To understand the architecture of the magnificent divine plan of creation, we should view the Redemption on the Cross as the centre of history, around which everything, even sin, converges for God’s glory.
Gospel – Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Jesus said to Nicodemus: 13 “No one has gone up to Heaven except the One Who has come down from Heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.
16 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. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (Jn 3:13-17).
I – The Cross Opens the Gates of Heaven to Us
When Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise because of sin, the gates of Heaven were closed to man, and would have remained so until today had it not been for the Redemption. We could weep for our faults, but our lamentations would be worthless for obtaining the eternal company of God, which can only be achieved through His initiative. And this is precisely what took place when He became incarnate and died for us on the Cross.
This is why the Church draws the attention of the faithful to the noble Wood, celebrating the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and, on the following day, the commemoration of Our Lady of Sorrows, uniting the Cross to the tears of the Blessed Virgin, Co-Redemptrix of the human race. In both celebrations, the Liturgy enables us to pay special veneration to the instrument of our salvation, which became worthy of adoration once Jesus Christ was crucified on it with cruel nails that pierced His sacred Flesh. This is the power of the most precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ! We should adore the Cross with the same latria that we render to the God-Man, as much for its being His image as for having touched His divine members and been saturated with His Blood.1 For this reason, it is recommended that two candles be lit during exposition of a relic of the True Cross.
All of the considerations that the Church lays out on this feast suggest due reflection on the mystery of a God crucified.
The universe is excellent in its entirety
Theology teaches that everything that God created could have been more perfect, with the exception of three creatures: the Most Holy Humanity of Jesus Christ, the beatific vision and the Mother of God.2 Yet, it is important to recall that, in its entirety, the universe could not be better; its order is unsurpassable.3 Genesis describes how, over the course of the days of creation, God looked upon each component of His work and saw that it was good; but on the sixth day, when He contemplated the whole, He saw that it was very good (cf. Gn 1:31).
Reconciling the notion of the perfection of the universe with the existence of sin is no easy task. A world without obstacles, problems or complications would be more to our liking—one in which all creatures were excellent, Angels and men fully corresponded to grace, never committing a fault, and hell did not exist. But under these conditions, the Redemption would be unnecessary; it is probable that the Word would not have become flesh, from which it can be inferred that God would not have chosen a Mother for Himself. Then, of the three most perfect creatures in existence—Jesus, Mary and the beatific vision—only the latter would exist. The universe would be less beautiful and would give the Creator less glory than our universe, stained with original sin and all of its consequences.
Let us now set out to consider today’s Liturgy from this perspective, in order to deepen our understanding of the problem of the Cross.
II – A Prefigure of Christ Crucified
The first reading, from the Book of Numbers (21:4-9), outlines an episode from the crossing of the desert toward the Promised Land: “From Mount Hor they set out by the way of the Red Sea, to bypass the land of Edom” (Nm 21:4a). It was an arduous trek across an arid and hostile land.4 The people had become tired of manna, the “bread from Heaven” (Ps 105:40) that God had sent to sustain them, making it appear with the morning dew (cf. Nm 11:9). Since the Israelites had left a situation that was pervaded with sensuality, they were in need of tempering their tastes. The manna, a light substance, of which they could only gather a certain amount, satisfied the appetite but left them with the feeling that something was missing. They hankered after pungent foods such as the onions and garlic of Egypt; in a previous verse they had lamented their absence. (cf. Nm 11:5).
This state of the Hebrew people is analogous with a phase of the spiritual life. All the baptized are convoked to enter the “Promised Land” of holiness but, at a certain point along the journey, we must cross the desert of aridity. The feeling for the supernatural disappears, along with consolation; the sensitive perception of support vanishes from our inner sight. If we cannot make do without these incentives, we will grieve for the “onions of Egypt”—those things of the past that we had renounced in order to follow the path of virtue. In these times of trial, we have only manna from Heaven for the journey: cooperative grace, which God never withholds, but which demands effort and sacrifice.5
The Chosen People revolt against God and His prophet
Humanly speaking, revolt would be an understandable reaction to the situation in which the Israelites found themselves. However, the text reveals that the people not only manifested their inconformity with material uncertainty, but also “complained against God and Moses” (Nm 21:5a). Turning to the prophet, they demanded explanations of him that they would have demanded of God Himself, had they encountered Him: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food and no water? We are disgusted with this wretched food” (Nm 21:5b). Now, manna was a miracle renewed by God on a daily basis! Imagine a guest addressing his host in such a way at a banquet… There is such want of generosity and love in this complaint that it can be compared to Lucifer’s cry against God when he rebelled in Heaven! It was a sin against the First Commandment, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:5).
The people are punished
God, however, does not tolerate those who revolt against His mediators, to the point of taking the murmuring of the people as complaints against Himself. We provoke Him in a similar way when we do not accept the setbacks, trials and sorrows of this life, for this attitude is essentially a protest against God.
