Today we step aside from the usual sequence of readings for the Sundays in Ordinary Time to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Since many Catholic institutions (schools, churches, religious communities, etc.) bear the name of “Holy Cross,” the expression may be so familiar to us that we fail to appreciate the paradox and challenge it represents.
In the context of the first-century Roman Empire, crucifixion was a terrible and shameful mode of execution. It was reserved for slaves and rebels—a public action aimed at deterring others from rebellious activities. There was nothing “holy” about it. So when Christians use the expression “holy cross,” they are making a surprising, paradoxical and even shocking statement.
From earliest times Christians have claimed that through the crucifixion of Jesus, God has enabled us to put aside our past sins, to relate to God in a new way and to gain an access to God that had not been possible before. In that sense the cross is indeed holy. In that sense the crucifixion of Jesus was and is a triumph or exaltation rather than a defeat or shame.
The conviction that the cross of Jesus was a victory rather than a defeat is expressed neatly in today’s reading from John 3: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” To appreciate that claim it is necessary to recall the mysterious episode of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21. There the image of a bronze serpent being lifted up on a pole brings healing instead of death to the people of God wandering in the wilderness. It also helps to know that in John’s theological vocabulary the verb “lift up” is his way of talking about Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross (his crucifixion) and his being lifted up to the heavenly Father (his resurrection and exaltation). This is why we can speak of the “holy cross.”
An even more striking and theologically significant text about the holy cross appears in today’s reading from Chapter 2 of Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi in northern Greece. Paul wrote it in the mid-50s of the first century A.D., 25 years or so after the crucifixion of Jesus. In writing to what is often described as his favorite community, Paul’s purpose was to provide theological advice about certain pastoral problems that had arisen in the Christian community there.
Today’s Pauline passage seems to be a quotation from a very early Christian hymn that both Paul and the Philippian Christians knew and affirmed. Paul used it as a stimulus for the Philippian Christians to show greater unity and respect toward one another. But as the text stands, it also provides precious testimony about what early Christians believed concerning Jesus. It offers concrete evidence for what has been aptly described as an explosion (rather than a mere development) of doctrine regarding Jesus.
According to the hymn, early Christians believed that in the beginning Jesus was in the “form” of God and possessed a certain equality with God. Remember that the earliest Christians, like Paul himself, were predominantly Jews, and that the fundamental theological principle in Judaism of the time was monotheism—that there is only one God and only one Lord. Yet Paul and other early Christians saw no conflict in describing Jesus in these exalted (divine) terms. Furthermore, early Christians believed that in becoming human, Jesus in some way had “emptied himself” (kenosis in Greek) and humbled himself in obedience to his Father’s will, even to the point of enduring a shameful death on the cross. His incarnation, his taking flesh and becoming human, led to his death on the cross. Thus Jesus became one with us in the most complete sense imaginable—by sharing and embracing suffering and physical death.
But the cross was not the end of Jesus’ story. Early Christians also believed that Jesus, who suffered death on the cross in obedience to his Father’s will, had been raised from the dead and was exalted to his heavenly Father once more, and that God had bestowed on Jesus the name of “Lord” (Kyrios in Greek)—the name that Greek-speaking Jews reserved for God. According to this very early hymn, therefore, it was and is appropriate that all creation should join in the confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” In this narrative of our salvation, the cross is the pivot between the incarnation and the exaltation of Jesus. That is why we can call the cross “holy.”