Exaltation of the Holy Cross
By Myles N. Sheehan, SJ, MD
Numbers 21: 4-9
There are lots of things in our world that we look up to. It might be some public figure or personal hero, a member of our family, or a famous person from the past who inspires. Literally, in our cities we often look up to see a tall building or, when we are traveling, we look up at the billboards to see the message that they hold. When we think about the Cross, do we look up to it as the sign of what it means for us to be truly healthy?
Now health and the crucifixion might not seem to be connected. It would be hard to think of a more brutal death, or a more cruel or unusual punishment, than crucifixion. The death that Jesus suffered on the Cross was the most degrading punishment the Roman Empire had to offer, not just physical torture, but also complete public humiliation for the person condemned. When we look at the cross, we are looking up to a sign that surely shows us some of the very worst of humanity as well as reveals the One who did not deem equality with God as something to be clung to and what it means to be fully human while showing us the reality of God.
Being whole and healthy is related not just to life on earth; it is a measure of looking to fullness of life with God that will last for eternity. Jesus' ministry on earth involved healings, preaching, teaching the disciples, and reaching out to persons who might otherwise feel excluded from God's love. His healing ministry, in particular, is a sign of how the God of life has entered into humanity with compassion, power, care for the outcast, and concern even for the least in our society. But that ministry was not directed only at physical health: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life."
Believing in the Son of God, and recognizing the presence of the Cross as the landmark in our lives to which we should look up, changes who we are. Believing in Jesus' power to heal our woundedness transforms us. We recover from the illness of our wounded human nature. The snakes afflicted the people of Israel on the journey to the Promised Land. Looking at the snake on a pole, we are told, brought healing for those who looked on the sign of their own distance from God and the pain and suffering that caused. Looking up to Christ on the Cross, reveals to us how we have wandered away from God, how we hurt and try to destroy the offer of God's love, and how, even in this, God is willing to be with us in our own humanity.
True health is integrally related with true wholeness and true holiness. Health care is one of the missions of the church, a responsibility to continue Jesus' work in our own time to care for the sick, comfort those who are dying, protect the vulnerable, and work with individuals to have the fullest life possible. Catholic health care in the United States is a visible sign, a sign to look up to if you will, of how the healing ministry of Jesus continues in our time. It is true that there are not the same sort of miracles, but perhaps almost as miraculous is how many people who otherwise would not receive care are cared for by Catholic health care in the United States and how Catholic health care challenges the nation to care for those without insurance and respect the lives of all persons from the womb to natural death.
Catholic health care witnesses to the power of the Cross to continue to transform our lives. As a mission of the church, it is a complement to the missions of teaching and sanctification and all the other ways in which the church as the Body of Christ is alive and active in our world. As part of the church, Catholic health care recognizes the importance of good health, but it also looks to health in a full way. Illness carries with it the possibility of loneliness, fear, and a sense that God is not near. Truly, for many when they face as serious illness, it is a time on the Cross where one may feel even abandoned by God. Even when physical healing is not possible, Catholic health care looks to the Lord to cure a wounded human nature, a cure that comes about in facing Christ's triumph on the Cross and recognizing God's Son was sent into the world "that the world might be saved by him."
So what do you look up to in your life?
In our culture, a lot of attention is given to health and health care. For some, personal appearance and the body are almost obsessive concerns. Spending some time looking at Jesus on the cross and thinking about how he "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" can put our ideas about health and our lives in the right perspective.
The healthy life is one that recognizes the Cross and that true health is found in the salvation Christ brings. The mission of Catholic health care is to be a source of compassion, healing, and spiritual care in a way that continues what Jesus seeks to bring to all of us. It recognizes our human need and brings it before Christ. It continues the larger mission of the Church: "that the world might be saved through him."