To punish the sons of Israel, the Lord sent frightful serpents—”fiery,”6 according to the original Hebrew—to infest the camp. It is not stated that God created them at that moment; doubtless He gathered them in great number and released them there. Their venomous bite caused a deadly high fever that quickly claimed a large number of victims.
After “many of them died” (Nm 21:6), the people acknowledged this calamity as a divine chastisement, and finally, fear, which does not always prompt conversion, brought them to repentance. And this was God’s objective. They sought Moses’ intercession, admitting that their sin had a twofold scope; it had offended the Most High and His representative: “We have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you” (Nm 21:7).
The bronze serpent
God responded to Moses’ supplications with these instructions: “Make a saraph, and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live” (Nm 21:8). He did not eliminate the serpents. He allowed them to continue wreaking havoc among the Hebrews. By this time, the Israelites had been pardoned by God and were therefore freed of the eternal punishment due to their sin. But in this way they expiated for the temporal punishment to which the sinner remains subject because of the disordered attachment to earthly goods, which all sin, both mortal and venial, entails.7
Moses carried out the divine will, and a continual, undeniably miraculous situation was established before all who had witnessed the countless deaths produced by the fiery serpents. Whoever was bitten knew that there was no antidote for their malady, and that the only chance of survival was with Moses, for the prophet always carried the staff with the bronze serpent with him. In this way, God showed His desire to uphold the principle of mediation, having the Israelites not only acknowledge His omnipotence and goodness, but also the benefits of having a prophet to guide them and to intervene in their favour.
The consequence of not accepting suffering
The text that we are considering from the Book of Numbers emphasises an important point: man’s attitude toward suffering. The Chosen People, freed from Egyptian slavery and being led to the Promised Land, had already witnessed marvellous miracles performed by God through Moses—the parting of the Red Sea, for example. Yet when they find themselves face to face with difficulty, they immediately blame the prophet, their liberator, and God Himself, for having given them this man to follow, whom they accused of causing their misfortune. Wanting to do away with all suffering, they revolted against God and fell into much greater woe: the Lord withdraws and chastises them with serpents.
We can take a lesson from this: Let us never try to flee from the cross, for besides being futile to attempt this, it only renders the cross more heavy and cumbersome, as happened with the Hebrews in the desert.
III – The True Serpent Raised Upon the Staff
St. John’s Gospel selected for the Liturgy of this feast presents the image of the bronze serpent under a different light, showing it to be a prefigure of the redeeming action of Jesus Christ on the Cross. By God’s desire, this animal—by whose suggestion sin had come into the world—was transformed into a curative sign for the children of Israel, representing the Divine Redeemer, Who brings true life, as we read in the Book of Wisdom: “For he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by Thee, the Saviour of all” (Wis 16:7). Explaining this prefigure, St. Justin affirms that in it “He [God] proclaimed the mystery by which He declared that He would break the power of the serpent which occasioned the transgression of Adam, and [would bring] to them that believe in Him [Who was foreshadowed] by this sign, i.e., Him Who was to be crucified, salvation from the fangs of the serpent, which are wicked deeds, idolatries, and other unrighteous acts.”8
Despite its somewhat unsettling nature, this image of the serpent is richly symbolic. The serpent is, in fact, a dangerous animal; curiously, however, it has always been associated with medicine, being emblematic of curative power. Its venom is lethal, but also has therapeutic properties and, once extracted, is adapted for use as a remedy. Therefore, life and death are synthesized in just one creature, like a rock of scandal. Those who know how to draw on its health-restoring elements are cured; those who are careless are bitten and die.
In contrasting the figure with the reality, we see that God could also have accomplished the Redemption, eliminating sin and its effects forever, by simply willing it, without the cooperation of an intercessor. But He allowed men to remain prone to sin, leaving pardon at the disposal of all with the “mediator of a New Covenant” (Heb 12:24), Our Lord Jesus Christ. This explains why Simeon, in taking the Child Jesus in his arms, proclaimed that He would be a rock of scandal, for He would be the cause of the fall and the rising of many (cf. Lk 2:34). He is, in fact, divisive. Whoever is touched by sin and looks to Him, finds the remedy for their evils. But woe to those who seek a solution apart from Him!
A Pharisee open toward the Messiah
This whole doctrine is clearly laid out in the nocturnal conversation of Our Lord with Nicodemus, of which this Gospel contains a short passage, and which combines wonderfully with the first reading. In addition to being rich in content, this conversation must have lasted several hours. Unfortunately, St. John summarizes it in sparse paragraphs, which are, however, replete with marvels.
