Have you seen the movie "Spartacus"? There have been several versions of the story of this Thracian gladiator and slave (109-71 B.C.) who united his fellow slaves in a revolt against the Roman empire. Historians estimate that the slave army grew to between 90,000 to 125,000 people at its peak. After several successful onslaughts on Rome, Spartacus and his army were defeated. Although his body was never found, some 6,000 slaves were crucified all along the road from Rome to Capua. This cruel punishment was intended to warn others against any further insurrection.
When portrayed on film, this scene evokes gasps of horror as each viewer becomes painfully aware of the level of depravity to which human beings can sink. But for believers, the scene also drives home the depth of the suffering that Jesus willingly endured for us on just such a cross. Because of the redemptive character of Jesus' action on the cross, we celebrate today and exalt our loving Savior.
Pastor and homilist par excellence William J. Bausch suggests that we have, sadly, gotten so used to the symbol of the cross that we are no longer shocked by the cruelty and pain (Once Upon a Gospel, Twenty-Third Pub., 2008). Bausch also suggests that it is time to ponder anew what we take so lightly. This applies especially on a feast like today's.
Imagine those first believers in Jesus whose symbol of salvation was a beaten and bloodied man nailed mercilessly to a crossbar of wood and then hoisted up so all could see and mock and jeer at him. Those outside the community would be scandalized, Bausch writes, "to see that the cross -- the hated, disgraceful, shameful and feared symbol of death -- would be cherished, would be the means of revelation, redemption and inspiration for these people on how they are to live."
As 21st-century believers, we are to be mindful that the cross is more than a piece of jewelry or part of the decor of our homes and churches. The cross witnesses to and demands of us a faithful following of Jesus that will, if our discipleship is authentic, put us at odds with the a culture that negates Gospel values. Each time we look upon and venerate the cross; each time we cross ourselves in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, we profess our willingness to take Jesus seriously, to live the radical Gospel fully, and to die for our beliefs, our values and commitment to God, to Jesus and one another.
To inspire our efforts, Paul sings to us today an early Christian hymn that celebrates Jesus' action, his motivation and his profound and selfless love for sinners. In the song, there is a dramatic movement downward, as Jesus willingly relinquishes his place at God's side to empty himself of himself in order to become, for our sakes, a slave -- and not only a slave. Jesus so emptied himself that he willingly accepted death on a cross. But at this point in the song, the Christology carries us upward, as Jesus is exalted and returned to his rightful place in glory. There can be no other response to this great gift than to bow and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.
In affirmation of the hymn sung by Paul, the Johannine evangelist will proclaim that all Jesus did for us, in being lifted up on the cross, is rooted in the love of God for all of the created universe. This same love preserved the Israelites, who, during their desert trek, often complained against God. Despite their sins, God repeatedly saved them from themselves. In today's first reading, salvation came in the form of a bronze seraph raised up for them to believe.
"God so loved the world," said John, calling forth our faith in this love. Those who believe will have eternal life; that is, those who believe will know God and be known by God. What grace! What joy and fulfillment!
As we celebrate and exalt the cross of Jesus, our faith and our love compel us to be more acutely aware of the body of Christ still being crucified.
There are horrors being perpetrated in our world. More than 100,000 are dead in Syria, and a despot continues his reign of terror. Many care, but no one intervenes. Girls in Nigeria are kidnapped simply because they were going to school. Children in Brazil sleep under bridges and beg on the streets in the favelas; they get high so they can endure the torture of hunger, homelessness, sorrow and need.
In the developing world, famine continues to decimate populations, and curable diseases claim many lives because people lack the vaccinations they need. Even in opulent countries, there are hungry and homeless.
If we who exalt the cross of Christ today do not tend to these who are his body, then our celebration is in vain and our prayers are hollow. With God's grace, and in faith, let us make our worship honest and true.
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary.]