|Feast of the Exaltation
of the Holy Cross
Psalm 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
So as to be more available to the graces offered through the
readings for this feast, imagine Jesus hanging on the cross. He looks down,
past Mary his mother and John the Beloved Disciple, to where a serpent is
wriggling and writhing in a death torment. The snake fixes its gaze on Jesus
and then buries its head in the dirt as a sign of defeat and surrender.
The liturgical year interrupts its ordinary sequence to celebrate this feast
of the victory of the cross. Because of the Resurrection, the symbol of defeat
and loss is transformed into a boast of triumph and life. We fulfill the
scripture which John recalls in chapter 19, verse 37, “They shall look on
him whom they have pierced." We look at the cross with the Servant of Salvation
fleshly destroyed and receive humbly and gratefully his life given for us
and to us in the Eucharist.
We pray with the embarrassment of receiving something we do not
deserve, except for the reality of God’s wanting to give this “something”
to us and all. If we close our eyes in shame or pride, then we close our
hands to the gift of his resurrection and our own. We pray to be healed of
our human defeatedness by gazing upon this ultimate exaltation of God’s undying
We listen to a reading from the Book of Numbers, which is one of the first
five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. It describes the history of Israel’s
being formed into a community and its travels and battles to arrive, under
God’s protection, in the land of its identity. During this prilgrimatic journey,
the people and God carry on a give and take, fear and faith conversation.
They grumble and complain, because of their human hunger and thirst. God
replies with sustaining gestures of care.
We tune into such impatient grousing in today’s First Reading where we find
the people of Israel feeling abandoned. They ask the usual human question,
“Why!” God’s reply this time is a punishment, but with a kind of back door
way out. A snake-attack takes place and death to those who are bitten. This
gets the Israelite’s attention and they confess to Moses their grumbling
infidelities. Moses makes an intercession with God on their behalf and God
instructs Moses to make a bronze image of a snake, mount it on a pole as
a healing sign. Those who look upon it in faith will be healed from their
having been snake-bitten. The serpent of Genesis is seen as having lost its
power to destroy life.
For this feast, we have a wonderful Second Reading which is a
hymn of triumph and praise. Paul fits this song into his recalling that Jesus
came as servant and after living obediently to his life, he died obediently
only to rise. Therefore, all who can see this act of love in faith and trust
shall bend the knee in recognition of their being so loved and not left to
their deathly injury of disbelief and sin.
We listen in to the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in today’s Gospel.
Nicodemus has come by night to try to figure out Jesus and Jesus in turn
tries to lead him into the ways of the spirit, not the flesh. Nicodemus wants
facts, logic, and clarity. Jesus scrambles the picture by moving him towards
belief. Jesus, knowing that this Jewish leader is familiar with his Scriptures,
recalls Moses’ lifting up the bronze serpent in the desert. Using this historical
event, Jesus reveals that he also will be lifted up so that those who look,
in faith, upon him will receive eternal life. This being “lifted up”
on the pole of the cross will be the gesture by which God changes the human
question from “why haven’t you done this for us,” to “Why did you have to
do this for us?”
The Exaltation of the Cross-is that by his death, Jesus has put a final punctuation
mark at the end of the long-life sentence of his being the loving servant
of God and humanity. The cross is more than an exclamation mark which reverses
the question mark and stands as the definitive sign by which we know just
what God thinks of us. The serpent reigns no more; death is not our destiny.
The triumph of Jesus’ death is not that of God over us, but God for us. While
the serpent ruled we were not safe from ourselves. We were ambiguous about
whether we were of the earth only, or just where we belonged and whose we
Jesus’ dying and rising for us destroys our shame and our confusion about
our identity. The further we stand from the cross the more we float back
into destructive names and images we have for ourselves individually and
collectively. The closer we move to the shade of the cross the more we can
hear our name and our vocations. At the foot of the cross, there are certain
things we can no longer say about ourselves and our sisters and brothers.
The cross becomes the throne of victory whereby all will be drawn
together and human grumbling will be silenced. The Servant has become the
royal conqueror while still remaining Servant. He washes the earth with his
blood and love and all who come to see him in faith are saved from the darkness
and ignorance of who God is and who they are to God. God so loves us that
God continues presenting us to ourselves at the foot of the throne of the
cross. The triumph of the cross is that we are saved from eternal ignorance,
but more saved from the eternal hell and temporal hell of our not knowing
what real life is.
“We should glory in the cross of our Lord
Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through
him we are saved and made free.” Gal 6:14