Fifty-second in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Readings: Numbers 21:4b-9; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17
There’s a sort of visceral feeling to today’s feast. Other celebrations of the Passion can leave us feeling like we just came from history class or from a seminar in unquestioned faith. Today’s isn’t like that. Today’s feast revolves around not just a historical reality, but an actual physical object. Today’s feast commemorates the day that the True Cross itself was lifted up (Latin, exaltatus) for veneration by the faithful for the first time in the newly dedicated Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Discovered in the ground 300 years after that supreme sacrifice, at the very site of that supreme sacrifice, the True Cross gave a confirmation, as it were, of the already ancient faith of the Church. If the Divine Mercy is indeed cross-shaped, then today the assembled faithful saw the shape of Mercy.
The True Cross gives form to the idea expressed in the kenosis hymn that we heard on Palm Sunday, and which is our Second Reading again today. Jesus truly did empty Himself, in the most dramatic and gruesome way possible at that time in that part of the world: “death on a cross.” Reserved for those criminals of whom the Romans wished to make an example, this death involved blood loss, nerve pain, suffocation, exhaustion, and the humiliation of being a public spectacle. Those nailed on a cross were truly considered the lowest of the low. And “[b]ecause of this, God greatly exalted him” – the Father literally lifted up the Son, not as He was lifted up on the cross but rather raised to newness and fullness of life. He is still an example to us, but now of our ultimate destiny that not even the most grisly of deaths can deny us if we honestly seek relationship with God.
The First Reading suggests to us that this sublime happening has been foreshadowed by the events surrounding the Exodus. Plagued by the poisons of saraph serpents in the desert, the Israelites asked Moses to intercede with God for them to obtain relief. And so God instructs Moses to craft the image of a saraph serpent out of bronze and to mount it on display, so that any who looked upon it might be healed. Jesus Himself confirms this foreshadowing in His conversation with Nicodemus in the Gospel reading: “[J]ust 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 might have eternal life.” A quirky fact you may not know is that Moses’ bronze serpent survived into the time of the Davidic monarchy and was kept inside the Jerusalem Temple, but it eventually had to be destroyed because the people had begun to worship it like a god. They had bestowed upon the serpent (which by that time was called Nehushtan) a fullness appropriate to the divine – a fullness that Jesus had shed in His death on the Cross, and which was restored to Him by the Father in His Resurrection.
Much like the bronze serpent, the Cross survived the ages and was installed in a place of worship. In fact, small pieces of it have been set up in other churches, including Boston’s own Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Unlike the serpent, however, there had been no intention or attempt to preserve the Cross before it was discovered some centuries later. The circumstances surrounding the Crucifixion didn’t present themselves as occasions of healing and victory – at least not in the minds of those who observed it in the moment. Also unlike the serpent, the Cross was not imbued by the faithful or the clergy with any sort of fullness in and of itself. It is a symbol of emptiness that came to represent a promise of fullness, a symbol of shame that came to represent a promise of triumph. And when it was at length discovered, and verified, and raised up for the faithful to see, and installed for public veneration – and later on recaptured from those forces that tried to steal and destroy it – that symbol and that promise became all the more real. Even now, 1700 years after the discovery, the words of the Evangelist that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world” become much more clear to us by seeing the object – or even a part of it – upon which the Son suffered condemnation on our behalf, “that the world might be saved through him.”
These are the special moments that keep the faith from being thought of as just “cleverly devised myths,” as Saint Peter once wrote. There is something more to it than that, something tangible, something even gritty. These are the moments that remind us that the bread and wine of the Eucharist wasn’t God’s first visible, physical form. These are the moments that teach us that confessing “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” isn’t just an invisible, spiritual reality. These are the moments that bring us to our knees. These are the moments that make Divine Mercy scary real.