EXALTATION of the HOLY CROSS (Year A)
Who can tell us about heaven? Obviously not any Tom, Dick, or Harry. In the old dispensation Isaiah, Daniel, Baruch, and Enoch, for example, were among those said to have had heavenly visions; Elijah, we know, was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot; while Moses spent forty days in the presence of God on Mount Sinai before he was able to communicate God’s ‘teaching’ to Israel. Such persons’ testimony we could understand; and we might even be prepared to give serious attention to some of the things they appreciated and found themselves able to say about heaven and heavenly matters.
Jesus, however, cannot be compared with such seers, visionaries, and prophets, even though specially chosen by God, because His association with, knowledge of, heaven is clearly something infinitely more than that learned in any of the relatively short-lived experiences or limited commissions accorded to all others:
No one has gone up to heaven except the One Who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
Jesus claims to be unique not only because He had been in heaven and come down from heaven, but because – even while present among us on earth – He is in heaven. Heaven is not a place, Jesus teaches us, but a state, a state of being in God’s immediate presence; and Jesus alone knew from experience – ever current and continuous – about heaven, because He always was, even when amongst us here on earth, in His Father’s presence, with His Father.
In our Gospel reading today Nicodemus asked Jesus how men could possibly be born anew so as to be able to see the Kingdom of God. Jesus told him how with the words:
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.
Those words ‘the Son of Man must be lifted up’ make initial reference to Jesus being ‘lifted up’ -- figuratively raised up heavenwards -- on the Cross of Calvary; before receiving their ultimate fulfilment in His going -- in most sublime and glorious reality -- to His Father at His Ascension. And all this took place:
So that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life
The bronze-serpent symbol showed as dead the death-bringing serpent. The Cross, however, Saint Paul tells us, shows One cursed freeing us from the curse of the Law:
Christ ransomed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree,’
teaching which is in accordance with the accusations levelled against Jesus by both Jewish Temple and religious authorities.
However, not ‘everyone who believes in Him’ as Saint Paul declares, would see one cursed by the Law in the figure of Christ on the Cross … only a very few former Jews, learned like Paul, would appreciate that aspect of Christ’s crucifixion and death. The vast multitude of those coming to ‘believe in Him’ would see Him on the Cross as one abusively punished by the Roman State and grievously vilified by religious authorities, but in truth:
a Man commended by God with mighty deeds, wonders and signs which God worked through Him, (Acts 2:22)
a Man God raised on the third day to Whom all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins through His name. (Acts 10: 40ss.)
And there, in the figure of a dead wrong-doer, they could, and indeed would, see Christ hanging and dying in place of and for themselves!
Just as the desert symbol showed as dead the serpent lifted up on the pole, there on the Cross is shown One:
Human in appearance, humbled and become obedient to death,
One inviting every self-accusing sinner to see himself there, before turning to Christ -- with true contrition and humble confidence – for healing and salvation.
The Cross of Christ is supremely worthy of exaltation because of the wondrous integrity of its signification whereby:
both the glory and the goodness of God are made manifest:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might nor perish but might have eternal life;
as is also its invitation to us and all believers that we join together in thanking Him most fittingly. To which end we are told by Saint Paul, again, that:
For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the first-fruits; then, at His coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to His God and Father, when He has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. (1 Corinthians 15:22–25)
With those few last words we are enabled to recognize the truly sublime beauty and comprehensive majesty symbolized by the Exaltation of the Cross of Christ. For there, Christ most assuredly reigns supreme as the Crucified One, Victor over sin and death; but for us, however, not in power and wrath triumphing over His enemies and trampling them down under His feet so much as graciously receiving the praise and thanksgiving of all His former enemies: sinners converted into supplicants, now looking up to the gaze of His compassionately lowered eyes, and, under the shelter of His outstretched arms, humbly praising and whole-heartedly loving and glorifying Him, the First-fruits and Lord of all creation, the Author of our salvation.
O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace!
Dear People of God, in these days of conflict and confrontation it is most important for us who believe in Jesus -- in both His Person and in His Truth -- to know our measure of that Truth not only accurately but also lovingly, for Truth is not even really known, let alone loved, if its beauty is not sufficiently appreciated.
Accordingly, Mother Church, being the chosen instrument for God’s Holy Spirit at work on earth, must needs learn to give ever more faithful expression to both His Truth and His Love; not in separation -- for what God has joined man must not separate -- but as inseparably One: the loveableness and beauty of His Truth and the truthfulness and power of His Love; manifesting the inherent beauty of revealed Truth and proclaiming a Love inspired and sustained by such Truth.
To that end we, her children, must endeavour in our words of human sincerity and Catholic witness to show our appreciation of the beauty of the Truth we believe and live a Love in harmony with and expressive of that Truth, for the early Church spread so rapidly in the Roman Empire not so much by dint of doctrinal expositions, verbal conflicts, and scholarly triumphs, as by the totally overwhelming beauty and humble power of Christian witness: men and women, boys and girls, all embracing and Exalting the Cross in their witness to Him who once hung thereon for their sake and was now looking down from heaven in compassionate love and comforting them in His world-wide embrace, as they sought to serve His glory by walking gladly in His footsteps along His way.