Sep 14, 2021: Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (ABC)

Introduction

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross celebrates three historical events: the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine; the dedication of churches built by Constantine on the site of the Holy Sepulchre and Mount Calvary; and the restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius II, after it had fallen into the hands of Chosroas, King of the Persians.

While Good Friday is dedicated to the Passion of Christ and the Crucifixion, this feast also celebrates the cross itself as the instrument of salvation. This device of torture, designed to degrade the worst of criminals, became the life-giving tree that reversed Adam’s original sin. Public veneration of the Holy Cross dates back to the fourth century and indicates that the Cross was shown to the people as a sign of salvation and victory over evil.

The date of the feast marks the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335. When September 14 falls on a Sunday, the feast supersedes the celebration of the Sunday in Ordinary Time.

1st Reading – Numbers 21:4b-9

With their patience worn out by the journey,
the people complained against God and Moses,
“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,
where there is no food or water?
We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,
which bit the people so that many of them died.
Then the people came to Moses and said,
“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.
Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”
So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,
and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”
Moses accordingly 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.

Moses’ lifting the bronze serpent over the people in today’s first reading is seen as a foreshadowing of the salvation through Jesus when he was lifted up on the cross.

With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses, 

The Israelites are tired and disgruntled from their wandering in the wilderness.

In the tradition of Israel, the wilderness can be understood in two very opposite ways: it is considered a place of love and intimacy, the site where God and the people first entered into a covenant relationship (see Hosea 2:14); it is also a place of testing — and for Israel, a place of failure. It is the second understanding that is at work here.

“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

There is something astonishing about the murmuring of the people. They acknowledge that God brought them out of Egypt, and they admit that they have food (probably the manna). But still, they complain.

Their deliverance from bondage should have grounded them in trust in God, and their being miraculously supplied with sustenance should have filled them with wonder and gratitude. But instead of trust and gratitude, the text states that they are impatient.

Given all that God had done for them, it was God who would have been justified in being impatient.

In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died.

God humbles the Israelites by ironically bringing their unbelieving fears of death in the wilderness upon them, and many of them did die. The idea is that the snakes had been there all along and the people had been protected from being harmed them until now.

Saraph means “fiery,” likely a reference to either the color of the snakes themselves or the burning sensation caused by their bite. (The seraphim, the highest rank of angels, are called the “fiery ones” because they are the closest to God’s fiery love.)

Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you. Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”

The punishment yields the desired effect: they confess their fault in complaining against both God and Moses. Note the humility in their request that Moses prays on their behalf: having been humbled by the experience, they are conscious of their own unworthiness to be heard.

So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses, “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover.”

Looking at the image doesn’t bring about a magical healing in and of itself; rather, the image is a reminder of God’s healing love and his promise to his people. God is the one who does the healing.

Moses accordingly 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.

Notice how God did not actually answer the prayer to have the serpents removed, nor did he restore the previous state in which the people were prevented from being bitten. Instead, he provides healing from the deadly effects of the snakebite. In this way, those who did not die for their murmuring were given a lasting reminder of the event, lest they forget the lesson of humility and repentance.

2nd Reading – Philippians 2:6-11

Brothers and sisters:
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In our second reading, Paul is encouraging the Philippians to lead selfless lives, with Jesus as their model.

This passage has been called “The Christ Hymn” because of its distinctive qualities. It has a rhythmic character and use of parallelism which have led to the view that Paul is quoting a hymn composed independently of Philippians (possibly originally in Aramaic). The hymn, which was an early profession of faith, has a basic twofold structure: verses 6-8 describe Christ’s humiliation; verses 9-11, his exaltation.

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Christ, who existed from before the creation of the world, did not cling to the divine dignity that was rightfully his. He did not use his exalted status for his own ends.

Many see an allusion to the Genesis story here: though in the form of God (Genesis 1:26-27), Jesus did not reach out for equality with God the way Adam and Eve did (see Genesis 3:5-6).

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness;

Not only did he relinquish his Godlike state, he “emptied himself.” He did not empty himself of divinity, but of the status of glory to which he had a right and which would be restored at his exaltation.

Note the contrasting references to the “form” of Jesus. He was in the form of God, but took the form of a slave.

and found human in appearance, he humbled himself,

In taking the slave-like human condition, he also took on the vulnerability and powerlessness of that station in life.

becoming obedient to death,

For a slave, obedience is the determining factor, and the extent of Christ’s obedience is striking. Compliance with God’s will in a world that is alienated from God requires that one be open to the possibility of death.

even death on a cross.

In a sense, Christ’s crucifixion was inevitable. It was a common punishment for slaves, the nadir of human abasement. Such ignominy was an indication of the completeness with which he emptied himself of his divinity.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

The self-denying act of Christ is matched by the active response of God. His exaltation is as glorious as his humiliation was debasing.

