Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ: Holy Cross Day is a somewhat peculiar interloper in this Reformation anniversary year. After all, Luther was pretty cynical about the 3000 pieces of the true cross that were supposedly to be found in Germany alone. The famous 95 Theses were partly inspired by the promise of indulgences gained by visiting the grand collection of relics on display on All Saints’ Day at the Wittenberg Castle. Lutherans have been so allergic to relics that Holy Cross Day disappeared for centuries from the liturgical calendar in most of Lutheranism. In our synodical history, it only reappeared with Lutheran Worship in 1982.
But our Lord wasn’t crucified on a relic or a fake; and if there were no true cross at the end of His road to Jerusalem, His death would have been illusory, a fable, an intriguing theological idea, but not an historical reality. So the quest undertaken by Constantine’s mother Helena that led to her discovery of the true cross in Jerusalem on this day in AD 320 ought not be too quickly dismissed as popish nonsense. Could it be that faithful followers of Christ had spirited away the beam to which His holy hands had been nailed, that was stained with His very blood? Did it become part of the legal testimony they gave to the historical reality of Jesus, the crucified One, whose death was seen by John and Mary and countless thousands of Passover pilgrims, and whose resurrection was witnessed by the eleven and the 120 and the 500? We have no way of knowing whether the “true cross” presented to Helena three hundred years after the fact was real, but we ought not doubt the significance of the attempt to preserve and locate it. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself was built on the same Christian conviction that there were real places where these things happened, a real hill on which the cross was erected, real rocks over which His blood flowed from His wounds, real stone on which His body was laid out, and a real tomb from which He strode victoriously. We have no way of knowing whether knights Templar preserved that true cross until it was stolen by Muslim hordes (as a celebrated debut novel by a certain Joshua Rothe narrates!). But the importance to the Christian faith of this physical icon, outranking the tablets of stone and jar of manna preserved in the ark of the covenant, ought not be diminished.
When grumpy, hungry, rebellious Israelites were punished by God through fiery snakes in the Sinai wilderness, Moses made an icon in bronze, an image of a snake lifted high on a pole. Anyone who looked to it would live. It’s tempting to look at this snake through purely clinical spectacles—it is, after all, the universal symbol of the medical profession. We know today that a quick administration of an anti-venom concocted from the snake’s own venom can counteract its deadly effects. But unlike in the incident of the golden calf, when the image itself was the source of their sin and Moses cleansed the people by grinding it up into a bitter broth to drink, these rebels weren’t healed by eating the snakes. The power of the bronze serpent came through the Word alone. Moses didn’t invent the remedy; it was no self-chosen worship. But God said, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num. 21:8). The Word made the bronze serpent into a saving snake. Anyone who despised that Word, anyone who thought he needed real medicine, not some superstitious piece of art, died horribly in his unbelief. But those who looked up to it in faith gained life. Later on, of course, we learn what happens when God’s mandate is ignored. They turned the bronze snake into an idol, asking it to do for them what God hadn’t promised. They thought the statue had power in itself. They didn’t understand what Christ reveals to the disciples in John’s Gospel: that the bronze snake was merely a portal to Him. When they looked to the snake, they looked to Christ.
“Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (Jn 12:31-32). Christian artwork through the ages has highlighted the comparison with Christ’s cross by drawing a horizontal piece onto the pole that held the bronze serpent. But the prophecy runs so much deeper than physical similarity. I can’t recall a time in my life when, like the poison of the snakes that rampaged through the camp of Israel, sickness has so deeply and broadly struck our families and our churches. Stroke, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and mental illness—every week we seem to hear of another dear one struck by these venoms. And venom is just the right image, for these aren’t just bad fortune. These attacks come from the great Serpent who nips constantly at our heels, who waits around every corner to strike. He wants us to lose faith. He doesn’t want us to look up to the cross of Christ and live. He wants us to despise Christ and despair, to look down on the cross as an empty, powerless symbol.
But the cross is never empty. It’s occupied by the Christ who attached His Word to it, saying, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (Jn 12:32). This is the One to whom the Father pointed at the Mount of Transfiguration and said, “Listen to Him!” (Mt. 17:5). Those words charge the cross with divine power. Like the bronze snake on the pole, the cross has strength because of God’s promise attached to it. But in a greater way, the cross can give life because our God is actually there. Christ speaks from the cross, opens His arms to us, and draws us to Himself. He crushes the Serpent’s head, draws the venom from our bodies, and takes it into His own. And so He can call that ugly cross His “glory”. For there God Himself has descended among us, like the cloud of God’s glory that descended on the Tabernacle of old, to redeem us from death and its sickly sting by shedding not just the blood of goats and bulls but His very own.
Is it too much, then, to imagine that Christ had another holy icon in mind when He uttered that promise: “and I, when I am lifted up …, will draw all men to Myself”? Over the gate of St John’s College in Cambridge stands a statue of the Apostle holding in his hands a cup, from which a snake is slithering out. This common depiction of the saint recalls the mediaeval legend that he once received a cup of wine that, unbeknownst to him, had been poisoned by his enemies. Before drinking he prayed and blessed it with the Word of God, as was his custom. God’s blessing caused the poison to take the bodily form of a snake and flee, allowing him to drink the wine unharmed. Today we take up a plate of bread and cup of wine, and like the holy apostle, we bless it with the Word of God and prayer. Whether or not that legend was true, this blessed cup beyond all doubt drives the old Serpent’s venom from us and gives us new life. When Christ’s Body and Blood are lifted up before you, “Lift up your hearts!” “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2-3). Look up from the pain of your lives to the Christ who is seated already in the place where we are going. Lift up your hearts to trust and hope in heavenly things. For “when Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). Amen