Last Friday was the 19th anniversary of September 11th, the day we were shocked out of our sense of safety and security by a cruel and massive attack.
I think that day will always be for me one where my whole view of the world was changed forever. But it was not the first time that happened. On November 22, 1963, I was a 15-year old sophomore in high school when the principal came on the loudspeaker and announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated, and we were all to go home.
That horrendous event shocked me, but I was still too young to appreciate the full impact of such a violent and senseless act. I just shook my head in sadness and sorrow—and went on with my life.
But the magnitude of death and hatred on September 11th took things to a new level. Now, it was not political figures or famous people who were singled out by haters and murderers. Thousands of innocent people, who were just going about their daily lives, were dead in minutes.
And you and I will never be the same. We remember that horrible day. We know exactly where we were when we heard the news. We recall turning on the television and watching, over and over, as those buildings came crashing down. And our world seemed to come crashing down with them.
Jesus’ disciples surely felt much the same.
A good man. A holy man. A wise teacher. A compassionate healer. A brave resister of the oppression and cruelty in the world—was nailed to a cross and died.
In case you didn’t know it, crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s highest form of execution. It was painful and slow. It was very public. It was humiliating for the victim and his family. And it was reserved for those whom the Empire despised or feared the most. It sent a message: we are in control, and we can do anything we want to, any time, so you’d better obey us and stay out of our way.
The Empire had an ironic name for this situation. They called it the Pax Romana—the Roman Peace. It wasn’t peaceful. It was cruel and unrelenting oppression. It was a system whereby so-called “peace” was assured by swiftly ending any dissent or opposition in the cruelest possible fashion. The Pax Romana simply said, “We’ll leave you alone, as long as you never do anything that we don’t like. Otherwise, we’ll kill you quickly, and anyone else around you that we want to kill.”
Jesus and his disciples were not fools. They were fully aware of the danger they were in, of the risk they were taking if they drew too much attention to the full implications of the Kingdom of God. As long as the only thing Jesus did was teach Jewish scriptures and heal the sick, he was not a threat to power.
But his mission was far more than that. He came to announce a new order, a new kingdom, and that was automatically a threat to the Empire.
Every Roman coin had the letters DF stamped on them around Caesar’s image. DF stood for Dei Filius – Son of God. That was Caesar’s title, his claim to fame—that he was a divine human being, and the son of a Roman god. For Jesus to use that title (which he himself never did, but he allowed his followers to call him that) was treason—a direct denial of Caesar and therefore a threat to the order of the Empire. And the punishment for that crime was crucifixion.
Jesus wasn’t the only man the Romans crucified. He wasn’t even the only one crucified in Jerusalem on that Good Friday. But he was likely the only one who had predicted his crucifixion. He was definitely the only one who explained it in biblical terms.
We have to think back to Numbers, chapter 21. The Hebrew people had sinned and turned away from God and Moses, so God punished them by sending a plague of poisonous snakes.
Moses prayed for God’s mercy, and God told him what to do. Moses had a brass serpent cast, and then raised it atop a tall pole in the middle of the camp. He announced that anyone who was bitten by one of the poison snakes should just look up at the brass snake on the pole, and he or she would instantly be healed.
This is a strange story, indeed. First of all, it clearly violates the Second Commandment about never making a graven image. But even worse, the Hebrew people were surrounded at that time by pagan cities where snakes were worshiped and snake gods were displayed everywhere.
It’s hard to explain why God told Moses to make a brazen snake, but it may have been an effort to give a new meaning to the evil ideas their neighbors had about snakes—to see them as healing, rather than fearsome.
And in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus makes a reference to that very snake, and to the healing that it brought.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” [John 12:32]
An equally correct translation reads, “When I am exalted above the earth, I will draw everything to myself.”
Some people have little pieces of the Twin Towers as mementos of that terrible morning.
We Christians also have a truly odd memento. We venerate, we adore, we wear, the symbol of Jesus’ cruel and humiliating death—the cross. And today we celebrate it and call it holy. We would never call the airplanes that crashed into the towers “holy,” and we probably wouldn’t call the buildings themselves “holy.”
But the cross of Christ is different. In a similar way to that brass snake lifted up on the pole by Moses, our Savior, lifted up on the cruel wood of the cross, brings healing to us. Not healing from the bite of a poisonous snake (although there are some Christians that believe that), but rather the best kind of healing of all. Healing of our hearts and minds, of our souls, of our very being. We needed that healing on September 11th, 2001, and we need it now.
This cross has healing power—not magical, but spiritual. This cross reminds us, not of the senseless death of a gentle man, not even of our world’s rejection of its savior, but of the power of God to cast aside the works of darkness and make us God’s own children—children of light, as Jesus said in today’s gospel. Children of peace, of love, of confidence to live in a world filled with sin.
And because of his death on the cross, we can proudly say those powerful words:
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.