The early Christian community would have regarded Sunday’s 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 Constantine’s 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.

Lifted up

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 people’s 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, it’s 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 Yahweh’s 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-ian’s dying and rising are simply two aspects of the same action, but it’s the action we most try to avoid that most brings us life.

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.