This week we take a break from Ordinary Time to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This particular Feast is fixed to the date of September 14th (marking the date of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 335 CE). As this feast falls on a Sunday this year, we use the readings chosen for this feast. We last celebrated this feast on a Sunday in 2008, but it won’t fall on a Sunday again until 2025. The Feast itself is a celebration of the cross itself as an instrument of salvation.
The Word for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Psalm 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
In order to understand this feast day, one must first understand the nature of the Cross. Crucifixion is a pre-Roman form of execution which was adopted by the Romans during the time of Jesus. Crucifixion was not only used as a form of brutal punishment for accused criminals, but it was meant both as a humiliation to those being crucified, and a warning to others. Roman citizens were never crucified; If any Roman citizen was found worthy of the death penalty, more “humane” or “dignified” methods were used. Only the “lowest of the low” were crucified. Crucifixions were generally held outside the city walls, not only because the process was prolonged and distasteful, but also as warning to travelers that Roman law was in force. The bodies of those crucified were not allowed to be removed, but instead left to scavengers and natural decay, stripping the accused of any final dignity or respect for their customs.
The indignity of Jesus, the Son of Man and our Lord, being crucified was purposeful on the part of the Sanhedrin and the Roman authority. It was meant to be both a humiliation to him and his followers, and a deterrent to any other self-professed “messiah” that might come along. Yet it is this very indignity that became a symbol of triumph. Jesus concurred the cross, and in doing so made it a symbol of joy and great hope. It is this exaltation that comes through in our readings this Sunday.
We open with a reading from the book of Numbers. The Israelites traveling with Moses have become impatient, complaining against God and Moses. The Lord, incensed by their impatience, sends down seraph serpents (venomous snakes) to bit the people. When they cry out to Moses, the Lord instructs him to make a bronze seraph and mount it on a pole, so that those who are bitten can then look up at the pole and be saved from death. This is an interesting story that can lead to some interesting discussion, especially when reference to that same serpent staff is found both in the book of 2 Kings, and today’s Gospel. To help us draw a better understanding of this story, our Psalm reminds us “not to forget the works of the Lord.”
Our second reading is a magnificent passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Here St. Paul is at his best both poetically and theologically, and establishes the basis for how we as Christians should approach life and the Lord... That by humbling ourselves we not only imitate Christ, but can receive eternal salvation. The line “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” should come through more deeply based on our discussion on crucifixion above.
This takes us to our Gospel from John. Here Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin who grew to have high regard for Jesus. Jesus explains to Nicodemus that just as Moses lifted up the serpent to remind the people of the Lords works, so the Son of Man will be raised up as a reminder of God’s glory. It is also within this passage we give context to that often shown “John 3:16” poster during football games… “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” While we Catholics may not be as literate when it comes to sighting chapter and verse for scripture, we clearly understand the meaning and context, which is why we no longer consider the cross to be an object of shame, but rather a symbol of God’s glory.