According to St. John Chrysostom, Nicodemus “was disposed towards Christ, but not as he ought, nor with proper sentiments respecting Him, for he was as yet entangled in Jewish infirmity.”9 As a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, he was aware of the poor opinion that this group had formed of Jesus and wanted to conceal his adhesion to Him in order to avoid conflict with his own circle. Therefore, “this man came to Jesus by night” (Jn 3:2), moving stealthily through the streets, in those times lit only by the moon and the stars. Perhaps he had even awaited a new moon or a foggy night in order to avoid casting a shadow, and taking advantage of the chilly night air, had wrapped himself from head to foot.
This good Pharisee went in search of Our Lord not just out of petty curiosity—to personally meet the Teacher whose fame had spread through Israel—but also because he desired to discover the source of Jesus’ power to perform miracles, His strength of expression and His teachings’ capacity of penetration; he pondered whether He might not be a prophet-precursor of the Messiah. Nicodemus’ mind was filled with questions, for he was a man of logical character, solid doctrinal principles and was well versed in the Law and Scriptures, these being the constant objects of his study. He wished to compare his knowledge with the new teachings brought by Christ. As the conversation unfolded, the Divine Teacher spoke to his soul, opening his eyes to the Faith.
An allusion to the hypostatic union
Jesus said to Nicodemus: 13 “No one has gone up to Heaven except the one Who has come down from Heaven, the Son of Man.”
As Nicodemus was a staunch Pharisee, the Divine Teacher used a didactic and prudent method for speaking to him of the Incarnation. If He had revealed the mystery of the hypostatic union by saying: “I am God; I am the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and I assumed human nature,” the other would not have understood and would even have judged this affirmation blasphemous. Jesus speaks of this topic figuratively, giving grace—His own creation—a chance to act in Nicodemus’ soul. This stands as a principle for the apostolate: when we find ourselves in a setting that is hostile to the Faith or that is unprepared to receive the Good News, the best way to evangelize is through allegory. Symbols cloaked in art are a powerful means of drawing the most wayward generations from sin and of leading them to holiness.
At the outset, Our Lord says that “no one has gone up to Heaven,” referring to man’s being barred from Heaven after original sin. All of the righteous ones of the Old Testament were in Limbo, where there was no fire, darkness, or torments; yet the desire for eternal happiness inherent to every human creature remained unsatisfied.10 Therefore, when the Son “descended from Heaven,” taking on flesh, He did not abandon Heaven, for He is God. And as His human soul was created in the beatific vision, from the first moment of His existence, Jesus could rightly say that He had “gone up to Heaven.” Thus, “no one” rose to Heaven before the Redemption, other than Our Lord Jesus Christ. This affirmation awakens a question in Nicodemus, as Our Lord continues His discourse, referring to the episode of the serpents in the desert.
The realization of the prefigure
14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”
Just as those venomous reptiles infested the Hebrew camp, evil made its entry upon the face of the earth with the sin of Adam. And there is no other salvation for men than to look to the true bronze serpent, Our Lord Jesus Christ crucified.
The prefigure of the serpent, therefore, pales in comparison with what in fact played out, for reality is always much richer than its symbol. Our Lord could have merely pardoned our fault, so that, with our soul in order, we would have had an eternity that was happy from a natural point of view. But, in addition to curing us of sin, He offers us the possibility of participating in His divine life, which we could never obtain by our own efforts. We are invited to believe in Him, welcoming everything that He brought us in coming into the world—both His doctrine and His grace, mainly received through the Sacraments. In brief, we are invited to accept the Church and live united with it. It was therefore necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up on the Wood, as Jesus reveals here to Nicodemus. The divine didactics of Our Lord also shines through this affirmation as He carefully avoids the term crucifixion, employing the expression “be lifted up,” which could also mean His ascension into Heaven, depending on Nicodemus’ interpretation. Frequently, in the apostolate, we must act similarly, proche en proche, predisposing souls to accept the full truth without putting up obstacles to it.
The Father’s infinite love for men
16 “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.”
To profit from the theological wealth of this verse, let us first consider the fact that the heavenly Father cannot forget His creatures. If, by some absurdity, this were to happen, they would immediately return to nothingness, for it is He Who sustains everything in its being. Furthermore, God cannot create something that is not for Himself, for His profit and glory. Hence, He never ceases to value the beings to whom He gave existence. And so great is this love that He gave the world His Only-begotten Son, so that all would have life and “have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).
Without this oblation, we—in the best of hypotheses—would be destined to spending eternity in Limbo in the light of our own intelligence, which cannot be called true life. Our Lord Jesus Christ offers us eternal life in Heaven, where we will receive the light of God Himself to contemplate Him forever, as the Psalm says: “in lumine tuo videbimus lumen — in Thy light do we see light” (Ps 36:9); the light of the beatific vision.
