Death and the Cross

User's Guide to Sunday, Sept. 14

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Sunday, Sept. 14, is the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross.

Mass Readings

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 78:1-2, 34-35, 36-38; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

Our Take

Lately, as our children have read the Old Testament, they have raised uncomfortable questions: Why does God sometimes kill people? They may have in mind this Sunday’s first reading, which says: “In punishment, the Lord sent among the people saraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died.”

The sin that the people were punished for: complaining. It was rude and ungrateful of the Jews who had just been saved from slavery to complain about it. But does such complaining deserve death?

If those deaths were unfair, we tell our kids, isn’t every death unfair? After all, everyone dies. There was never a death that was outside God’s power to prevent.

Is it fair for a woman to die because she tried to cross a street when a car ran a red light? Of course not. Is it fair for a man to die because he tried to help someone with a communicable disease? No, it’s not. Many people die for much less reason than the Jewish grumblers, and God — through his “passive will” — permits it.

But would it be “fair” for us to escape death altogether? God created us and gifted us with a great capacity to love or to hate. The story of Adam and Eve shows a primordial choice on the part of mankind for a life of disharmony with God. Through the first couple’s choice, sin and death entered the world.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it the “triple concupiscence” — we started looking at each other and the world as objects of pleasure, sources of wealth and things to be controlled for our ends. In the 21st century, we remote sons and daughters of Adam and Eve still live our relationships with our Father as they did: like rebellious children. And we, too, will die of it, eventually.

We may think that this is all unfair, but today’s Psalm looks at the evidence of man’s rebellion and God’s response and comes to a very different conclusion. Rather than being aghast at the times God “punishes” with death, the Psalmist is filled with gratitude for all the times he refrains from punishment. “Often, he turned back his anger and let none of his wrath be roused,” it says.

In the Old Testament, God was not seen as unfair, but “slow to anger and rich in mercy.”

Today’s feast — the Triumph of the Cross — goes further still. It shows us that God is not content to watch us die: He died so that we would live forever.

“He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross,” says the first reading.

“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him,” says the Gospel.

Our God is the shepherd who died for his sheep. He didn’t kill us with a cross; we killed him.

He has been trying to steer us away from death all along. He gave us freedom, so that our fate is never sealed in this life. He gave us the commandments, so we know how to find him. He gave us immortal souls, so that death is not the end. And he gave us the cross, so that when we do die we will find him even there.

Tom and April Hoopes write

from Atchison, Kansas, where
Tom is writer in residence at
Benedictine College.