“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see!” These words written by John Newton, 1725-1807, and applied to a traditional American melody can startle post-moderns who have been working so hard at maintaining a positive self-image. Calling oneself a “wretch” to many of us formed in the power of positive thinking can feel at best unenlightened and at worst embarrassing!
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross brings a whole new dimension to the power of positive thinking. Glorifying the cross on which Christ died confronts us with a new challenge as to maintaining a positive self-image! We are well acquainted with the ancient hymn quoted by St. Paul in today’s Second Reading, maybe too well acquainted. For us, so conscious of maintaining a positive self-image, it would do us good from time to time to be shocked or perturb by this Scripture: “Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped!” In other words, he didn’t consider God’s positive self-image something he had to hold onto!”
Instead of holding onto, instead of grasping onto equality with God, Christ Jesus “emptied himself,” took the form, the image of a slave, coming in human form. As such, he humbled himself, or we might say, he lowered himself, to accept death through obedience. Or more to the point, Christ Jesus obediently lowered himself by obediently accepting the shame, the humiliation to die like a wretch on a cross! So much for positive self-image!
For Christians, it would seem to come down to this: we need somehow to find the key to our life, to our positive self-image in the humiliation and disgrace of Jesus on the Cross! What enables us to do that is the fact that we know the end of the story! It was because of this humiliation, of this self-emptying, that God so highly exalted Jesus and gave him the name that is above all other names. He gave him a self-image above all self-images so that at his name every knee shall bend!
Moses mounted the bronze saraph on a pole and held it high so the stricken people would be cured. The venom of the saraph serpents was inflicting mortal wounds on the people. When they looked at the bronze serpent held up by Moses, they were healed. Jesus used this image in his night time talk to Nicodemus: we will be saved if in faith we look upon Christ Jesus lifted up on the cross. In looking up at Jesus that we might be saved we need to admit and own our own failures and humiliations, our weakness and sinfulness, our darkness and confusions.
We exalt the Cross of Christ because in God’s mysterious and loving wisdom, Amazing Grace flowed from the wretchedness of the Passion and Death of Christ to save a blinded wretch like me!
- Fr. Lucian Clark, C.P. is the Director of Passionist Volunteers International.