The Son descended from Heaven to embrace the Cross
Which means did God choose to consummate the giving of His Son to the world? The most perfect of all means—for He could not desire anything inferior for Himself—but one that astounds us: death on the Cross! We would have preferred that He triumph over evil from the beginning and not suffer the torments of the Passion. It is true that if Jesus had offered a blink of His eyes, a gesture, a word or an act of the will, it would have been enough to atone for our sin. But, as St. Paul teaches in today’s second reading (Phil 2:6-11), “Christ Jesus, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as 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” (Phil 2:6-8). Being God, the Son possessed eternal joy and could have apportioned an earthly life of delights for His human nature. Instead, the divine nature communicated to Christ the Man the joy of embracing the Cross; the joy of being nailed to it and of dying to fulfil the will of Him Who sent Him (cf. Jn 5:30) to save men from eternal death.
Symbol of the perfection of the universe
17 “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
Hearing these words, Nicodemus surely understood, albeit perhaps only faintly, that a new era in the history of the Chosen People had begun. The rigorous era of justice had ended and that of mercy had commenced. And this latter was so much more powerful than the former that the implacable impetus of justice, so capable of following through on its verdicts, cedes before mercy. For mercy is like water, and justice like fire. The latter burns, destroys and consumes, but, in contact with water it is extinguished; its flames, embers and heat vanish. Providence sent the soothing balm of mercy to a humanity that groaned under the threat of chastisement, and from it we have lived for more than two millennia.
In short, it was with the purpose of saving us that the Blessed Trinity brought about the coming of the Son into the world. From all eternity, the Cross had been in God’s mind as having a central role in history. It was the instrument for the accomplishment of the apex of the universe’s perfections, its highest honour and greatest beauty: the Redemption. Keeping this in mind, we come to understand the reason why God permitted sin. In the plan of creation, supreme glory is not the absence of this evil, but the God-Man Who allows Himself to be seized and crucified, for love of us.
IV – The Cross, Font of Glory
At first sight, we seem to commemorate a contradiction on this feast: the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. But the Cross, once considered to be the worst disgrace that could befall a person—a symbol of derision used for the execution of so many criminals—is exalted today by the Church because Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world showing how much it befitted Him. It is “the sign of the Son of Man” (Mt 24:30); and He transformed it into the sign of triumph! Thus, the Cross triumphs from the heights of cathedrals, from atop crowns and gives form to the most illustrious medals.
The Cross is the way of glory. How right it is to say: “Per crucem ad lucem — Through the Cross to the light.” The principle that today’s Liturgy offers for our spiritual benefit is that if we want to become holy there is nothing more essential than knowing how to suffer. The common characteristic of all the Saints was precisely their attitude before the Cross. In fact, the decisive moment in our perseverance is not when sensible grace touches us and we make powerful strides in virtue, but rather, the hour of trial, when temptation assaults us and we feel our weakness. When teaching the Our Father, the Divine Teacher said “deliver us from evil”; but He purposely did not use the same verb regarding temptations: “and lead us not into temptation.” To be tempted is inevitable and necessary after original sin. We must hold firm in temptation, clutching the Cross, certain that it is our only hope: “Ave Crux, spes unica!” And when we commit a fault or our interior life seems to have come to a standstill, making us feel we are unloved by God, let us recall that this sensation contradicts what Our Lord revealed in the Gospel that we have just covered. Let us consider that God loves us so much that the Son would have taken on flesh and suffered the Passion of the Cross to save each one of us, individually.
On this feast, let us glorify, with overflowing joy, the sign of our salvation and the promise of the future resurrection, and let us carry our own cross with love and veneration, just as Our Saviour did as He set out on the Via Sacra. ◊
1 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ, III, q.25, a.4. This adoration is paid not only to the Cross on which Our Lord was crucified, but also to its images, as the Angelic Doctor explains in the same article: “If we speak of the effigy of Christ’s Cross in any other material whatever—for instance, in stone or wood, silver or gold—thus we venerate the Cross merely as Christ’s image, which we worship with the adoration of ‘latria’.”
2 Cf. Idem, I, q.25, a.6, ad 4.
3 Cf. Idem, ad 3.
4 Cf. COLUNGA, OP, Alberto; GARCÍA CORDERO, OP, Maximiliano. Biblia Comentada, vol. I: Pentateuco. Madrid: BAC, 1960, p.847.
5 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, op. cit., I-II, q.111, a.2.
6 COLUNGA; GARCIA CORDERO, op. cit., p.847.
7 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1472-1473.
8 ST. JUSTIN. Dialogus cum Tryphone Judaeo, 94, 2. In: RUIZ BUENO, Daniel (Org.). Padres Apologetas Griegos (s.II). (Ed.2). Madrid: BAC, 1979, p.470.
9 ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM. Homilia XXIV, n.1. In: Homilías sobre el Evangelio de San Juan, vol. I: 1-29. (Ed.2). Madrid: Ciudad Nueva, 2001, p.289.
10 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, op. cit., III, q.52, a.5, ad 1.