St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid?’ For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).
The wisdom and love of God are so great that one cannot fully comprehend them. Paul expresses the same reality for those who love the Lord and seek his ways when he writes in his Letter to the Corinthians: “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Corinthians 2:9).
Isaiah the prophet says it this way: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts. Yet just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats. So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:9-11).
The magnificence of God’s love, its beauty and its power, are wonderful and rich. We experience them in many ways but cannot exhaust the depth of their meaning and the life that flows from God’s love. Perhaps this is a good context for the celebration of Mass. Every Mass is a celebration of thanksgiving for this love that God has for us in redeeming us through the sacrifice of Christ, his Son. In a particular way today we focus on the cross of Christ as we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
The world may look on the cross as a sign of torture and torment, a sign of worldly (Roman) power and oppression, a sign of cruelty and violence. The faithful, however, see the depth of divine love and mercy. St. Paul expresses the contrast this way: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:22-24).
The readings for today’s liturgy highlight several significant points in considering the cross. The first is medicinal. The cross heals. Jesus says in the Gospel according to John, “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” (John 3:14). Jesus is referring to the time when the people were grumbling against God for their tribulations in the desert as recounted in the First Reading from the Book of Numbers.
The people were forgetting all that the Lord had done for them in delivering them from bondage and oppression in Egypt. According to the account God sends poisonous snakes among the people in an effort to have them remember. When the people cry out for help the Lord instructs Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a staff. As he holds up the staff with the serpent, the people are cured and delivered from danger and death. Jesus takes this image and applies it to himself as the “Son of Man.”
The point is that when Jesus is lifted up on the cross healing will take place and the people will be freed from sin and delivered from death. In other words, the way to eternal life will be opened for them. The cross brings healing and life. Jesus offers this explanation: “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” (John 3:16-17).
The second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians includes a very early Christian hymn extolling Christ and his sacrifice. The hymn expresses the significance of the cross in terms of obedience and humility. Jesus was sent by the Father to deliver his people; to save them — all done in an act of love. The love is manifest in Jesus’ complete obedience to the Father in humble service. He willingly “empties” himself to become one of us. He trusts in the Father’s care and mission so much so that he became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
The hymn continues: “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” (Philippians 2:9-11).
The hymn is profound in itself. The context in Paul’s letter, however, gives us an insight into its meaning for our way of living. Paul uses the hymn to make an exhortation for us to imitate the self-giving love of Christ – to “empty ourselves,” laying down our lives in loving obedience to the Father and in care for one another. For in the verse that precedes the hymn Paul writes: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). The hymn not only extols the sacrifice of Christ but calls us to take up our cross and follow him in humble obedience to the Father.
A comparison has been made between two silver cups found in Ireland which help illustrate the impact of the cross and the love it represents. Both cups are works of great craftsmanship and artistry.
The first cup, the Gundestrup Cauldron, comes from the first or second century before Christ. At this time the Irish worshiped pagan gods. The images on the cup are of gods and warriors. One particular image shows a gigantic god holding squirming humans and placing them in a vat of oil. These gods demand human sacrifice to appease their appetite.
The second cup, the Ardagh Chalice, dates to the seventh or eighth century after Christ. By this point in history the Irish had become Catholic. The image of God in this chalice is quite different than that of the earlier one. This cup is used for the celebration of Mass. As the celebrant or communicant raises the chalice to receive the Blood of Christ, he or she is reminded that this God does not demand human sacrifice but rather he sacrifices himself for us, so great is his love. This is the love we celebrate in the Exaltation of the Cross; this is the love we are called to imitate.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.