Note that while Christ was the subject of his self-emptying, his superexaltation is attributed directly to God. His extreme humiliation is matched by his extreme glorification.

and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

Recall that in the Jewish culture, one’s name contains the essence of the individual. God has raised Jesus’ name, his essence, above every other.

Explicit mention of the new name is held back until the end of the hymn.

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

This hymn transfers to Christ the homage given to God alone (Isaiah 45:23).

of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

According to ancient thought, these are the three levels of the universe. All of creation is brought under Christ’s lordship.

and every tongue confess

Another reference to Isaiah 45:23.

that Jesus Christ is Lord, 

Finally, the new name of Christ: Kyrios (Lord), which came to be substituted for YHWH in Christian copies of the Septuagint Old Testament.

to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus’ new position on the heavenly throne constitutes no rivalry to the Father, to Yahweh himself; rather, Jesus’ voluntary abasement and the homage paid to him by creation in his exalted status bring honor to the Father.

Gospel – John 3:13-17

Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
And just as 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.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him. 

Our gospel reading from John is part of a long conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus after Jesus’ first mighty sign, the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, and after the cleansing of the temple.

The conversation is typical of other conversations in John. Someone approaches Jesus and asks a question. In response, Jesus gives what turns out to be a long theological monologue. Through the monologue, John is teaching his end-of-the-century audience something about the risen Christ in their lives.

Jesus said to Nicodemus: No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.

“Son of Man” is a Semitic idiom that refers to a symbolic figure who will inaugurate the last days (see Daniel 7:13-14). The Greek actually has ánthrōpos, which would make the title “Son of Humanity” or “Son of Humankind.”

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,

Clearly a reference to Numbers 21:8-9, today’s first reading.

so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 

The actual verb used for “lifted up” means “to be raised in exaltation.” By this word choice, John is suggesting that it was precisely in his humiliation that Jesus was glorified. It also calls to mind the suffering servant in Isaiah, who also suffered for others and who, in his affliction, was “raised high and greatly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13).

so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus is comparing the effect of the serpent’s being lifted up, extended life on earth, to the effect of his being lifted up, eternal life.

The way the line of thought is developed in this reading, one is led to conclude that this Son of Humanity is also the only begotten Son of God referenced later in this passage (verses 14-16). The juxtaposition of these two titles brings together the rich and diverse theologies that each represents. And as different as they may be, the characteristic they share is that both the Son of Man and the Son of God are agents of eternal life for all.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

The scope of divine love is described. God’s love for the world is so deep and so magnanimous that nothing is spared for its salvation, not even God’s only Son.

Jesus came to earth, suffered, died, and rose from the dead for the express purpose of revealing God’s love for all people and giving eternal life to all who believe in him.

Ancient Israel continually marveled at the love God had for his chosen people; however, this passage is remarkable in its explicit declaration of God’s love for the entire world.

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

The world was created as good, but it often stands in opposition to God and consequently is in need of being saved.

It is true that human beings will be held accountable for their actions. it is also true that the gospels present Jesus as a judge at the end of time. However, this reading shows that God’s sole purpose in sending his Son to earth was to reveal God’s love for every person. Jesus’ sole purpose in embracing the cross was to fulfill the will of his Father and to offer eternal life not to a chosen few, but to the world.

John wants his audience (and us) to understand just how much God loves them, and that Jesus’ being raised up, on the cross and in the resurrection, is proof of that love.

Connections and Themes

He emptied himself.  The cross is the ultimate demonstration of the nature of God. The reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes the kenosis, the emptying of Christ. He gave of himself even to death on the cross. This is characteristic not only of the man Jesus, but of the Godhead. Creation is the first example of divine emptying; redemption is the ultimate example. Unlike Good Friday when we stand before the stark cross and mourn the death of our innocent Messiah, today we stand before the glorious cross and praise God for God’s incomprehensible goodness toward us. God’s graciousness is poured out indiscriminately, prodigally, as only profound love can be given. Such is the nature of our God, and the cross is the symbol of this nature.

The sign of healing.  The readings play with the symbolism of the pole on which the bronze serpent hung. In the wilderness, it was merely a pole. Jesus compares it to the cross that becomes the source of our healing. As painful as life’s crosses may be, they serve to transform us. They strip away what is superficial and they give us insight into the true meaning of life. They are the testing ground of virtue, the fire within which we are refined. The cross may at times be bitter medicine, but it can combat the human weakness that eats away our goodness. It can be our hope in the midst of pain and suffering and brokenness, because it promises to carry us into new life.

Our access to God.  It was through the cross that Jesus conquered sin and death and won for us access to God. It is through the cross that we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ. Through the goodness of God, which has been poured out for us, we have been granted eternal life. It is incomprehensible to think that death is the way to life, but that is the message of this feast. The cross, which is a sign of shame and misery, is now a symbol of glory and exaltation.