This Sunday we celebrate the wonderful Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Appropriately, the readings highlight the healing and redemptive work of Christ crucified. Though much could be said about them, here are some brief thoughts, including why the lectionary has us read the strange story of the bronze serpent fashioned by Moses in the wilderness in connection with this celebration.
Please give us your feedback in the comment box below.
FIRST READING: Numbers 21:4b-9
With their patience worn out by the journey,the people complained against God and Moses,“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,where there is no food or water?We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,which bit the people so that many of them died.Then the people came to Moses and said,“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.The story in Numbers 21 is rich in meaning. Here let me highlight a few elements.
Plagues on Israel. The story alludes to the Exodus, which, of course, was accomplished through the Passover, the last of the ten plagues that fell upon the Egyptians. Notably, here the tables have been somewhat turned - the plagues are now falling on Israel. Here we have a warning against spiritual pride - even the chosen people, Israel, can become Egyptians.
In the liturgy we should contemplate the times God has delivered us in our lives and yet we have proven to be unfaithful to him in response.
The fiery serpents. The term "seraph" serpents is often translated in other English Bibles, "fiery serpents" (e.g., RSV). In the original Hebrew, the reference to the idea of "fiery" or "burning" probably related to the sensation those who suffered their bites experienced.
A graven image that saves. To heal the people, God instructs Moses to make a graven image, specifically, an image of a serpent. This is the origin of the famous medical image of a serpent on a pole.
Here we see that graven images are not in and of themselves evil. Here a brief word is in order about the Ten Commandments. Of course, Jews and Protestants number the Ten Commandments differently from Catholics, identifying as the second commandment as the prohibition of graven images. Catholics, with some Anglicans and Lutherans, follow Augustine's enumeration, which lists the prohibition against idols as part of the first commandment.
By the way, the Augustinian enumeration thus sees the commandments against coveting one's neighbor's wife and coveting one's neighbors goods as two separate commandments, not as a single one as others do. This way of numbering the commandments can also be supported by looking at the list of the commandments given in Deuteronomy. There the prohibition against worshipping other gods is closely linked with idolatry (Deut. 5:7-10). Moreover, the Hebrew uses different terms for coveting ones neighbor's wife [hamad] and his goods ['awa], suggesting these two commandments could be distinguished from one another.
In short, for Catholics, statues are not evil things--worshipping them as gods is.
Of course, one could also point out that God also commanded Moses to place two statues on the most prominent item in the sanctuary--two golden angels sit atop the ark of the covenant, the holiest vessel in Israel's worship.
In short, far from condemning graven images as of themselves evil, Numbers 21 points to what we might describe as the "sacramental" power of sacred images; the sign of the bronze serpent is an instrument of salvation in the story!
RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Psalm 78:1b-c-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
R. (see 7b) Do not forget the works of the Lord!Psalm 78 recalls God's dealings with Israel in the wilderness ("mysteries from of old"). The line in verse 34 is especially significant: "While he slew them they sought him and inquired after God again."
Hearken, my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable,
I will utter mysteries from of old.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
While he slew them they sought him
and inquired after God again,
Remembering that God was their rock
and the Most High God, their redeemer.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
But they flattered him with their mouths
and lied to him with their tongues,
Though their hearts were not steadfast toward him,
nor were they faithful to his covenant.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
But he, being merciful, forgave their sin
and destroyed them not;
Often he turned back his anger
and let none of his wrath be roused.
R. Do not forget the works of the Lord!
In other words, the psalmist seems to be relating what through the minds of the people of Israel who were killed in the wilderness after rebelling against the Lord: they "sought him".
The fathers thus read this psalm as revealing how God's wrath is actually a mercy. God smites but not out of hatred but out of love. Death was dealt by God as means of bringing his people to repentance! In other words, God punishes not because he stops loving his people but precisely because he cannot stop loving them. Here's a sampling from the fathers (including two quotes from John Chrysostom, whose feast day is Saturday):
And of those also who fell in the desert, let them hear what is related in the seventy-eighth Psalm, which bears the superscription of Asaph; for he says, “When He slew them, then they sought Him.” (Ps 78:34) He does not say that some sought Him after others had been slain, but he says that the destruction of those who were killed was of such a nature that, when put to death, they sought God.—Origen, De princ., 2.5.3
Those [afflictions] draw down mercy, they draw down kindness: while these on the other hand lift up even to an insane pride, and lead also to slothfulness, and dispose a man to fancy great things concerning himself; they puff up. Therefore the prophet also said, “It is good for me, Lord, that Thou hast afflicted me, that I may learn Thy statutes.” (Ps. 119:71.) When Hezekiah had received blessings and been freed from calamities, his heart was lifted up on high; when he fell sick, then was he humbled, then he became near to God. “When He slew them,” it says, “then they sought Him diligently, and turned, and were early in coming to God.” (Ps. 78:34.) And again, “When the beloved waxed gross and fat, then he kicked.” (Deut. 32:15.) For “the Lord is known when He executeth judgments.” (Ps. 9:16.)—John Chrysostom, Homily XXXIII (on Heb. 13:16)
For at that time the very nature of our tribulation restrained us, however unwillingly, and disposed us to sobriety; and led us to become more religious; but now when the bridle is removed, and the cloud has passed away, there is fear lest we should fall back again into sloth, or become relaxed by this respite; and lest one should have reason to say of us too, “When He slew them, then they sought Him, and returned, and enquired early after God.”—John Chrysostom, De stat. 17.2
SECOND READING: Philippians 2:6-11
Brothers and sisters:
Christ Jesus, 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.
