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FEAST OF THE EXALTATION OF THE CROSS

Readings:
Numbers 21:4b-9
Psalm 78:1-2, 34-38
Philippians 2:6-11
John 3:13-17

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The Theme of the readings for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross: The Church is called to Glory in the Cross of Jesus Christ
August the 14th is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  Christians in the Catholic tradition are often recognized by their veneration of the Cross which is a profound symbol in the lives of the Catholic faithful.  We make the sign of the Cross from head to chest and shoulder to shoulder when we invoke the name of the Most Holy Trinity in prayer and when we say the blessing over food.  Our buildings are identified by the symbol of the Cross, we have crucifixes on the walls of our homes, and we carry the Cross on our rosaries and around our necks in gold or silver necklaces to mark us as Christians.  We express our faith in the glory of the Cross during our lives and a symbol of the cross marks our grave sites in death.  Today we celebrate the feast which in Latin is called "Exaltatio Crucis," Exaltation of the Cross, indicating that the Cross of Jesus Christ is not a sign of shame as it was prior to the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.  Instead, the Cross is the sign of Jesus' victory over sin and death and the hope of our eternal salvation. 

The First Reading Numbers 21:4b-9 ~ The Bronze Serpent
4b With their patience worn out by the journey, 5 the people complained against God and Moses, "why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water?  We are disgusted with this wretched food!"  6 In punishment the LORD sent among the people seraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died.  7 Then the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.  Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people 8 and the LORD said to Moses, "Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live."  9 Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, they lived.

Near the end of their forty year wilderness journey, the new generation of the children of Israel began to complain about their hardships and spoke against God and Moses.  They accused God and His covenant mediator of conspiring to lead them to die in the desert by not providing food and water for them. 

5 the people complained against God and Moses, "why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water?  We are disgusted with this wretched food!"
The people were in effect accusing God of being like the subtle serpent in the Garden of Eden whose lies lured Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit that brought death to mankind.  They were accusing God of seeking their destruction and forgetting God's works of salvation on their behalf like their parents and grand-parents had thirty-eight years earlier (Ex 17:1-7; Num 14:14).

6 In punishment the LORD sent among the people seraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died.  The word seraph means "fiery."
As their punishment for such a great sin as accusing God of evil like the serpent Satan, God allowed poisonous serpents whose bite burnt like fire to afflict the people and to call them to repentance before dissatisfaction led to full-scale revolt.

7 Then the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.  Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us."
The new generation of the children of Israel's response to Yahweh's redemptive judgment was different from that of their father's from the Exodus generation.  They immediately acknowledge their sin, repented their sin, and asked for divine intervention. 

So Moses prayed for the people 8 and the LORD said to Moses, "Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live."  9 Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, they lived.
God's response to the people's repentance and Moses' petition was to provide a means of salvation.  If they had the faith to look up to the image of a serpent that Moses was instructed to make, and if they believed that God had the power to heal them, they were healed.  It is ironic that they had to look to an image of their judgment and affliction which was also an image of the great accuser and adversary of mankind.  The image of the bronze serpent came to be called the Nehushtan; nehoset = bronze and nahash = serpent (see John 3:14, Wis 16:5-7, and 2 Kng 18:4).

One might ask, isn't making this image in violation of the commandment in Exodus 20:4-5 (also see Dt 5:8-9)?  God commanded that the covenant people must not create any graven images with the intent of worshipping them.  However, He did not prohibit images that He commanded be made or images that symbolized the promise of salvation.  Examples of images that God commanded the covenant people to make were the cherubim over the Mercy-Seat of the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:18-21), and the images embroidered on the curtain in the Sanctuary that covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies (Ex 26:31).  There were also two great winged cherubim statues whose wings spanned the walls of the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Jerusalem Temple, and images of bulls around the consecrated water basin for ritual purification (1 Kng 6:23-28; 7:23-25).  So long as none of these images were worshipped or were in any way viewed as divine, they were acceptable.  Their function was not a violation of the commands of God any more than Catholic statues or the image of the Cross is a violation.  The Catechism teaches: "Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the Ark of the Covenant, and the cherubim" (CCC 2130).

It wasn't the bronze serpent that had the power to heal.  The healing power came from God if the people had the faith to look up and believe that God had the power to heal them.  The inspired writer of the Book of Wisdom saw this event as a sign for the people to recall the Law which commanded them to be obedient to God and to have faith and trust that God had the power to protect them as He had promised (see Wis 16:5-7).

