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The Exaltation of the Holy Cross – September 14th
Readings: Num 21:4b-9; Phil 2:6-11; Jn 3:13-17.
Reading 1 (Num 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 seraph 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.
Reading 2 (Phil 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.
Gospel (Jn 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.
Fr. Anthony Dinh Minh Tien, O.P.
I. THEME: The power of the Crucified Christ
There exist three beliefs about Christ’s cross according to 1 Corinthians 1:22-25:
(1) The cross is a stumbling block to the Jews: The Jews demand signs, as they did many times to Jesus in order to believe in Him. They believe in a powerful Messiah. He will come and use His power to destroy all of their enemies and will govern them to the eternal life. A crucified Christ is a weak and powerless man. This is the reason why many Jews could not accept Christ as their Savior.
(2) The cross is a folly to the gentile: The Greek search wisdom. Some of them believe there exists a special knowledge that can be used to separate the soul from the body, because they believe body as the prison confining the soul. They consider the cross is a folly because while they are trying to free themselves from their body, there is one, Jesus Christ, wanted to incarnate in a human body. Not only that, but He also wanted to suffer and to die on the cross.
When Christianity was spread to Greek-speaking nations, the Church had to face many heresies due to their philosophical argument. For example, the Docetists believe Jesus only incarnate in Mary’s womb as a wind passing by and is not really suffered. Some of them believe Jesus was not the one on the cross. At the moment of crucifixion, there existed a substitution by God: Simon’s soul replaced Christ’s and be nailed to the cross, and Jesus was in Simon’s body. In a word, they could not accept a god who took a human body and had to suffered.
(3) But to those who believe, the Christians, the cross is power, love, and wisdom of God. Today’s readings want to explain why Jesus must go through all sufferings and died on the cross.
1/ Reading I: The journey of the Israelites through the desert in 40 years
1.1/ The Israelites must be tested through the journey: If we look in a map of nations in the Near East, the shortest way to the Promise Land is to go through Palestine coastland (Gaza, Ashdod…). If one walks, he only needs maximum about a month to reach the Canaanite land. In God’s providence, Moses chose the longer way. They went entirely through the Delta desert, to the east of the Dead Sea. From there, they crossed Jordan’s river and attacked Jericho to reach the Promise Land. It took them 40 years to do it! Why did God make them to go through this longer way instead of the shorter and easy way?
He wanted to test them by sufferings and time. A desert itself is a testing place. The Jews think deserts are places of devils. In the gospels, Jesus was brought by the Holy Spirit to the desert in order to be tested. Deserts have only sand and stones, almost no insects or animals due to lack of water and hot climate. Traveling without water in deserts is looking for dead. We can understand the test which the Israelites must go through: long travel, tiredness, hungry, thirsty, and burdened by heavy loads. They constantly remembered and regreted during their days in Egypt, even though they must work as slaves, but they had plenty of food to eat and to drink.
The Promise Land is still far away. They lost their patience and 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!”
1.2/ The result of their complain: In punishment the LORD sent among the people seraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of them died. There are many seraph serpents in Timnah, near the Dead Sea, because this is the region of copper. The Archeology found many traces that make them to believe people who lived in this area worshipped serpents, because they did not want to be bitten by serpents.
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 seraph 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.
Our lives could be compared with Israelites’ lives in the desert. Our faith must also be tested by sufferings and time. Many of us already went through hungry, thirsty, prison, days in sea and in the refugee camps. A majority of us also suffered because of maltreatments from our parents, spouses, children, friends, and people. Like the Israelites, some of us also voiced our complains to God: Why do we have to suffer so much?
2/ Reading II: Our hope is in the Crucified Christ
2.1/ The kenosis of the Son of God: In the six verses of Philippians 2:6-11, St. Paul completely expresses God’s plan of salvation through His Son’s suffering. First, it is Christ’s humility and obedience: “Jesus Christ, 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.”
Why did God want His Son to go through painful suffering to save people? Of course, He has power to save people by another powerful way as the Jews expect; but He would like His Son to go through human suffering in order to have compassion on those who suffered. If Jesus Christ uses the way as many Jews expect, He will bring to heaven those who are insensitive, inconsiderate, and know not the meaning of love. Testing and suffering make people better and ready for their eternal life with God.
2.2/ The glory of Jesus Christ is achieved on the cross: In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus mentioned many times of “the hour” (2:4; 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1; 19:14). What is meant “the hour”? It is the hour which He was nailed to the cross. At this hour, He completed His mission on earth and taking away the sins of the people. The meaning of today’s reading from the Book of Number was fulfilled. People do not have to die by their sins anymore if they look upon the cross and repent from their sins.
The hour of Jesus on the cross is also the hour of God’s glory. By Jesus’ obedience, death is destroyed and the purpose of God’s plan of salvation is achieved. God glorified Jesus by giving 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.” The power of death and devil are no longer victorious over human beings.
3/ Gospel: The salvific cross of Christ
The background of today’s Gospel is the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus told him that no one can enters heaven without being born anew. Nicodemus did not understand what meaning of the word “anothen” Jesus used in Greek. It can be used as “again” or “anew.” He took the first meaning and asked Jesus: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” What Jesus meant is that he has to be born anew by Baptism and the Holy Spirit; that is: to be born anew by His passion and death, in order to enter God’s kingdom.
3.1/ The serpent image in desert is the figure of the Crucified Christ: The Exodus event happened about 2,000 years before the Christ’s event; and all that happened to Christ is to fulfill the Old Testament. The Israelites sinned because they complained against Moses and God but were saved when they repented and looked up on the bronze serpent which Moses mounted on a pole. From that time on, people keep sinning, how were they saved? Jesus shows us the way: “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.”
3.2/ The cross expresses God’s love for human being: Another image of the Old Testament has a power to motivate man is the image of Abraham was ready to kill Isaac, his only son, on the mount of Moriah. Is there any man in the human history can do something like that? Abraham did not have to kill his son when God had seen his faith; but God would like to use this image in order to prepare man to understand the meaning of the cross. The author of the Fourth Gospel writes: “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” (Jn 3:16). Human beings never see God; but they can feel His love and Christ’s love for them every time they look up on the cross and contemplate the Abraham’s event.
3.3/ Christ died so that man can live: Both the cross and the last Judgment Day are needed for men to orient their life to the eternal life. There are some people who are easy moved by God’s love for them through the cross; but there are some who can only be moved by fearing of God’s judgment. Love is the first and the ultimate cause of God’s creation, redemption, and sanctification of human beings, as the author continues to say: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” If after one looks upon the cross and does not feel God’s love for them to repent, he condemns himself and is not worthy of God’s forgiveness.
III. APPLICATION IN LIFE:
– We must use God’s given opportunities to discipline ourselves and to purify all sins of the flesh in order to overcome all sufferings when they come. Complaining, avoiding, and finding an easy way out only led us to death.
– Jesus teaches us: glory can only come after kenosis, humility and absolute obedience. We must sacrifice ourselves for God and people as Jesus has sacrificed for us, as pastor for his sheep, master for his servants, and parents for their children.
– The mother Church has prepared for us this day to look up on the cross and to contemplate about its meanings. Let us look upon the cross to see that our sins are the reason why the Son of God must be nailed to the cross. Let us look upon the cross to feel the unlimited love of God for human beings. Let us look upon the cross to learn the lesson of kenosis of Jesus Christ, and then we also empty ourselves to save us and all people.