Num 21:4-9; Phil 2:6-11; Jn 3:13-17
“HAIL TO THE MOST HOLY CROSS OF JESUS!”
Today we celebrate the Feast of Exaltation of the Most Holy Cross. Today’s feast invites us to glory in the Cross, to Hail the Most Holy Cross of Jesus Christ. Some have always wondered why we should bow or genuflect to a piece of wood, talk less of setting aside a day to celebrate the feast of the Cross. In answer to such persons, we note that life itself is full of numerous symbols, among which are religious symbols. For us Christians, the Cross is a profound symbol of our faith, of our salvation. In the Cross, we see the love of God for the human race; the God who turned against himself to save us. In the Cross, we see the healing and forgiveness of sins. In short, we see in the Cross, salvation.
- THE THREE HISTORICAL EVENTS MARKING TODAY’S FEAST
Today’s feast marks three historical events in the life of the Church:
- a) The discovery of the True Cross of Christ by St. Helena in 326. Legend holds that the relic was found by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land about 326. After finding three crosses at the site of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, it is believed that she proceeded to test the crosses in order to know which of them was Jesus’. The crosses were taken to a woman who was near death. She touched the first two with no effect, but as soon as she touched the True Cross of Jesus, she was healed. Another tradition says, that when the true Cross was laid on a dead man, he was raised to life.
- b) The second incident is the construction and dedication of two churches which were built at the command of Emperor Constantine, at the site of the Holy Sepulcher and Mount Calvary. The churches were constructed in honour of St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor. These two churches were dedicated on the 13th and 14th of September respectively, in the year 335. And soon afterwards the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross began to be celebrated on the 14th of September.
- c) The third event recalls the return of the True Cross to Jerusalem in the year 629. It is said that Heraclius, the Byzantine Emperor, recovered the cross from the Persians who had seized it from Jerusalem around the 7th century when they sacked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
- THE MEANING OF THE FEAST OF THE CROSS
Although this feast traces its beginning to Jerusalem and the dedication of the church built on the site of Mount Calvary in 335, the meaning of the cross is deeper than any city, any celebration, any building. The cross is a sign of suffering, a sign of human cruelty at its worst. But by Christ’s love shown in the Paschal Mystery, it has become the sign of triumph and victory, the sign of God, who is love itself.
Believers have always looked to the cross in times of suffering. People in concentration camps, in prisons, in hospitals, in any place of suffering and loneliness, have been known to draw, trace, or form crosses and focus their eyes and hearts on them. The cross does not explain pain and misery. The Cross does not give us any easy answers. But helps us to see our lives united with that of Christ.
We often make the Sign of the Cross over ourselves. We make it before prayer to help fix our minds and hearts on God. We make it after prayer, hoping to stay close to God. In trials and temptations, the cross is a sign of strength and protection. The cross is the sign of the fullness of life that is ours. At Baptism, too, the Sign of the Cross is used. The priest (or any other celebrant), parents, and godparents make the sign on the forehead of the child. A sign made on the forehead is a sign of belonging. By the Sign of the Cross in Baptism, Jesus takes us as his own in a unique way. Today, we are invited to look to the cross often. We are called to make the Sign of the Cross as a sign of bringing our whole selves to God—our minds, souls, bodies, wills, thoughts, hearts—everything we are and will become.
- THE SYMBOL OF THE BRONZE SERPENT
We are celebrating the truth about the Cross which stands out clearly in today’s readings. In today’s first reading, we are told about the Israelite’s journey through the desert. They became impatient. Hunger, thirst, tiredness made them to rebel against God. They wanted to turn back from the march of salvation into the Promised Land. Because of their rebellion, they got punished with bites from fiery serpents which brought death to so many of them. This caused the people to repent and Moses prayed to God on their behalf.
