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The Exaltation of the Cross

By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross is celebrated every year by Christians of the Eastern and Western Churches. Ever since September 14th, 347, this feast has been celebrated with joy by Christians. On this day, the patriarch of Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher holds up for the veneration of the people, the relic believed to be the Cross on which Jesus was crucified.

The feast takes its name, the Exaltation of the Cross because on this day the true cross was exalted, that is, raised solemnly before the Christian people. The theme of exaltation is reflected in the readings from sacred scripture assigned to this feast day. Like the relic of the True Cross, the readings lift for our solemn veneration the mystery and paradox of the Cross of Christ.

The first reading is from the book of Numbers. In the story of the bronze serpent, Christians have traditionally seen a prefiguration, that is, a type of the Cross. The viper’s deadly bite, (which is the punishment for Israel’s disobedience and lack of faith) is healed when the people look upon the bronze image of a viper held upon a staff. The poisonous serpent, the instrument of punishment and death becomes the instrument of God’s merciful healing.

The second reading is the famous Christological hymn from Philippians. It celebrates Jesus, who humbled himself to become human. Having put aside all divine prerogatives, he became not only human but a slave. On the Cross, he endured the shameful and humiliating death of a slave. Jesus, who was uniquely innocent and without sin, was condemned as a criminal and lifted on the Cross by his tormenters, as an object of derision and mockery.

Instead of being degraded by his death on the Cross, Jesus was raised up by the Father and exalted in heaven and earth, because of his obedience and humility.

In the gospel, Jesus, who became sin for our sake, explains to Nicodemus that like the bronze serpent in the desert, he will be lifted up to heal and save sinners fatally bitten by the incurable venom of sin, death and corruption.


Because the Father sent Jesus, not to condemn the world, but to save it. The great paradox of the Cross is that God saved us, and continues to save us. Not by an act of power and domination, but by emptying himself, by entering completely into our darkness and despair, by allowing himself to be broken and trampled down even by the powers of sin and death.

By submitting completely and voluntary out of love to our forsakenness, Jesus liberates us, once and for all, from the captivity of sin.

On the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Church rejoices in this sign of God’s infinite love for us. This feast day is a beautiful occasion to recall with gratitude that each of us was marked with the Cross at our baptism. There at the door of the church, the priest or deacon, signing us with the Cross, invited our parents and godparents to do the same. After we were signed with the Cross, the priest or deacon concluded with these powerful words:

“I claim you for Christ Jesus.”

Marked with his Cross, we belong to Christ. Every one of us has been incorporated, body and soul into the mystery of the Cross. This is good news which we celebrate on this feast of the Exaltation. Despite our weakness, our littleness, our sinfulness and our many limitations; by the Cross, we are incorporated as participants in the mystery of the salvation of the world. Each one of us has a part to play in the redemption of the world. Deeply loved by God that to redeem us from the slavery of sin and death, he voluntarily died on the Cross that we exalt today.

Marked and sealed with the Cross, our daily task is to be a living sign of Christ’s love, mercy, and forgiveness to those around us, so that through our embrace of the mystery of the Cross. So, everyone who sees us might believe and have eternal life.

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