The early Christian
community would have regarded Sundays focus on the instrument of Jesus death
as bordering on the bizarre. As far as we know, no one even attempted to search for the
actual cross on which Jesus died until Helena, Emperor Constantines mother,
organized an expedition to the Holy Land in the first half of the fourth century.
Knowing this history forces us to listen more carefully to
the two first-century readings proclaimed in the liturgy. They were produced by Christians
who thought differently about their faith then those who gave us the feast of the
Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
For Paul and John, Jesus cross was never an object to
venerate in itself. Had they been able to peer into the future, they would have been
amazed at the many reliquaries placed in prominent places, displaying minute pieces of the
"True Cross." According to them, and our other Christian sacred authors, the
true cross is any action that helps us join Jesus in His dying and rising.
In the Gospel (Jn 3: 13-17), for instance, John deliberately
uses double-and-triple-meaning words in describing Jesus death and resurrection
because he wants to transform the historical events which saved us into the ongoing events
of our everyday lives.
He believes that those who follow Jesus will also be
"lifted up" both as a criminal is lifted up on the cross and an honored person
is listed up in peoples esteem. We experience dying and rising simultaneously, in
one action. The tricky thing for the Christian is first to surface such two-dimensional
actions, then practice them.
In a parallel way, its important to know the context in
which Paul quotes his early Christian hymn about Jesus dying and rising, a context
which has been omitted from our liturgical passage (Phil 2: 6-11). Listen carefully to the
lines that immediately precede the hymn. "Complete my joy," Paul writes,
"by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking on thing.
Do nothing out of selfishness....Rather, humbly regard others as more important than
yourselves, each looking out not for his or her own interests, but everyone for those of
others. Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus."
The only reason Paul mentions Jesus "becoming
obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross," is to encourage his community
to imitate that death by generously giving themselves to those around them. Once they do,
God will exalt them, just as God exalted Jesus.
An interesting aspect of the first reading is Yahwehs
command to the Israelites: "Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have
been bitten look at it, they will live." It runs counter to what one would normally
expect (Num 21: 4-9).
People trying to overcome an evil in their lives are usually
encouraged to do something to distract them from the evil. Rarely are they told to
concentrate on the evil. But, here, only when the afflicted people look at an image of the
serpent will they live.
No wonder John latched on to this concept to help us
understand the meaning of Jesus death. Only when He freely faces death does He also
come face-to-face with life. A Christ-ians dying and rising are simply two aspects
of the same action, but its the action we most try to avoid that most brings us
Our ancestors in the faith believed that those who spend
their time concentrating on a religious object from the past will never understand the
true meaning of that object. Only someone who discovers that object in his or her everyday
life will truly appreciate the significance of that object in Jesus life.