Unless the Son of Man is Lifted Up - Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

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“Unless the Son of Man is lifted up”
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

“Unless the Son of Man is lifted up”. These words spoken by the Lord to Nicodemus are very significant. Even from the earliest days of his public ministry Jesus knew that it was not going to be his preaching and teaching, it was not even going to be extraordinary miracles, that would be the heart and power of his purpose, but it would be his dying on the cross.

Nicodemus, the Pharisee, approached Jesus secretly, coming by night. One can imagine a private meeting and conversation. Nicodemus was clearly open to Jesus and his mission. He came as a serious enquirer. Seeing his sincerity no doubt the Lord treated him with respect and sought to answer his questions. Nicodemus was seeking to understand who Jesus was, probably sensing that he was the Messiah, or at least a prophet. He knew Jesus was a spiritual man and probably assumed that he was sent by God.

He needed to understand what his essential mission was – was he simply a charismatic preacher? Was he an important prophet endowed by God with healing gifts? Who was this man from Nazareth and what was God’s purpose for him?
As the conversation continued Jesus took Nicodemus deep into the mystery of God’s purposes for him. He firstly declared that he had come from heaven. This in itself is a bold and challenging claim that must have taxed Nicodemus’ understanding.

Then he made the allusion to Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert – referring to the text of our first reading today taken from the Book of Numbers. He makes this statement: “and the Son of Man must be lifted up”. Immediately we can see the allusion to Calvary. We know that Jesus is referring here to his death on the cross. Nicodemus would have had no notion of this meaning, but he would have known the reference to Moses lifting up the serpent and that those who gazed upon it were healed.

Jesus builds on this understanding and says that he must be lifted up “so that everyone who believes may have eternal life”. As gazing upon the bronze serpent lifted up by Moses brought healing to the people who had sinned, so looking upon Christ crucified would become the path of salvation, the path to eternal life. Looking upon Jesus crucified of course means looking upon him in faith, seeing in the crucified Christ the saving action of God. We look upon the cross with the eyes of faith.

What Jesus has said to Nicodemus is something that has profound significance – that the way to eternal life with God is through the cross. This is why the crucifix has become the principle image of Christianity.

It is, of course, the tool used by the Romans to punish the worst of crimes. It is was cruel instrument of torture. It was the instrument of intimidation. Crucifixion was to be the ultimate weapon to create fear and submission to Roman rule.

It is an instrument of death. It is an instrument of humiliation. It is the symbol of Roman authority and control.
This symbol of cruel tyranny has become the symbol of the Christian faith. We wear the cross around our necks. We place the cross over our buildings – our churches, our schools, our hospitals. We place the image of the crucified Christ in a most visible place before us in our churches. It is the defining Christian symbol.

We see it so much that we take it for granted. We often fail to see the paradox of having an instrument of cruel torture and death as the principle symbol of our faith.

It is the next words in the Gospel today that explain how we Christians understand the meaning of the cross.

“Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life”.

The crucifixion of the Son of Man was the crucifixion of the Son of God.

The Son of Man was to be lifted up as the serpent was lifted up in the desert.  The Son of Man lifted up has taken on the sin of the world. Sin was crucified on Calvary, as the serpent – the bringer of death – was lifted up in the desert.

The Son of God was lifted up as an act of supreme love – see in the crucified Christ how much God loves the world. See in Jesus’ willingness to go to Calvary how much the Son of God loved the world that he had embraced in the incarnation.

The Son of Man became sin in being lifted up. The Son of God became love in being lifted up.

How do we respond to this enormous truth? Moses told to the people to gaze upon the bronze serpent. We gaze upon the Son of God nailed to the cross. We look at Christ crucified and see the revelation of the depth of love God has for humanity; the depth of love God has for each one of us.

God has made the sinless one into sin, so that we can be freed from sin. God has asked his own Son to enter into the realms of death to free humanity from the power of death. Jesus surrendered into the hands of his Father as he gave up his spirit, and the Father drew him to himself and raised his Son in a glorified state in the Resurrection.

Sin is conquered. Death is defeated. Love and mercy have triumphed. Eternal life is now possible for each of us.

Today is called the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It is the feast in which we hold up in triumph the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us lift high the cross, the cross of Jesus Christ. Let us lift it high in our hearts. Let us lift it high before the world.

The cross is our glory, our hope and the ultimate sign of the love of God for the world.


Archbishop Julian Porteous
Sunday, 14 September 2014