Exaltation of the Holy Cross
September 14, 2014
Reading I: Numbers 21:4b-9
The literal meaning of the serpent story is
fairly obvious. The Hebrew people, as they
wandered through the desert after
the Exodus, were afflicted by the bites of venomous serpents.
cured them by setting up a bronze serpent.
When the people
looked at this serpent, they were cured.
No doubt this story has primitive origins in a Canaanite snake cult that was
fostered in Israel until Hezekiah’s reformation (2
But the story
been taken over into the religion of YHWH and purified
of its cultic associations.
The bronze serpent becomes a sign of YHWH healing presence.
the Fourth Gospel
this incident is seen as a type of the cross (see below).
Responsorial Psalm 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
This psalm, the
longest in the psalter except for Psalm 119, is a didactic
poem on Israel’s salvation history. It is thought that it
may have been used in the annual liturgy of the renewal of
the covenant, an observance featured also in the Manual of
Discipline of the Qumran community.
The present selection consists of four stanzas.
The first stanza
(Ps 78:1-2) is a wisdom introduction, emphasizing the didactic
nature of the poem.
stanza (Ps 78:34-35) selects that part of the Exodus story that corresponds to
the episode of the fiery serpents (hence its suitability as a response to the
reading of that story). God’s discipline and chastisement produce repentance,
The third stanza (Ps 78:36-37) speaks of the people’s later
relapse into the sin of unfaithfulness.
The fourth stanza (Ps 78:38) speaks of
Gods unwearying compassion.
was exhibited in the episode of the fiery
serpents and preeminently on the cross.
Reading II: Philippians 2:6-11
Testament scholars are widely agreed that this a hymn composed
prior to Paul’s time. It is often called Carmen Christi,
from Pliny’s description of Christian worship. There
is much dispute about its proper division into stanzas, but
the following reconstruction has much to commend it.
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men,
and being found in human form he humbled himself
and became obedient unto death
[even death on a cross: added by Paul].
Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow [in heaven and on earth
and under the earth: may be a later
though pre-Pauline, addition]
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
[to the glory of God the Father: perhaps
added by Paul].
The first stanza
will refer to the pre-incarnate existence of the Christ:
he was of equal status with the Father (see the Old Testament
speculations about the divine wisdom).
This status he voluntarily surrendered and became subject to human bondage
to the powers of evil (“the form of a servant”: some refer this
to the suffering servant, but at this point the hymn refers to what is common
between Christ and all human beings, not to what distinguishes him from them).
The last line of the second stanza refers to what is unique: he “became
obedient unto death” (Paul emphasizes that that was the scandal—the
death on the cross).
The third stanza marks the turning point of the Redeemer’s way—his
exaltation—while the last stanza speaks of his ultimate triumph over
the whole created universe.
The Carmen Christi sets the death of Christ in its total context.
It is at once the nadir of the divine condescension begun in the incarnation
and the ground of Christ’s exaltation and final triumph.
Gospel: John 3:13-17
The conversation with Nicodemus
is the first discourse in the Fourth Gospel. It is typical of this evangelist’s
He takes an incident in the life of our Lord from his tradition, here
an encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (there is good reason to think that
this encounter, as a historical occasion, belonged to the later part of the ministry,
shortly before the passion).
He then has Nicodemus ask three questions (Jn 3:2,
3:4, 3:9), each of which elicits a pronouncement
Some of the material in these pronouncements, for example, the saying about being
born again in Jn 3:3, comes from the sayings tradition and is paralleled in
the Synoptists. The rest is an elaboration of Johannine theology.
The first part
of the discourse enunciates the necessity for rebirth as
the essential prerequisite for entry into the kingdom of
God. The second part, from which our passage is taken, explains
that this rebirth can only come as a result of the “lifting
up” of the Son of man, that is, his death and glorification.
As the quotation marks indicate, it is only the saying about the serpent and
the Son of man that is represented as a saying of Jesus. Jn 3:16-21 are presented
as a meditation of the evangelist and look back on the coming of Christ and
his saving work as an already accomplished event.
In the opening
saying about the serpent and the Son of man, we have an interesting
interpretation of the cross. There are several presentations
of the atonement in the New Testament, but the one given
here is frequently overlooked. It is almost an Abelardian
The very sight of Christ lifted up on the cross has power to bring men and
women to faith and repentance, just as the contemplation of the serpent lifted
up on the pole by Moses (Num 21:9ff) was able to heal the Israelites who had
been bitten by fiery serpents.
Paul seems to envisage a similar interpretation of the power of the cross when
he reminds the Galatians that Christ had been placarded before their eyes as
the crucified One (Gal
This may not be a very satisfying doctrine of the atonement intellectually,
but from a devotional point of view it has great power.
It is saved from being
a purely exemplarist interpretation by the ensuing meditation, which asserts
most emphatically that the cross is an act of divine love: “God so loved
the world that he gave his only Son.”
This also picks up the words at
the opening of the second reading: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of
the great love with which he loved us.”
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Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today
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