Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
Num 21:4-9; Phil 2:6-11; Jn.3:13-17
Ann Thomas tells this story of herself. She was at a garage sale with her friend Betty. Ann had just sorted through a tray of trinkets. Betty came up and asked, “Any luck?” “No!” said Ann. “It’s just a pile of junk.” She stepped aside to let Betty see for herself. Betty took one look at the pile, picked up a tarnished old cross and said, “I can’t believe it. I’ve found a treasure! This cross is made of antique silver.”
When Ann’s friend got home, she cleaned the cross and polished it. It was indeed a treasure. Ann ended the story saying, “Betty and I both looked at the same cross. I only saw junk; Betty saw a treasure.” Later Betty’s seven-year-old son, Bobby picked up the cross, held it reverently in his hands, and looked at it for a long time. Suddenly he began to cry. “What’s wrong?” asked Betty. Bobby said, “I can’t help it. I was looking at Jesus on the cross.”
Three people looked at the same cross. One saw junk, another saw a treasure; a third saw Jesus. Today’s feast reminds us to see Jesus and appreciate the price he paid for our salvation each time we look at a cross or crucifix. What is the aim of the feast? We celebrate this feast of the Exaltation of the Cross for two reasons: (1) to understand the history of the discovery and recovery of the True Cross and (2) to appreciate better the importance of the symbol and reality of Christ’s sacrificial love, namely, the cross in the daily life of every Christian.
Let us first look at the Historical notes. According to a reliable legend accepted by early Fathers of the Church, when the Body of Jesus and those of the two thieves were removed from their crosses, the disciples buried the body of Jesus in the tomb donated by Nicodemus. As it was customary, the crosses of Jesus and the two thieves were buried in a pit dug close to the tomb.
They remained there unnoticed till the fourth century. In the fourth century, while the pagan commander Constantine the Great was in combat with Maxentius for the throne of the Roman Empire, AD 312, some of his Christian soldiers suggested that he prays to the God of the Christians to help him in his battle. In answer to his prayer, the sign of a luminous cross appeared in the sky with the words “IN THIS SIGN YOU WILL CONQUER” inscribed on it.
Following this, Constantine won the battle over Maxentius. Indebted to the God of Christians for his victory at the Milvian Bridge, October 28, AD 312, Constantine became a Christian catechumen. The Emperor issued the Edict of Milan (in 313), guaranteeing Christian’s religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire.
He declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and commanded that the sign of the cross be placed on all the Roman standards and on the shields of all the soldiers. At the request of the Patriarch of Jerusalem who participated in the Synod of Nicaea the Emperor Constantine sent a team to find out the true cross. On September 14, AD 327, a team of excavators, led by Constantine’s mother St. Helena, found below the temple of Venus at Calvary the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified.
The cross of Christ was identified by the miraculous healing given to a terminally sick lady when touched by the cross of Jesus. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Makarios, standing on a raised platform, lifted high the cross, “exalting” it, for all to see. The people fell to their knees, bowing down before the cross and crying out repeatedly: “Lord, have mercy!” In 355, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was established in Jerusalem to commemorate St. Helena’s discovery of the true cross of Jesus.
The first reading today describes how God punished the ceaselessly complaining Israelites in the desert for their stubborn and rebellious hearts by sending on them a plague of deadly serpents. When they repented and cried to the Lord for mercy, God instructed Moses: “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Num.21:8).
In the second reading, St. Paul explains how the exaltation of Jesus on the cross was an act of self-emptying by Christ. And God exalted Jesus as our Lord and Savior because of Jesus’ perfect obedience to his Father’ will.
In today’s Gospel Jesus explains to Nicodemus that He would accomplish human salvation by His death on the cross and that one needs to be reborn through water and the Holy Spirit to become eligible for his or her eternal salvation. Jesus further explained the necessity of his crucifixion and resurrection using the analogy of Moses and the bronze serpent in the desert.
The cross is the symbol of self-surrendering love. The cross and the crucifix are meaningful symbols as dove symbolizes peace and heart symbolizes love. The crucifix/cross is the symbol of God’s loving and sacrificial offering of Himself in a humble, total self-emptying love for all of us. It represents the cross-bearing Christ leading us in our life’s journey of pain and suffering, carrying his heavier cross and still encouraging us, strengthening us and supporting us.
In addition, we can say that the cross is the symbol of the risen Christ who promises us a crown of glory as a reward for our patient bearing of our daily crosses. Thus, the cross is a symbolic summary of the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ — all in one image. Christians “exalt” the Cross of Christ as the instrument of our salvation.
Do you know the meaning of the word Cross: Christ Rescued Our Sinful Souls. We generally speak of crosses given by Nature (diseases, natural disasters, death), crosses involved in doing our duties faithfully, crosses given by the others and crosses we create for ourselves. We are taught to offer these sufferings with Jesus to the Father as gifts of love, in reparation for our sins and the sins of the world.
Now the question is how should we carry our crosses? We should not carry our crosses cursing our fate as does the donkey carrying its heavy load, or protesting like oxen or horses pulling heavy carts, or expecting a heavenly reward as a hired worker works for his wages. The true spirit of carrying our crosses is to do so like a loving spouse who nurses his /her paralyzed spouse or sick child with sacrificial love and dedicated self-surrender.
We find support in carrying our own crosses by comparing our light crosses with the heavy crosses of terminally ill patients, and by drawing strength and inspiration from Jesus walking ahead of us carrying his heavier cross and supporting us in carrying our crosses. When we appreciate, venerate and wear the cross, we remember the price Jesus paid for our salvation and help, support and pray for others in their pains and sufferings.
Today we approach the cross not with sorrow but with joy, not as a symbol of death but of life, not as a sign of defeat but of victory, not as a cause for fear but of hope, not as an instrument of cruelty and hatred but of eternal love.
We need to convert our pains and suffering into the cross of Christ, may be by accepting the sacrifice and suffering involved in helping others and sharing our blessings with others, may be by welcoming the pain involved in controlling our evil habits and tendencies and in practicing our faith and may be by serving others with sacrificial, agape love, self-surrender and commitment like a loving spouse who nurses his/her sick child or spouse. Amen.