Traditionally this passage has been referred to by scholars as a "Christ-hymn" because many have argued that Paul is here drawing on some kind of early Christian hymn. Whether that is the case or not (whether it was a hymn or not seems increasingly unlikely) is not an argument we can venture into here. While much (MUCH!) could be said about this passage, again, let me highlight just a couple of key ideas that seem present here.
1. Christ's divinity and pre-existence. It seems difficult to deny that Paul is here affirming both the pre-existence and divinity of Jesus. Prior to becoming man Christ is said to have been "in the form of God". Later, Paul affirms that Christ was "in the form of man", i.e., human. That Paul believed Jesus was a man and didn't simply "appear" as a human is clear from other passages (e.g., Rom. 1:3). In short, while many will debate the precise nuance of Paul's meaning, I think the early Church's reading makes the most sense out of the passage: Jesus, who is divine, became human.
2. Self-emptying. As Methodist scholar Michael Gorman has beautifully demonstrated, there is a progressive descent envisioned in the first part of the passage: Jesus "emptied" himself in becoming human and then, as man, further humbled himself by dying on a cross.
Here we have to mention that the full impact of Paul's discussion is often lost on us in the twentieth century, where the image of the cross has largely been sanitized. For people in Paul's world, crucifixion was nothing less than an abomination. For more on the horror of crucifixion, go see this post. To put it briefly, Christ humbled himself by becoming man, but the crucifixion is also seen as a kind of unimaginable humiliation.
There is a bit of debate about how to translate the line "though he was in the form of God". It could be translated, "because he was in the form of God"--in other words, what Christ does in his humanity (i.e., suffering on the cross), mirrors what he does in his divine life. On this reading, what Christ shows the world on the cross is nothing less than the life-giving love of the Triune God. Jesus' self-giving on the cross is done "because he was in the form of God"--i.e., self-giving is what God does!
It should be mentioned that there is even more controversy about how to properly translate 2:6: "[he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped (harpagmos)." The term is a hapax legomenon, that is, a term that only appears once in the New Testament. Perhaps the best translation is "something at his disposal but not exploited for personal gain".
3. Old Testament allusions. Some scholars see in the imagery an allusion to Adam who fell because he sought to be "equal to God". A case for allusions to the Suffering Servant figure of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 has also been made by scholars. Since Paul elsewhere makes use of both Adamic imagery (e.g., Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15) and Suffering Servant imagery (the reference is likely in Rom. 4:25), it at least seems plausible that such echoes are intended here. (I cannot examine the arguments in detail here.)
4. Glorified through suffering. The take-away of the passage is this: Christ was glorified because he humbled himself. If we wish to be glorified with Christ we must, therefore, embrace our crosses and follow after him.
GOSPEL: John 3:13-17
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“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.
Perhaps no biblical passage is more familiar than John 3:16. While its meaning is obviously pretty straightforward, let me make three observations.
1. Lifted up like the serpent. We can note that the famous statement about Jesus' death is specifically linked to the Old Testament account of the plague of fiery serpents of our first reading. The language of being "lifted up", however, has a double meaning--yes, Moses raised up the image of the serpent, but Christ will be "lifted up" on the cross, from death, and into heaven (cf. John 8:28; 12:32).
We might also observe that in Numbers, the punishment for sin--the fiery serpents--becomes the means of healing via the image made by Moses. Likewise, as death is recognized as a punishment for sin, Christ reveals that the punishment is also in some way related to redemption--the very penalty given as a result of sin becomes the means by which we are saved from perishing.
2. Eternal life. That Jesus promises "eternal life" is significant. Of course, it is not simply the "duration" of the new life that Christ brings that is important. "Eternal life" also speaks to the nature of the life that Christ shares with believers, i.e., a share in his divine life.
3. The condemned does not condemn. Notice that the passage ends by emphasizing that Christ did not come into the world to "condemn it" but to "save" it. The point is ironic: Christ did not come to condemn the world--even though it deserved to be condemned! Yet Christ who did not deserve to be condemned was executed as a criminal!
But in the end, while it seems like divine justice has failed, Jesus triumphs because the love of God is victorious--it saves those who should have been judged... like you and me. And God does this through the cross. Suffering may seem like a sign of God's absence, but God reveals that suffering is redemptive. Suffering is linked to repentance (Ps 78:34). Let us take up our cross and follow after Christ!
 See Roy W. Hoover, “The Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution,” HTR 64 (1971): 95–119; Gerald F. Hawthorne, “In the Form of God,” in Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2 (R. P. Martin and B. J. Dodd, eds.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 96–110.