Holy Cross Day, 14 September 2014
St. John 12:31-36a
Background: Holy Cross Day
With the discovery of the true cross by Saint Helena in 326, a church was built (The Holy Sepulcher) and was consecrated on 13 September 336, with the cross being brought into the church on the following day, 14 September. Thus the feast was originally a two-day celebration. In the East it is known as the Raising Aloft of the Precious and Life-giving Cross, and in the West it has been called The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, or The Triumph of the Cross. The color for the day is red. Other days that celebrate the cross are, Uncovering of the Precious Cross and Nails, 6 March (Eastern Orthodox), The Feast of the Cross, 3 May (Galican rite), and the Feast of the Procession of the Venerable Wood of the Cross, 1 August (Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholics).
Thus says the LORD,
Declare and present your case;
let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the LORD?
There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is no one besides me.
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
"To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear."
Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me,
are righteousness and strength;
all who were incensed against him
shall come to him and be ashamed.
In the LORD all the offspring of Israel
shall triumph and glory.
The original title of this day, The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, helps us with a context for the choice of this reading on this day. It would be helpful for you to read the verse preceding, name the first part: “Assemble yourselves and come, draw near together, you survivors of the nations” (emphasis mine). We are being led into a court, and it is God who addresses the nations. And this is where it is important to understand who is being addressed by the following verses (21-25). Israel is not being addressed here, but rather Babylon, which by the time these verses were spoken would have been facing its own enemies and doom. The invitation is not for judgment, but rather something else. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!”
That this day celebrates the finding of the true cross (whatever that might have been) it certainly underscores the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, and its sponsors in Constantine and Helena, his mother. Salvation was available to the nations. Second Isaiah sees in his vision a universal salvation that is not limited to the Hebrews, but that is now suddenly available to any who would have it. The reading also makes a line available that will be reflected in the reading from Philippians, “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” The tradition that this Isaiah establishes in his word to the survivors (certainly meant to be overheard by the Hebrew survivors as well) makes a stage upon which Jesus would begin to announce the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, and a table at which the Gentiles would be urged to eat as well.
Breaking open Isaiah:
- What does “salvation to the nations” mean to you?
- Who is included in the “Kingdom of Heaven?”
- Are you an insider or an outsider?
Psalm 98 or 98:1-4 Cantate Domino
Sing to the LORD a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.
With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
The LORD has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.
He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
Sing to the LORD with the harp, *
with the harp and the voice of song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the LORD.
Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.
Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD,
when he comes to judge the earth.
In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.
This psalm also reflects the divine courtroom of second Isaiah in which YHWH makes his case. That it is universal is indicated to us in the latter verse of the psalm where the waters (the sea, and the rivers) make a joyful noise – a reminder of the ancient battle in which the Creator God brings order from the chaos of the world, and which ancient waters now sing God’s praise. However we do not need these esoteric clues – the psalm is quite open about God’s universal intents. “In righteousness shall he judge the world and the peoples with equity.”
Breaking open Psalm 98:
- What does it mean when we say God brought order from chaos?
- What is the nature of the order that God brings?
- Did other cultures have similar notions about God?
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
We have heard the word paradigm used a great deal within the last couple of decades, always calling us to a new business or educational model (although it always brings to mind my study of Greek in college). This reading, however, is a paradigm that Paul wishes to hold up for us. His intent in the bulk of his letter is to outline what it means to live in a community that is formed in Christ. So he begins his exhortation, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” That he may have quoted an early Christian hymn in this pericope does not take away any of its power or grace. Listen to the verbs that are set up for us as an example of living: “emptied”, “humbled”, “obedient”, and the verbs that describe the results: “exalted”, “named”. It is we then, living in such a manner as Jesus did, that then bends the knee and confesses what it is that we know and believe about this same Jesus. The cross lies exactly at the center of this journey of humiliation and then exaltation.
Breaking open Philippians:
- What does the image of Jesus “emptying himself” bring to your mind?
- In what ways can you imitate Jesus’ humiliation?
- In what ways are you exalted with him?
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule-- peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
Again, in the letter to the Galatians, Paul speaks about being formed in Christ, and what it means for him, and by extension for us as well, to be marked and formed by Christ. Such a marking is seen quite literally by Paul, when he says, “for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” It is as if the seraph carrying the coal from the altar to the mouth of Isaiah actually does the same with Paul, marking him with a burning word. Paul sees old things passing away, as he did in Philippians. There is a new model of life that does not admit to circumcision or uncircumcision, but only to that which has been created new. Thus he concludes his arguments outlining life in a new community. Not mentioned here, but certainly found in the markings on his Christian body, Paul would see the cross.
Breaking open Galatians:
- How have you been marked by Christ?
- Have you seen the marks of Christ in others? How?
- What do people see in you?
St. John 12:31-36a
Jesus said, "Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light."
Fr. Raymond Brown entitles the larger pericope that includes the reading for this day as, “Scenes Preparatory to Passover and Death – the Coming of the Hour.” Jesus anticipates, much to the dismay of the disciples, what is to come. As we have followed the readings for Ordinary Time from Matthew, in the fifteenth chapter, through the eighteenth, this dis-ease is palpable. So there is revelation about the glory that is to come, and discomfort about the consequences of Jesus’ actions – Light in Jesus, and darkness in the “ruler of this world.” There are two directions indicated here. Jesus is lifted up while the present age and its advocates are cast down. There is a definite sense of the “yet” and the “not yet”. We are in a suspension – as on a cross! Of course our mind wanders back to Moses in the wilderness and the infestation of snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). The bronze serpent is lifted up for all to see, and in this image we see Jesus as well. There is a darkness here that fits in with the ebbing of daylight during this time of the year. It fits well as we wander slowly through the latter days of the Church Year, to be met at the end of it by a Christ enthroned and inquiring of us about what we have done. So John holds up the Jesus of the cross, the Jesus of light. In my church, the cross in the chancel is only visible when light is shown behind it. The light is present in our eyes, cast through the image of the cross. Using Paul’s idea of the changing paradigm, perhaps we need to be remade in the light of this cross to become, as John states it, “children of light.”
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What is dark in your life?
- What is light in your life?
- How are you a child of the light?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller
 Brown, R. (1966) The Anchor Bible, The Gospel According to John (i-xii) Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, page 465.