lengths to try to change their appearance.
“I would do anything for your love”—and many people actually compromise themselves in order to gain affection. “I would do anything for you.” Unlike the previous two examples, this expression often flows from unselfish love. True friends and lovers, parents and children are often willing to do anything for those they love. Such self-emptying love is a reflection of the unselfish love that God has toward each one of us.
This feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, reminds us of the somber but hopeful rites of Good Friday. At that time we concentrated on the immense suffering that Jesus endured for us. Today, as we commemorate the finding of relics of the true cross by Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, we focus on the power of the cross in our lives.
Although Jesus is not quoted in the reading from Paul, behind Paul’s words we can clearly hear Jesus say, “I would do anything for you.” Paul insists that this is exactly what Jesus did. He not only emptied himself of life, but he emptied himself of any divine privilege that might have preserved him from torturous suffering and shameful death. Paul further states that it was not so much because Jesus suffered and died that God exalted him, but because he was willing to empty himself, to do anything for us. “Because of this, God greatly exalted him.”
We should not be surprised at Jesus’ willingness to do anything for us. That seems to be the nature of our God. Creation itself is the child born of God’s desire to share, to give. And each one of us is a unique expression of that unselfish love. Besides the fundamental gift of life and the human ability self-consciously to reflect on life, we have each been generously blessed in more ways than we can imagine, much less count. All of these gifts cry out the love of God: “I would do anything for you.”
The cross has become the ultimate symbol of God’s willingness to do anything for us. Today’s other readings call our attention to the healing and life-giving powers of the cross. The serpent fashioned by Moses and lifted up on the pole became the source of healing for anyone who looked upon it. These were not sinless people. The affliction from which they were healed was a punishment for their murmuring against God. God turned things upside down; the serpent that originally plagued them is now the symbol of their healing. We can see that it was out of love that God gave them another chance at life.
In the Gospel, Jesus refers to this traditional story in his instruction to Nicodemus. Jesus too will be lifted up, and anyone who looks upon him (believes in him) will have eternal life. As before, we see that God reverses the way we understand. The cross, which was a sign of shame and misery, becomes a symbol of glory and exaltation. Once again we see that God is willing to give people another chance at life. And why? Because “God so loved the world.”
What does this mean for us? How might we revere the cross without making it merely a relic to be brought out for devotional veneration on stated feast days? Perhaps it would be best to focus not simply on the cross itself but on what it symbolizes—namely, God’s desire to do anything for us and Jesus’ willingness to empty himself for us. Once again it is the reading from Paul that provides us with the real challenge. He presents this picture of Jesus to the Christians in Philippi not simply for their edification, but for their imitation. With them, we are summoned to pattern our lives after Jesus, who emptied himself for the sake of others.
Our tradition tells us that we have been saved by the cross. Do our lives show this? Are we any better than the people in the wilderness who murmured against God when they found themselves in a situation not to their liking? Like those smitten by serpents, are we suffering from the poison with which our world is infected? Or have we turned to God for healing? And have we become the avenue of healing for others?
The readings for this feast focus on healing and new life, which were purchased at the price of great suffering. Our societies, our families and our church certainly need both healing and new life. And they are available to us if we look to Jesus who, having been lifted up, is there for us as the supreme model. A model of what? A model of self-emptying love. That is the challenge placed before us today.