John 3:13-17, Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
If there is one place I would nominate as a “go to” tourist destination in the Philippines, it would be the island of Culion. Part of the Calamian group of islands, Culion and its 41 surrounding islands have some of the best powdery white sand beaches, UNESCO heritage-worthy coral reefs and limestone structures in the world.
The journey from Busuanga to Culion is already in itself a picturesque travelogue. Verdant mountains, lush plains, deep blue waters and the most beautiful corals located anywhere in the world. And as the beautiful island of Culion emerges after snaking through various maritime maneuvers, one is immediately drawn to Culion’s built environment landscape. The historic port where religious sisters of Saint Paul de Chartres, lepers from all over the Philippines, and the Jesuit fathers first landed; the beautiful, wooden baroque church where the once incurable gathered to worship and adore. And as the boat draws nearer to port, one is drawn to the white symbols seemingly tattooed on the highest summit of the island. It is a combination of symbols: an eagle, the caduceus, and the figure of Christ welcoming travelers.
The caduceus is primarily striking as it literally snakes its way up to the eagle’s claws. A caduceus is the staff carried by the Greek god Hermes and has been transformed through the centuries to symbolize, albeit incorrectly healthcare organizations and medical practice. You see it is actually the rod of Asclepius which has only one snake and is never depicted with wings that should be the symbol of medicine. This is what the World Health Organization (WHO) uses in its official logo.
Remarkably, it is the same symbol depicted in the first reading. Always complaining, the Israelites have pushed the Lord’s patience to the limits. As punishment for their iniquities, serpents are sent to the people wandering in the desert. But the people of Israel immediately repent their transgressions and cry for deliverance. And thus the Lord commands Moses, “Make a saraph (serpent)and mount it on a pole and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”
And time and again, this narrative rings true in our lives. We forget God and life – like a snake – bites us. We get bitten by our hubris and narcissism, assuming the role of gods. This is especially true in the “black swan” crises which have unfolded in the course of history. Whether it would be the current pandemic hitting and biting us hard or the senseless wars started by poisoned minds and hearts which have taken millions of lives, this vicious cycle of sin and repentance culminates in the kenosis depicted in the second reading. As the exultet beautifully proclaims at Easter vigil, ‘O necessary sin of Adam which merited for us so great a redeemer!’ This kenosis, this emptying of Jesus, finds its ultimate sacrifice in Jesus’s obedience to death, unto death on a cross.
And as we celebrate this feast which deeply symbolizes our faith, this – in essence – is really what the exaltation of the cross becomes. From a symbol of shame to that of triumph; from a symbol of crime to that of salvation; from a symbol of condemnation to that of love. As the Gospel reminds us, for in the like manner that Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
And thus the invitation that every time we forget God; every time life’s unpredictable storms take a bite at us; when the fangs of greed and narcissismdig themselves into our veins; when the poison spreads and these result in torment and suffering, we only need to look at the figure of Jesus on the cross to be healed. And even if we have not done so consciously, it seems that, unconsciously, this sign of the cross has already been imbibed and ingrained deeply in us.
If there is a gesture which is and has been done 24-7, every second, every hour, every day, unbroken for the past 2000 years, it is making that sign of the cross. Even now as I speak, there is and has always been someone making that sign of the cross. Whether it would be that newly minted soldier going into battle, that doctor about to perform a life threatening surgery, that caregiver holding the hand of a COVID-19 patient, there is and has always been the sign of the cross; whether it would be that market vendor about to start her day; that athlete on the verge of defeat or victory, that parent teaching his or her child’s first prayers, there is the sign of the cross done on the forehead or crossing one’s heart. From that moment when Jesus breathed out his ultimate pneuma on the cross, from that moment when Christians made this gesture, or when the emperor Constantine gained courage, in hoc signo vinces; there is, and has always been the sign of the cross. Down through the centuries and ages, from Pope Leo the Great staring down Attila the Hun to Pope Francis giving his urbi et orbi blessing; from the early Christian martyrs like Sebastian, Perpetua and Felicity to the martyr monks of Algiers, poignantly depicted in French film drama, ‘Of Gods and Men’; from the medieval monks labouring to preserve epic literature to the Bollandists typing manuscripts; from the Christian martyrs of Japan, Korea and Japan, to the persecuted Christians in the Middle East and Africa, there is and will always be the triumph of the cross.
And yes, even that simple gesture made by a leper a hundred years ago when she first set foot in Culion. Praying and hoping before the image of the cross that she would be healed. And if not, perhaps that leprosy will someday be totally eradicated for the sake of her grandchildren and future generations. And perhaps moved by this prayer, the people of Culion erected the symbols of the caduceus, of the eagle and of Christ. Praying for healing, they constantly made the sign of the cross to remind themselves that God never forgets; that God never abandons her people.
And indeed, God remembered. As that prayer, a hundred years later was answered: a cure was finally found for the dreaded Hansen’s disease. And thus in 2006, Culion was declared leprosy free by the World Health of Organization(WHO).
If you happen to achieve your bucket list of visiting Culion someday, I highly encourage you to visit its museum as well. And perhaps echoing the words of Muhammad Yunus when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, it is my prayer that there will come a time that, perhaps just like leprosy, poverty and injustice, that the corona virus and other diseases, that persecution and inequality will be only be something being viewed curiously in a museum.
And if there comes a time when we fail to dream of this better future, when we falter and forget, when we find ourselves lost and unable to find our way back to God, may we turn to Jesus on the cross; and remind ourselves, that good always prevails over evil; that in the end, that all shall be well.
And we thus we entrust ourselves to the inevitable triumph of the cross: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit.