Given at the Commemoration of the Lord's Passion in Westminster Cathedral on 25 March 2016.
Later this afternoon, in a moment of deeply spiritual drama, the Cross of Christ and the figure hanging upon it will be slowly revealed to us. We have heard the Gospel narrative of his suffering and death. Now we shall see with our eyes the image of that event.
What exactly will we see? How far below the surface can the eyes of our minds and hearts actually penetrate?
Perhaps our minds can go back to the pilgrimage of the Jewish people through the desert, to the moment when they were set upon by poisonous snakes whose bite was enough to kill. Moses interceded with God, for the people had been rebellious. At the Lord’s command Moses fashioned a bronze serpent, raised it before the people and, we read, all who gazed upon it were cured and protected from the evil of the snakes. (Numbers 21.9).
Then we bring into our hearts the words of Jesus: ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that all who believe in Him may have eternal life’ (John 3.14).
We shall see Him before us, the promised source of healing, of forgiveness, of eternal life.
Yet before us is the image of a dead man. So how can this be?
Listen to some other words of Jesus: ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man you will know that I Am He.’ (John 8.28) But we have to look again at those words. They should read ‘… then you will know that I Am’. The phrase ‘I Am who Am’ is the phrase used throughout the Old Testament to express the nature, presence and reality of God. And St John uses it a number of times, for that same purpose, to tell us that in Jesus God is truly present.
This year there is a lovely and rich moment. Today is the 25th March, usually the Feast of the Annunciation, of the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. There was an ancient tradition according to which Jesus dies on the Cross on the same day as his conception, his Incarnation. These mysteries, his Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection are inseparably connected, the mysteries of March, as they are known.
Here we learn: it is the nature, presence and reality of God who hangs upon this Cross which is raised before us. Yes, Jesus is truly man and truly God. Without this truth our afternoon is wasted. Jesus, the good man, can only inspire us. Jesus the Eternal Word of God can both change us and give us new vision, life and purpose.
This is what we see with the eyes of faith today.
Yet there is more.
Jesus says: ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man you will know that I Am who Am and that I do nothing of Myself.’
What does this mean?
It means that everything we see in Jesus is also showing us his heavenly Father with whom Jesus is one in the Godhead. Gazing at the Cross, then, we not only see the Eternal Word made in our flesh but we also see the love and action of the Eternal Father who is continually embracing his beloved Son in our flesh and drawing us into the fullness of the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Here we are at the very centre of our belief, of our hope and of our love.
On your seat when you came in there was a card. This card. Please do look at it now.
The image on the front is an image of all that we can see, with the eyes of faith, as we gaze on the Crucifix this afternoon. Yes, we see the dead Christ. But we can also see that he is always in the arms of his heavenly Father and always has the Holy Spirit hovering over him.
Here we see, in our imagery, the Father stooping down to raise up his Son, in and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is important, life-giving. Why? Because in baptism we have been made one with Jesus. We are part of his body. His flesh is my flesh. My flesh is in his. So, when the Father stoops down to lift up the body of Jesus, he is stooping down to lift up us all. In the bond of the Holy Spirit he lifts us up, every one of us, out of every mess we make, every sin we commit, every hole we dig if only we will put ourselves, like Christ, into his hands. Let us do so today.
‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ The prayer of Jesus we can say every night and especially today, with Jesus, as we venerate His Cross.
In this Year of Mercy we see in Jesus the true face of the Father’s mercy. We hear our commission: being one with Christ, we too are to be merciful like the Father.
Let us say together the prayer on the other side of the card, the Prayer for the Year of Mercy …