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Scripture In Depth
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.

Moses 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 Kings 18:4).

But the story has been taken over into the religion of YHWH and purified of its cultic associations. The bronze serpent becomes a sign of YHWH healing presence.

In 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.

The second 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, however temporary.

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.

Such compassion was exhibited in the episode of the fiery serpents and preeminently on the cross.

Reading II: Philippians 2:6-11

Modern New 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 procedure.

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 from Jesus.

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 interpretation.

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 3:1).

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.”

Reginald H. Fuller

Copyright © 2006 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved. Used by permission from The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321

Preaching the Lectionary:
The Word of God for the Church Today

Reginald H. Fuller. The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), pp. 562-563, 54-55, 241-242.

Preaching the Lectionary

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