Wednesday, September 14, 2022 – Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Nm.21:4b-9/Phil.2:6-11; Ps.78; Jn.3:13-17
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, also formerly called the Triumph of the Cross. The feast recalls three historical events: the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena; the dedication of the churches built by Emperor Constantine at the sites of the Holy Sepulchre & Mount Calvary; and the restoration of the True Cross at Jerusalem by Emperor Heraclius II. But in a deeper sense, we celebrate God’s direct intervention in the historical affairs of the world, and as such the feast celebrates the Cross as an instrument of our salvation, highlighting God’s unique way of saving us through the death of Jesus on the Cross.
The word “exaltation” in the name of today’s feast means “lifting up”. In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of being “lifted up” on the Cross. He compares it with the incident in the Book of Numbers (1st Reading – Nm.21:4b-9) where a plague of serpents is sent as punishment against the Israelites for their constant complaining against God whilst in the desert.
Moses intercedes for his people, and God asks him to “Make a seraph (Hebrew name for a venomous “fiery” serpent) and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” Accordingly, Moses “made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived”.
The story of the seraph on a pole is one that was told to those returning from the Babylonian captivity in the 6th Century BC. Stories like this one reimagined the past events of the Exodus, helping the returnees to bolster their faith, for they returned to Judah which was quite desolate and could barely have anyone imagine her past glory. But why choose such a strange story? Part of the reason is because it was a known custom to use bronze serpents to ward off actual venomous snakes. (Archaeologists have found small copper snakes dating back to the 13th Century BC in the area mentioned, and it is presumed that they were used to ward off snakes.) But what is most bewildering is that this particular story should be preserved in the book of Numbers, especially since it’s in a direct contrast to “Thou shalt make no graven images” (Ex 20:4), the cornerstone of Israelite monotheism. One possible reason is that this was a common practice of those days and by ascribing the practice to Moses acting on God’s orders, they succeeded in making a virtue out of a necessity.
Jesus, too would be “lifted up” on the Cross, “so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life”. Just as the serpent on the pole, through Moses’ intervention, spelled salvation for the Israelites who looked on it, so also Jesus’ death on a cross spells salvation for those who believe in him. Jesus says that when he is “lifted up” he will draw all peoples to him.
Moses simply mounted the serpent on the pole, but, in the Gospel, John substitutes the Hebrew verb Sum or Sim, meaning “to put or place” with a Greek word hupsoo that implies “glorification” or “exaltation”. Jesus exalted to glory at his Cross and Resurrection, represents healing for all of us. Thus, it refers not so much to the literal “lifting up” of the Cross, but also to what follows – Jesus passing into new life (Resurrection), his returning to his Father (Ascension) and his breathing the Holy Spirit into the world (Pentecost). Jesus is totally “exalted” through the Cross.
The Cross thus is an instrument of our salvation and a sign of God’s love at the same time – it is the altar of sacrifice where the Son of God, as the Lamb of God was sacrificed, for the salvation of the world: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him”. It is also a symbol of selfless unconditional love: “the greatest love a person can show is to give his life for his friends” (Jn.15:13).
The alternative First Reading from Philippians contains the famous “kenosis” hymn about Jesus. Kenosis means “(self) emptying”. Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, shared the divinity with his Father and the Spirit on an equal level. Yet, in order to bring salvation and life to the world, he “emptied” himself and took the form of a slave, totally in service to us. He adopted our human condition and even went lower by submitting to one of the most terrible forms of death by crucifixion. All this, just to show the extent of God’s love for each one of us.
Thus, the Cross is not just an expression of our faith “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Mt.10:38-39), but a benchmark for true Christian discipleship and living “deny yourself, take up your Cross and follow me” (Mt.16:24). And so on this feast day today, as we exalt, honour & celebrate the Cross, let us remind ourselves of the need to focus on what happened on that Cross for us, and, taking the cue from Jesus, strive to empty ourselves, so that His Victory and the victory of the Cross may shine through us always!