In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus refers to the bronze serpent as a sign of the universal salvation promised by God.  Jesus links His own crucifixion to this event when speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:10-17 and to the people in John 8:27-30

The bronze serpent is a biblical "type" of the crucified Christ.  A biblical type is: "A biblical person, thing, action, or event that foreshadows new truths, new actions, or new events.  In the Old Testament, Melchizedech and Jonah are types of Jesus Christ.  A likeness must exist between the type and the archetype, but the latter is always greater.  Both are independent of each other." Catholic Dictionary, John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Bronze Serpent Jesus Christ Crucified
The bronze serpent was God's plan to heal the people of the snake bites that caused the death of the people and was a judgment for their sin.   Jesus Christ crucified was God's plan to heal mankind and deliver humanity from the curse of sin and death.
The image was suspended from a wooden pole.   Jesus was suspended from the wooden Cross.
The people could only be saved from death by looking at the image suspended from the wood and believing that God could heal them.   Mankind can be healed by looking to the crucified and resurrected Christ and believing that He has the power to forgive sins and to save them from eternal death.
Michal E. Hunt © 2010

Do you look to the Christ crucified as the sign of your eternal salvation and the remedy to save you from sin and death?   Do not be rebellious like the Exodus generation; be like their children who repented and accepted God's gift of salvation and lived.

Responsorial Psalm 78:1-2, 34-38 ~ Remember God's Mighty Works
The response is: "Do not forget the works of the Lord!"
1 Hearken, my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.  2 I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter mysteries from of old.
Response:
34 While he slew them they sought him and inquired after God again, 35 remembering that God was their rock and the Most High God, their redeemer.
Response:
36 But they flattered him with their mouths and lied to him with their tongues, 37 though their hearts were not steadfast toward him, nor were they faithful to his covenant.
Response:
38 Yet he, being merciful, forgave their sin and destroyed them not; often he turned back his anger and let none of his wrath be roused.
Response:

Psalm 78 is a very long poem that recounts the history of Israel's relationship with Yahweh.  The introduction in verses 1-2 invites the people of Israel to learn from the past and not to repeat their ancestor's acts of rebellion against God's authority over them.  The psalmist tells how past generations did not show their gratitude for God's mighty deeds on their behalf.  In response to their rebellion, God punished them until they repented and sought His fellowship again (verses 34-35).  Yet, they continually rebelled, refused to trust God, and they broke the laws of the covenant He made with them at Sinai (verses 36-37).    In His mercy, God forgave their sin and took them back as His covenant people (verse 38). 

The psalmist was giving the people a warning: the judgments God brought against Israel in the past can happen again if future generations forget His mighty deeds and His gracious protection.  The question that the psalmist alludes to at the end of the poem (verses 65-72) is will the new generation fail to appreciate God's new act of making a covenant with David and his descendants with the promise that the Davidic throne will endure forever? 

The history of God's actions recounted in this psalm is also a warning for the New Covenant people of God.  The promise of the eternal Davidic Kingdom was fulfilled as a result of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ.  Through His sacrificial death and resurrection, He established the new Israel of the universal Church and the promise of eternal life for those who profess their belief in Him and their obedience to His Church.  It is the works of Christ on our behalf that protects us from divine judgment, but only if we remember, only if we are grateful, and only if we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.  It is as St. Peter courageously proclaimed at his trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin: There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved (Acts 4:12).

The Second Reading Philippians 2:6-11 ~ Christ Humbled Himself
6 Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  7 Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; 8 and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  9 Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In this passage, St. Paul gives a profound exposition of the true nature of Jesus Christ.  He acknowledges Jesus' humanity but he also clearly professes His divinity.  Verse 6 and the beginning of verse 7 refer to the Christ humbling himself in becoming man.  The end of verse 7 and verse 8 is the center of the passage in which Paul proclaims the extreme to which Jesus' humility brought Him: as man he obediently accepted death on the Cross. This, says Paul, is the supreme example of His humility.  However, Jesus' humiliation does not simply lay in his becoming a man like us and hiding His glorious divinity in human form.  The act of taking on a human body brought him to a life of suffering and sacrifice which reached its climax on the Cross where He was stripped of everything He had, like a slave. Then in verses 9-11, Paul describes Jesus' exaltation in glory.  Having completed his mission, Jesus is made manifest again, clothed in all the glory of His divine nature which his human nature has merited.  For this great act of bringing salvation to mankind, St. Paul declares that Jesus deserves the worship and praise of every living creature and the confession that He is Lord of all!

