September 14 2014 (A) The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue:

In today’s liturgy we celebrate a feast of the Lord, which has precedence over the regular Sunday readings. The feast originated in a commemoration of the exposition of the supposed true Cross in Jerusalem in 629 after its recovery from the Persians. Now the celebration recalls annually the victory of the crucified Christ over sin and death and the new life he has brought to individuals and humanity

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Numbers 21:4-9). Whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. In its biblical context this text is part of the final part of Israel’s journey through the desert to the Promised Land. They complain against God and against Moses concerning the unacceptable nature of their food. It is one example of the lack of patience and the murmurings of Israel during these wanderings. They are punished by fiery, that is poisonous, serpents, common in those parts of the desert. There are at least thirty-three species of serpents in Palestine. In Palestine and the Ancient Near East serpents were in part regarded as gods and goddesses, and as symbols and figures of such divine beings, figures of evil, and of fertility. As figures of fertility they could also be symbols of life and health, and in Greek tradition there was the healing god Asklepios, with the serpent symbol, from which the modern serpent symbol, the caduceus, the emblem of medicine, is derived. After their punishment by God the people repent and ask Moses to intercede for them. Moses is told by God to make a bronze figure of the fiery (poisonous) serpent that bit them. When anyone was bitten by a serpent he would look on this bronze serpent and live. The serpent could be poisonous but also be a figure or healing and life. This episode of healing from the serpent raised on the pole was remembered in Israel. Praying to God, the author of the Book of Wisdom (16:7) notes concerning it: “For the one who turned towards it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Saviour of all”. The Old Testament text is chosen for today’s Mass as in the Gospel passage read Jesus makes direct reference to it

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 77[78]). Never forget the deeds of the Lord.

Second Reading (Philippians 2:6-11). He humbled himself, therefore God raised him high. This reading is very aptly chosen for today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross since it speaks, as does this feast, of the exaltation of Christ through his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father after the humiliation of the Cross.   In its original setting in the Letter to the Philippians this well-known hymn is introduced to illustrate Paul’s exhortation to believers to imitate Christ’s humility. He exhorts his readers to be of the same mind, to do nothing from selfish ambition, to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, set before them in this hymn as an example. The emphasis is on Christ’s humility and humiliation, despite his dignity. The hymn may be contrasting Christ, the Second Adam, with the First Adam. Adam, although human (in human form) succumbed to the temptation to be like God. Jesus, though in the form of God (in some translations “his state was divine”) humbled himself to be as all mortals are. The hymn ends with an assertion of Jesus’ exaltation, not just at his resurrection and ascension, but all down through all history. It is a profession of faith in the Kingdom of God and of Christ. To him every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that he is Lord.

The Gospel (John 3:13-17). The Son of Man must be lifted up. This reading is part of Jesus’ lengthy discourse with Nicodemus. In this Jesus contrasts two realms of reality, this visible one and a higher heavenly one. In this discourse, as elsewhere in John, some words are used that can have more than one reference, one to this order of things and another to a higher reality.   One such term is being “lifted up”, as the serpent by Moses and Jesus on the Cross. But it appears that against its Aramaic background the term can also mean “depart (fron this world)”, “die”, and in John’s theology the lifting up of Christ on the Cross is his glorification, including his resurrection and ascension to the Father as Risen Lord. This Gospel text recalls the episode of the bronze serpent in the desert (Numbers 21:9), chosen as today’s first reading. The text stresses that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who in the incarnation has come down from heaven, and in keeping with the Father’s plan is to die on the Cross (“be lifted up”) to bring eternal life, life here below and for ever, to all who believe in him. God’s immense love for the world is again stressed. Jesus came, and underwent death, not to condemn the world but to save it. But salvation means abandoning sin and following Christ. Christ, the light of God, shows up sin for what it is, and as such brings judgment.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day. God loves the world; divine vision, human frailty, new beginnings.

This feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, stressing God’s love for the world and Christ’s victory on the Cross and Resurrection over all the powers opposing the success of his life, death and resurrection, have a message for each individual, for the Church at large and the world.

The Gospel reading gives ample opportunity for the necessary dialogue between the church, the Christian message and the human vision and the forces at work in the world in which we live. On the one hand we have the vision of God’s love for the world, first as expressed by Jesus himself in John’s gospel: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. God sent his Son into the world not to condemn it, but that through his Son the world might be saved. God loved us so much that he was generous with his mercy. He brought believers in him to life in Christ. This saving vision and action of God through Christ is to be continued and made manifest in the Church, by the Church, by believers. They are God’s work of art, created anew in Christ to live the good life and bear witness to God’s vision and message.

But to become a reality in the world of space and time, the divine vision must become real in human life, in believers, and then in those convinced of the value to them of this vision. And the vision can become a reality not through human effort but by the working of divine power as the apostle Paul candidly admits when reflecting on the mystery that is the new covenant. “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Only too often both the ministers of the Church and of many of the faithful in general have feet of clay, that impede even consideration of the relevance of the divine vision, of God’s love for the world.

But even apart from this there are other elements of the vision of God’s love for the world that call for dialogue. Christ came that the world might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Jesus is both life and light. As light he brings to light what is wrong and sinful, and as such brings judgment. Salvation means accepting the light, God’s vision of life. True life comes through “death” to what is dark and sinful in oneself. This is not a vision or message that is too easily accepted, least of all so in a society which either rejects the divine or is agnostic about God’s very existence. In any matter of dialogue with modern Western life, from the believer’s point of view, such as those attending today’s Mass and others, for whom the readings were originally, and still are, intended, the message remains clear: there are those prepared to hear Jesus’ message and those who are not. The Gospel reading calls on believers to accept God’s vision and message and be messengers of it to others in their lives and religious convictions. With regard to failures in Christian response, the Biblical message can provide a certain balance. The scandals, particularly in a limited number of clergy and religious, is saddening and disheartening, but still no call for despair. Rather it calls for reflection on some central truths, one truth being that the success of this divine vision of God’s love comes from God’s power, not from mere human effort. The divine vision shows up what believers, and the human race, are called to be. The divine light reveals human dignity and human failings.

For our own day and for individuals in moment of strife the Gospel reading has a potent message. Jesus came and died not to condemn but to save, to bring life, hope and meaning to life. And yet in our own day, particularly among young males, we see so many cases of persons in darkness, who see no meaning in existence and terminate their own lives. An answer to this sad problem is not easy to find, but the Church and the Sunday liturgy may have a role to play in stressing the presence of Jesus and the meaning of life, even in times of darkness and difficulties. We all may have a role in this matter. The life of each Christian is still God’s work of art. Let us pray that the Church, and each one of us, may live the divine mystery that we are.

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