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Behold the Cross
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to Heaven except the one who has come down from Heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.” 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
Opening Prayer: We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your cross you have redeemed the world.
- The Son of Man: “No one has gone up to Heaven except the one who has come down from Heaven, the Son of Man.” This language may seem strange to our ears, but Nicodemus, a learned Pharisee, clearly understood Jesus. To scholars like Nicodemus, “Son of Man” had two meanings. The first is human, mortal. The second is a prophetic king as described in the Book of Daniel (7:13-14): “As the visions during the night continued, I saw coming with the clouds of Heaven one like a son of man. When he reached the Ancient of Days (Old Testament term for God) and was presented before him, he received dominion, splendor, and kingship; all nations, peoples, and tongues will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed.” Jesus was telling Nicodemus not only that he is this Son of Man, King of an everlasting dominion, but he then revealed how he would achieve his victory.
- The Seraph Serpent: “And 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.” We look for context in this case to Numbers 21:4-9: “[…] the people’s patience was worn out by the journey; so the people complained against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!’ So the Lord sent among the people seraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of the Israelites died. Then the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord to take the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord said to Moses: ‘Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover.’ Accordingly Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever the serpent bit someone, the person looked at the bronze serpent and recovered.” The etymology of seraph is “fiery one” which can mean Satan, the evil one. The people, we hear, complained against both Moses (the one God gave the Israelites to lead them out of slavery) and against God himself. By telling Moses to lift the bronze serpent on the pole, he was lifting their sin in front of their eyes. This visible sign of their sinfulness caused them to repent. Jesus takes two well-known Scripture passages to explain to Nicodemus that the true enemy of the people is not their outside oppressors; it is the sin that dwells within their own hearts. What an impact these words of Jesus must have made on the heart of Nicodemus. We know from the Gospel of John (19:39) that Nicodemus became a disciple and helped take Jesus’ body from the cross.
- The Cross: “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross commemorates the Holy Cross on which our Lord, Savior, and King, Jesus Christ, was crucified. The history of this feast is explained, “Early in the fourth century, St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. She razed the second-century Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior’s tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher on that spot. During the excavation, workers found three crosses. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman. The cross immediately became an object of veneration. At a Good Friday celebration in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century, according to an eyewitness, the wood was taken out of its silver container and placed on a table together with the inscription Pilate ordered placed above Jesus’ head: Then “all the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they move on.” To this day, the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the September anniversary of the basilica’s dedication. The feast entered the Western calendar in the seventh century after Emperor Heraclius recovered the cross from the Persians, who had carried it off in 614, fifteen years earlier. According to the story, the emperor intended to carry the cross back into Jerusalem himself, but was unable to move forward until he took off his imperial garb and became a barefoot pilgrim (Franciscan Media).
Conversing with Christ: Lord Jesus, in this encounter with Nicodemus, you spoke to him in ways that his scholarly mind could accept, understand, and embrace. He became your disciple. By your grace, help me, like Nicodemus, come to you, ask you questions, and, even in my confusion, follow you.
Resolution: Lord, today by your grace I will pray using the Gospels and spend time questioning and pondering the words so that I can grow in my faith.
For Further Reflection: Scene from “The Chosen”: John 3:16.
Nan Balfour is an events coordinator for Pilgrim Center of Hope, a Catholic Evangelization Ministry that answers Christ’s call by guiding people to encounter him so as to live in hope as pilgrims in daily life. She is also a mother, writer, and speaker on Catholic topics.