• Num 21:4b-9
• Ps 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
• Phil 2:6-11
• Jn 3:13-17
“By its elevation, the Cross is like an appeal to the whole creation to adore the blessed Passion of Christ our God who was suspended on it, for Christ destroyed by this Cross the one who had destroyed us.”
These words, from the Vespers celebrated on this feast day by Byzantine Catholics, proclaim some of the mystery, hope, and paradox of the Holy Cross. There is the mystery of the death of the God-man, the hope of salvation because of His death and Resurrection, and the paradox of finding joy in such a bloody reality. In the words of the Crucified One, prior to His ascent onto the Cross: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (Jn 12:32).
Today’s Epistle and Gospel readings focus on the relationship between the Incarnation—the entrance of God into history as the man Jesus Christ—and the exaltation of the Incarnate One by His death on the Cross. That relationship is, of course, at the heart of Christianity, for belief in the Incarnation and the salvific work accomplished on the cross are central for Christians. If Jesus was not truly God and truly man, Christianity is simply another school of ethics; if the Passion and Resurrection did not take place, Catholicism is merely a ritualized exercise in empty piety.
The reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians is a great Christological hymn offered in thanksgiving for the Incarnation. Although the Son was equal to the Father, He emptied Himself. What does that mean? Much scholarly ink has been spilled over this difficult theological question, but the essence of this emptying, or kenosis, is the perfect acceptance of God’s will. The willingness of the Son to be sent by the Father for the salvation of man is a major theme in the Gospel of John. “You know me and also know where I am from,” Jesus declared in the Temple, “Yet I did not come on my own, but the one who sent me, whom you do not know, is true” (Jn 7:28).
This can also be seen in the third chapter of John, in which Jesus states that God “gave his only Son” and sent His Son into the world so “the world might be saved through him.” In that same discourse to Nicodemus, Jesus stated that no one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down. This is one of many claims to divinity made by Jesus, who foretold His death, Resurrection, and Ascension, even as He revealed that He had been sent by and from the Father in heaven.
This raises a significant point about the Cross: it is not a sign of God’s wrath, but a concrete demonstration of His love for man. The Romans used the cross to punish, kill, and control. God used the altar of the Cross to forgive, to destroy death, and to offer eternal life. “Accordingly, in the New Testament the Cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below,” wrote Joseph Ratzinger in Introduction to Christianity, “It stands there, not as the work of expiation that mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s that gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about.”
The Cross, then, is an invitation to faith, to life, to love. It is a revelation of the nature of God. It is also a sign of contradiction and a source of scandal. This is what Jesus meant when He spoke of being lifted up. I know people who, when they see a crucifix, are disgusted and appalled. I also know a young lady who, after being an atheist for several years, finally crumbled on her knees before a crucifix and wept, broken and healed.
“We exalt his Name with great rejoicing,” continue the Vespers, “and glorify his infinite condescension.” Amen!
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 14, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)