Yesterday was on of the most powerful liturgical feasts on the calendar, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The Scriptural readings do a great job of showing just how powerful the Cross is. The First Reading is from Numbers 21:4-9
From Mount Hor they set out by way of the Red Sea, to bypass the land of Edom, but the people’s patience was worn out by the journey; so the people complainedd against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
So the LORD sent among the people seraph serpents, which bite the people so that many of the Israelites died. Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you. Pray to the LORD to take the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses: Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover.
Accordingly Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever the serpent bit someone, the person looked at the bronze serpent and recovered.
One of my friends asked what a “seraph serpent” was, and here’s what the NAB footnote says:
Seraph: the Hebrew name for a certain species of venomous snake; etymologically the word might signify “the fiery one.” Compare the winged throne guardians in Is 6:2, 6; see also Is 14:29; 30:6.
The serpent represents sin, and calls to mind the Fall (see Genesis 3). By unleashing the deadly serpents, God is letting the people see visibly how destructive and dangerous their sins really are. It’s hard for us to truly grasp just how deadly sin is to our soul. But when it’s in terms of, “here’s a deadly snake that’ll kill you, and it represents your sins,” that’s something we can understand.
And what’s the solution to these deadly snakes? To take precious bronze, and fashion it the likeness of a snake, and mount it on a wooden pole. Those who looked upon it were saved. We see a vivid depiction of that scene here, in Sébastien Bourdon’s Moses and the Brazen Serpent:
It’s hard to miss the similarity to the Cross. St. Paul says: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:20b-21). Just as the beautiful bronze was forged into the likeness of the serpent, sinless Christ took on the sins of the world, so that we might be saved.
Jesus Himself makes the same point to Nicodemus, and explicitly references the seraph serpents from the First Reading. This is from John 3:13-17, yesterday’s Gospel:
“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.
So just as those who looked upon the crucified serpent were saved from physical death, those who look upon Our Crucified Lord in faith will be saved as well.
For this reason, the Cross is both the ultimate shame, and the ultimate victory. It’s the ultimate shame, in that the death was one designed by the Romans to be intentionally painful and humiliating. This humiliating death was prophesied by Isaiah, as St. Phillip explained in Acts 8:32-35.
But it’s also the ultimate victory. When Jesus says that “the Son of Man be lifted up,” the double meaning is intentional. He will be literally exalted, in the sense that His Body is lifted off of the ground on the Cross, but He’s spiritually exalted as well. Yesterday’s Feast celebrates that spirit of victory: the Exaltation of the Cross.
Jesus uses this imagery again in John 8:28, tying it to His claim to be God: “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on My own, but I say only what the Father taught Me.” (Christ alone can manage to simultaneously humble Himself and declare Himself God, and He does it in that verse).
St. Paul talks about the Cross as an exaltation quite beautifully. Colossians 2:13-15 contains some of the most beautiful prose describing the Atonement, and the Power of the Cross. Notice who is described as the being humiliated by the Crucifixion:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; He has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the Cross.
Read that last line again. Paul sees the Crucifixion not as the low point in the humiliation of Christ, but as an enormous victory, in which Jesus shames the forces of darkness. The enemies of Christ drew more attention to Him, as they tried to shame Him. But the result was that the Cross became free advertising for the Gospel, since “the place where Jesus was Crucified was near the city,” that is, Jerusalem, and the inscription above His Head “was written in Hebrew, Latin and in Greek” (John 19:20).
How can the Cross be at once a humiliation and a victory? St. Paul answers this apparent contradiction in song, by quoting what appears to be one of the earliest Christian hymns. This is from Philippians 2:5b-11, yesterday’s Second Reading:
Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, He emptied Himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
He humbled Himself,
becoming obedient to Death, even Death on a Cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted Him
and bestowed on Him the Name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This hymn expresses it beautifully. Christ isn’t a power-monger: He doesn’t even cling to that power which is His by virtue of His Divine Nature. His whole mission is a long process of humiliation, from taking on the form of a fetus, to being born in a stable to a poor family, in a backwater town of a humiliated country run by cruel Romans, to being rejected by many of those He knew and loved, to being betrayed by one His dearest friends, to being stripped naked, nailed to the Cross and left to die, only to have His Body mutilated by a Roman soldier. His Body is then left in an unmarked Tomb so as not to offend the religious folk celebrating the Passover.
Yet He doesn’t die an abject failure, but a success. He’s achieved the mission He’s set out for: to atone for the sins of the world. This, strangely, is a victory. Indeed, the greatest victory the world has ever known. And of course, His Death isn’t the final chapter. The Father glorifies Him and, through the Resurrection, we catch a clearer glimpse of His Divine Nature. Paul tells us that the Resurrection is for our justification (Romans 4:25), and we should thank God for it. It’s only through the lens of the Resurrection that we can make sense out of any of this, so foreign this is to our human experience. The only parallel I can think of is to childbirth: women go through the most intense and agonizing pain of their lives, and they rejoice in it, because they’re bringing forth new life.
One final point. The Cross isn’t an isolated historical event. To be saved, we must unite ourselves to it. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Fr. Arne Panula has said on this subject that when we find ourselves carrying our cross, we should always remember that it’s not merely a Cross, but a Crucifix, and that Jesus is there with us. Unite ourselves to Him in our suffering, and we’ll see that our greatest humiliations and our deepest pains are also the greatest spiritual victories. That’s the power of the Cross.