14 September. The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

1st Reading: Numbers 21:5-9

When the poisonous serpents bit the people, Moses raised the statue of a bronze serpent as an antidote, to give them healing

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

2nd Reading: Philippians 2:6-11

The hymn to Christ who humbled himself, even unto death–but God exalted him above all creation

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Gospel: John 3:13-17

The Son of Man must be lifted up as a saving sign, for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended 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, that whoever 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 may not perish but may have eternal life.” Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The Cross that Saves

Paradoxically, the early Christians affirmed their passion for life as God’s people, under the sign of the Cross, which was a cruel, inhuman instrument of execution, the most frightful form of death. Echoing Our Lord himself, the Church today strongly opposes all forms of torture and above all the death penalty–and yet here we are on today’s feast, honouring the cross on which an innocent prophet and healer was put to death, who had spent his life helping others.

Jesus’ plan for his life was totally positive–to help his fellow man and women. By his touch blind people regained their sight, the lame could walk, lepers were cleansed, and wherever he went he proclaim the good news to the poor and affirmed their dignity and their rights. Having seen and heard him, a woman once cried out, “Blessed are the breasts at which you nursed” (Lk 11:27). But this same life-enhancing Messiah from Nazareth was denied a proper trial, mocked and spat upon, dressed up as a king with thorns for a crown, scourged and abused and finally hung on a cross. As Isaiah foretold, he was scorned by the people, “There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him” (Is 53:2).

How can we glory today in the instrument of his death, that frightening cross where thieves, slaves and criminals were executed and onto which He was nailed, led like a lamb to the slaughter? It is because this crucified Jesus has become our lifegiver in the spirit that his Cross is the life-giving throne of mercy on which he will forever be honoured. With the penitent thief we can pray: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). The instrument of his death has become the instrument of God’s mercy to us; and so we proclaim the triumph of new Life, poured out from the Cross.

During their Exodus through the desert of Sinai there was a plague of fiery serpents, from whose bite many of the people died. Then God Moses made a bronze statue of a serpent and mounted it on a pole, and when those who has been bitten looked at it, they recovered. Jesus applies this episode to himself: “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” (John 3:14-15). The sign of the healing serpent is now the conventional sign for Christian doctors, in their efforts to preserve life.

We try to absorb the paschal meaning of whatever suffering comes our way, trusting that powerful grace flows from the Cross. Of course, we don’t just focus on our own crosses and the burdens of life. The Cross of Christ empowers us to share in the struggle against oppressors of every sort. We can best honour his cross today if, like Him, we stand up for those in our times who are unjustly treated and marginalised.

The triumph of failure?

In Our Lord’s time no one would have considered crucifixion a triumph or a win of any sort. It may have been considered a triumph for those who were doing the crucifying; it certainly would never have been considered a triumph for the person crucified. Yet, that is what we are celebrating this morning. Jesus, in being crucified, triumphed. It was a triumph of love over hatred. As John the evangelist says in this morning’s gospel, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.’ Jesus revealed God’s love in all that he said and did, but he revealed God’s love most fully on the cross. John the evangelist would say that on the cross Jesus revealed God’s glory. That is why in John’s gospel Jesus speaks of his coming crucifixion as the hour when he is glorified. Authentic love is always life-giving and that is uniquely so of God’s love. As well as being the triumph of love over hatred, the cross of Jesus is the triumph of life over death. Jesus was put to death in the most cruel way but through his death he passed over into a new life and that life was offered to us all. The blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus in John’s gospel speaks to us of the life that flows through the death of Jesus. The cross has been celebrated in art as the tree of life. The triumph of the cross, which is the triumph of God and of Jesus over Satan and all the forces of evil and death, is a triumph in which we all share. From the cross Jesus draws all of us into the love and life of God. As he says in John’s gospel, when I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself. We simply have to let ourselves be drawn by him. [MH]

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