The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14th
John 3: 13-17
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.
- Jesus says that those who believe in him have eternal life. What do you think believing in Jesus involves?
- What role has suffering played in your life? What have you learned from your suffering?
- Why do you think we call this feast the exaltation of the cross?
John 3: 13-17
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
Our reading from John is part of a long conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus after Jesus’ first mighty sign, the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, and after the cleansing of the temple. The conversation is typical of other conversations in John. Someone approaches Jesus and asks a question. In response Jesus gives what turns out to be a long theological monologue. Through the monologue John is teaching those in his end-of-the-century audience something about the risen Christ in their lives.
John’s method and message are easier to understand if we remember his audience and purpose. John is writing end-of-the-century y heaven long before the end of the first century. They are asking, “Where is the risen Christ?” John responds that the risen Christ is in their midst; Christ is present through the church and through the sacraments. (John himself does not use the word sacrament. That is a word that was later applied to such actions as baptism and r wedding at Cana, are allegorical stories that, at the allegorical level, teach of the risen Christ’s presence in the life of every Christian. The theological discourses, such as the passage we read today, are teaching a postresurrection audience what was known only after the resurrection.
In today’s reading Jesus says to Nicodemus, “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” In this passage Jesus is telling Nicodemus that Nicodemus should trust what Jesus teaches about spiritual things. Immediately preceding this sentence Jesus has said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:11-12). Jesus is telling Nicodemus that be alone knows about heavenly things because he alone has already been to heaven. He is the Son of Man who has come down from the preexistent Word. That Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In John, Jesus has knowledge of his preexistence. Because Jesus came down from heaven Nicodemus (and John’s audience) should believe that what Jesus is teaching is true.
Next Jesus says, “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 read the story to which Jesus is referring when he talks about Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert in our Old Testament reading today. We will discuss that reading shortly. Jesus is comparing the effect of the serpent’s being lifted up, extended life on earth, to the effect of his being lifted up, eternal life.
The words lifted up have a double meaning in lohn. They refer y both to his being lifted up on the cross and his being lifted up in the resurrection. These two events are treated as two elements of one event. Jesus’ crucifixion was in no way a defeat. Rather, Jesus’ being lifted up, on the cross and in the resurrection, revealed his glory. Here John is teaching the necessity of the cross as part of God’s saving plan. The Son of Man must be lifted up.
It is hard for us to imagine just how difficult it was for Jews con- temporary with Jesus to believe that a person who died by crucifixion could be a chosen one of God, much less God’s only beloved son. Why would God allow his own son to suffer such a shameful and ignominious death? In addition, why would God allow God’s son to die under a curse? The law placed a curse on anyone who died on a tree. By using the phrase raised up, and by having that phrase refer both to the crucifixion and the resurrection, John is teaching his audience that Jesus’ crucifixion was not a shameful end but a glorious self-sacrifice.
John continues: “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.” Jesus came to earth, suffered, died, and rose from the dead for the express purpose of revealing God’s love for all people and giving eternal life to all who believe in him.
It is true that human beings will be held accountable for their actions. It is also true that the Gospels present Jesus as a judge. However, in today’s reading Jesus tells Nicodemus that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God’s sole purpose in sending his Son to earth was to reveal God’s love for every person. Jesus’ sole purpose in embracing the cross was to fulfill the will of his Father and to offer eternal life not to a chosen few, but to the world. John wants his end-of-the-century contemporaries, and us, to understand just how much God loves them, and that Jesus’ being raised up on the cross and in the resurrection, is proof of that love.
No Turning Back
Paige Byrne Shortal
He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. —Phil 2:8
Why are we talking about the cross in September? Today’s feast originated in Jerusalem and marks the anniversary of the consecration of the basilica built by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century. This day is also a celebration of the finding of the true cross by St. Helena, Constantine’s mother; and the restoration of the true cross to Jerusalem by the emperor Heraclius several hundred years later. But more important than these particular historical events is the meaning of the cross for each believer.
One of my most privileged moments in the church year is when I witness the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. Old and young, vigorous and lame, shy and assertive, those beautiful by the world’s standards and those with inner beauty — all come forward: old farmers, still in their overalls and boots; young factory workers who came on their lunch hour, and the owners of the factory; the recently widowed, and whole families walking together, the mother holding a sleeping infant while shepherding the older children down the aisle; saints and sinners; the successful and the beaten-down. They kneel or genuflect or kiss or touch or bow to the cross. And their faces! Out of respect I have to look away because their faces are so transparent with their love and their longing; their despair and their hope.
Everyone suffers. Everyone dies. Everyone lives with loss and fear of loss. What makes suffering Christian? What makes it redemptive? There were three crosses on Cal- vary Hill that dark day. There were crosses everywhere in the Roman Empire. It was the state’s means of execution. What makes the cross we embrace the cross of Jesus?
Perhaps the answer is in the “embrace.” When we finally say yes to our suffering — to the loss, no matter how great — there is room for God to heal and mend and bring back to life. In his wonderful little book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes about the death of his wife, Joy. He notes that when he is the midst of his terrible, ranting grief he cannot remember her face and this grieves him all the more. Is he losing even the memory of her? But then he notices that when he is quiet, going about his daily life, writing at his desk or drinking a cup of tea, she is somehow with him and he remembers her clearly and, for the moment, he is not lonely.
The Christian cross is about acceptance and also … forgiveness. Our crosses become one with the cross of Jesus when we can say with him, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” To join our crosses with the cross of Jesus, we must forgive whoever it is we blame for our suffering, even if that blame is heaped upon ourselves or our God.
Such forgiveness doesn’t come easy. It may be the hardest act of the will we ever have to exercise. Perhaps that is why Jesus followed the Spirit out into the desert before he began his ministry: to be ready, not for the ordeal of the cross, but for the ordeal of forgiveness.
There’s an old song that is a favorite of my congregation. We sing it loud and strong and for a moment we feel like together we can face the horrible and wonderful truth of the message of the cross: “I have decided to follow Jesus. … the world behind me, the cross before me… no turning back, no turning back.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc