Many people, including some Catholics, find it strange that we celebrate a joyful feast in honor of the Holy Cross. What is there about the Cross, an ancient Roman instrument of torture and execution, that we should “exalt” it? Of course, there are historical dimensions to this feast, connected to the story of the discovery of the True Cross and the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But the center of the feast is the meaning of the Cross itself.
Our celebration is not simply about a venerable piece of wood but about what happened on it. The Cross has come to symbolize the whole event of our salvation. So the exaltation – or the triumph – of the Cross points us to the exaltation, the triumph, that took place on it, and to the Person who was exalted on the Cross, the One who triumphed gloriously on the Cross. It is about Jesus Christ and his victorious Death and Resurrection.
It was God’s plan from the beginning to save the world through the “lifting up,” that is, through the “exaltation” of his Son Jesus Christ. His being lifted up on the Cross would be the remedy to sin and its consequences. Today’s reading from the Book of Numbers gives us a prophetic foreshadowing of the exaltation of Jesus on the Cross. It was not the bronze serpent itself, mounted on a pole, that saved the people of Israel from dying of their sins. God saved them when they looked at it. He used this symbol to prepare for the revelation of the saving power of the Cross.
Jesus alludes to the event of the bronze serpent in today’s Gospel, where he says, “just 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 may have eternal life.” In speaking about his being “lifted up,” Jesus is referring to his Death on the Cross. We are saved by him, given eternal life, when we believe in him, when we ‘look upon him whom we have pierced’ (cf. Jn 19:37).
The exaltation of the Holy Cross is essentially a celebration of God’s immense love for us. As Jesus says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” The supreme expression of God’s love for us, the Death of Christ on the Cross, is what makes it possible for us to “have eternal life.” His Death is the victory of love, the triumph of the Cross. The Cross is the greatest sign of God’s ineffable love for us.
The exaltation of Christ did not end on the Cross. He was ultimately exalted in glory, “lifted up” into Heaven. His exaltation on the Cross was the necessary condition of his exaltation into heavenly glory. This is what St. Paul tells us in today’s reading from his Letter to the Philippians. It was because Jesus humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, that “God greatly exalted him.”
God wants us too to be exalted! If we want to enjoy the glory of eternal life that Christ has obtained for us, we need to humble ourselves and follow his way of the Cross. Humble, self-emptying, sacrificial love is the divine pattern we are called to follow. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:12). The Cross is the sure and only way of being “lifted up” to a share in heavenly glory. St. Rose of Lima says, “Apart from the Cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven” (cf. CCC 618).
How often do I ponder on the words, “Look upon him whom we have pierced”? Have I experienced that The Cross is the greatest sign of God’s ineffable love for me? Is my life patterned on the way of being humble, self-emptying and sacrificial love?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 16, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.