14 September. The Exaltation of the Holy Cross
1st Reading: Numbers (21:5-9)
When the people were poisoned, the statue of a bronze serpent brought 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.
Resp. Psalm (Ps 78)
R.: Never forget the deeds of the Lord
Listen, my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable,
I will utter mysteries from of old. (R./)
While he slew them they sought him
and inquired after God again,
Remembering that God was their rock
and the Most High God, their redeemer. (R./)
But they flattered him with their mouths
and lied to him with their tongues,
Though their hearts were not steadfast toward him,
nor were they faithful to his covenant. (R./)
But he, being merciful, forgave their sin
and destroyed them not;
Often he turned back his anger
and let none of his wrath be roused. (R./)
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, Christians life under the sign of the Cross, which in the Roman empire was a cruel, inhuman instrument of execution, the most frightful form of death. Echoing Our Lord himself, the church 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, teacher and healer was put to death, who had spent his life helping others.
Jesus’ plan for his life was totally positive to teach and heal 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, one woman cried out excitedly, “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 life-giver 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 became 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 journey through the Sinai desert there was a plague of fiery serpents, from whose bite many of the people died. Then Moses made a bronze statue of a serpent and mounted it on a pole, and if 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 icon for Christian doctors, in their efforts to preserve life.
We try to trust in the paschal meaning of whatever suffering comes our way, trusting that power and grace flow from the Cross. We must not focus on our burdens in this life, for the Cross of Christ asks us to share in other people’s struggle against oppressors of all kinds. We can best honour his cross today if, like Him, we stand up for those in our times who are unjustly marginalised.
The triumph of failure
In the time of Jesus no one would have considered crucifixion a triumph of any sort. Whatever about those who were doing the crucifying it hardly seemed a triumph for the person crucified. Yet, that is what we are celebrating this morning. In the dreadful hour of being crucified, Jesus was victorious. It was the supreme triumph of love over hatred. As John says in today’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.
Paul the apostle says that the cross of Christ reveals the power and wisdom of God. Shortly before Good Friday Jesus foresees his crucifixion as the hour when he is glorified. Authentic love is always life-giving and that is uniquely so of God’s love. The cross is both the triumph of love over hatred and the triumph of life over death. Jesus’ execution on the cross was very cruel but through his death he passed over into a new life .. a life now offered to us all. The blood and water from the side of Jesus 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.