God, then, ordered Moses to place a bronze serpent on a standard, and all who looked to it, IN FAITH, were healed and did not die. It is worthy to note that God did not ask that a life-serpent be caught and hung on a stake. He asked for an IMAGE OF THE SERPENT. “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that anyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14) This is a call to those people who ask questions as to why Catholics make use statues, the cross and other symbols. You will understand what Jesus wants to say here. Moses did not lift up a life-serpent for people to look at and be saved. No! It is not the statue that saves the people. In keeping with God’s orders, Moses made a bronze image. He made a STATUE of that which has been destroying the people.
When the people looked at it, they saw the SIGN OF GOD’S PRESENCE IN THEIR LIFE AND THEY WERE HEALED. The statue was a SYMBOL OF THE LIVING GOD. THAT IS WHAT STATUES SERVE IN OUR CHURCH. THEY ARE SIGN OF GOD’S SALVIFIC PLAN FOR US. God is merciful; he is powerful, he is all-present, and he has chosen to make his presence among men. WHEN YOU SEE A STATUE, YOU ARE NOT SEEING GOD HIMSELF BUT YOU ARE SEEING A SIGN OF GOD’S PRESENCE. That is why there are crucifixes, crosses, statues all over our churches. That is why Catholics install them in their homes. They carry them in their pockets, wear them in chains round their necks and arms. IN THEM, WE SEE GOD CARING FOR US, DESPITE OUR LACK OF FAITH. While we were still sinners, Christ dies for us (Rom 5:8).
- WE GLORY IN THE CROSS
The snake which kills becomes the sign of our salvation, when the Son of Man shall be lifted up in a similar way. The Cross which was a disgraceful means of death becomes the source of our salvation. St. Paul tells us: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor 1:18). What kills becomes the healer. By his wounds, we are healed. For any good Christian, the Cross is everything. YOU CANNOT BE A CHRISTIAN WITHOUT THE CROSS. That is why Catholics make the sign of the cross every time. This is because they pride in that cross.
Commenting on this, in his address at St. Peter’s Square, November 20, 2013, Pope Francis makes an interesting observation: “God does not destroy the serpents, but rather offers an antidote. By means of the bronze serpent, God transmits his healing strength, his mercy, which is more powerful than the serpent’s poison.”
The bronze serpent is a great Old Testament symbol pointing to something greater to come. In the Gospel, Jesus fulfils this Old Testament prophesy. He identifies himself with the symbol of the serpent. Jesus says: “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that anyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14-16). This is precisely the point: as Jesus hung upon the wood of the Cross, he became for all who believe, the source of healing, the source of salvation from the sting of death, from the sting of sin. The Cross then became an antidote of sin and temptation. For, in the Cross, we encounter the healing strength, love and mercy of our God.
As St. Paul sings in the second reading, Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Cf. Phil 2:6 ff.). The Cross which was an instrument of torture, designed the degrade the worst of criminals, has become the life-giving. The cross has become a symbol of pride for the Christian.
My dear friends, as we celebrate this feast of the Exaltation of the Most Holy Cross, we may ask ourselves: Why celebrate this feast anyway? Christ himself offers the answer: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross daily and follow me.” (Lk 9:23).
The point of taking up our crosses is not simply a self-sacrifice. In doing so, we unite ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, in a mysterious and special way. Also, in every Holy Mass, the Cross is present because the unbloody sacrifice offered on the altar is a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. When we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, we do not simply unite ourselves to Christ. We nail ourselves to the Cross, dying with Christ, so that we might rise with him. Christianity, dear friends, without the Cross, is meaningless. Only by uniting ourselves to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross can we enter into eternal life.
May this feast of the Most Holy Cross, inspire us to bear our crosses patiently and lovingly. May we never be ashamed of the sign of the Cross.
(Where possible, the preacher may make copies available to the faithful or arrange with the choir, or invite the congregation to sing this beautiful hymn in honour of the cross of Christ)
The Old Rugged Cross
(By Brad Paisley, an American country music singer and songwriter)
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suff’ring and shame;
And I love that old cross where the Dearest and Best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
Refrain: And I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged Cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.
Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary. (Refrain)
In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me. (Refrain)
To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me someday to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share. (Refrain)