The Gospel of John 3:13-17 ~ Lifted Up on the Cross
Jesus said to Nicodemus: 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." 16 For 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.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

This part of our reading is from Jesus' conversation with a Pharisee and Jewish leader named Nicodemus.  He came in the dead of night to question Jesus.  First Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to have eternal life he must be reborn from above through water and the Spirit of God ( John 3:3, 5).  Then the conversation turned to a revelation of Jesus' true identity and a prophecy of His Passion (verses 13-16). 

13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. 
The significance of Jesus' statement that He has "come down from heaven" which no one has ever done before (verse 13) is that Jesus is revealing His divine nature.  Then Jesus refers to an event that took place during the children of Israel's forty year journey through the wilderness from the First Reading in Numbers 21:4-9.

14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up
Jesus is referring to what occurred when the new generation of Israel, the descendants of the Exodus generation, was travelling through the wilderness.  They rebelled against God and His prophet, Moses.  As a result of their rebellion, God punished them with poisonous snakes that began to bite the people.  When they repented, God offered the people the opportunity to be healed by looking up to the image of a bronze serpent elevate on a pole above the people (see the First Reading).  Jesus is comparing Himself to the image of the bronze serpent that God had Moses construct and raise up above the heads of the people as a means of their salvation.  In the wilderness journey, when plagued by the bites of the snakes, all the people had to do was to look up to the figure raised above them on the wooden pole and believe that God could save them from the deadly poison of the snakes. 

15 so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. This incident prefigures Christ's crucifixion. We must look to the crucified Christ, believe that He is the only Son of God and be "lifted up with Him" in order to be saved from the poison of sin and the "bite" of eternal death.  If we believe, we can receive true salvation, the gift of eternal life.  This is why St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:23, we preach Christ crucified, and it is why in every Catholic Mass an image of the crucified Christ hanging from the Cross must be present.  Notice that Jesus uses the title "Son of man" twice in verses 14-15.  It is Jesus' favorite Messianic title for Himself.  In verse 14 the title stresses Jesus' humanity as He suffered on the Cross while verse 13 stresses His divine origin as the one who has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of man....  This verse may also be a reference to the Prophet Daniel's vision of the divine Messiah who had the appearance of a Son of man (looked like a man) in Daniel 7:13-14.  Jesus will allude to these verses from the Book of Daniel at His trial by the Sanhedrin before His crucifixion.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only [only begotten = monogenes] Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. [..] = literal Greek translation IBGE, vol. IV.  The significant Greek word monogenes means that Jesus was not "created" by God as in all other creatures on earth.  It is from mono = "sole or only" and gennao = "to beget, be born, to cause or to generate as in begetting."  Monogene can also mean "one of a kind."  See the word monogenes in John 1:14, 18; 3:18; 1 Jn 4:9

John 3:16 is one of the best known verses in the Bible.  It is the witness of the Gospels summed up in one sentence. When Jesus said that God the Father did not send Him into the world to judge the world, He is saying that in His first Advent the divine judgment of mankind is not His mission.  His name in Hebrew means Yahweh is salvation, and He was sent into the world to proclaim the Kingdom of His Church and to offer the gift of eternal salvation.  Judgment comes later, and judgment depends on whether or not one receives Christ as Savior: Whoever believes in  him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (Jn 3:18, IBGE, vol. IV).

Do you look to the Cross as the hope of your salvation?  Do you believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ who shed His blood on the altar of the Cross so that your sins might be forgiven?  It is wise to remember the words of St. Rose of Lima who summed up the meaning of the Cross in a few simple words: "The Cross is the only ladder to heaven."

Catechism References:
Numbers 21:4-9 (CCC 2130)
Philippians 2:6-11 (CCC 2641, 2667); 2:6-9 (CCC 1850); 2:6 (CCC 449); 2:7 (CCC 472, 602, 705, 713, 876, 1224); 2:8-9 (CCC 908); 2:8 (CCC 411, 612, 623); 2:9-11 (CCC 449, 2812); 2:9-10 (CCC 434), 2:10-11 (CCC 201); 2:10 (CCC 633, 635)
John 3:13 (CCC 423, 440, 661); 3:13-15 (CCC 2130); 3:16 (CCC 219, 444, 454, 458, 706) 3:17 (CCC 679)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014