Obedient to Death: Exaltation of the Holy Cross

“Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” —St. Rose of Lima

Adam Elsheimer, ‘Glorification of the Cross’, ca. 1600
Adam Elsheimer, ‘Glorification of the Cross’, ca. 1600 (photo: Register Files)

There is a line in the Mass readings for September 14 that grabs my heart every time I read it or hear it proclaimed:

…he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:8)

September 14 is the day that the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The line occurs during the Second Reading for the day, and is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.

He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Who is “he?” He is our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Sovereign King of all creation. He is God. But “he” also is the Son of the Father, the Word Incarnate who assumed human nature without losing his divine nature. As a child, I was taught that God becoming a man would be akin to my becoming an ant. Considering my childhood fetish for squishing ants, that analogy was life-changing for me. I don’t think I’ve intentionally squished a single ant since that day.

There’s a similar analogy in the readings for this feast. In the First Reading, the Israelites ungratefully complained to Moses about the way God was caring for them in the desert. To teach them a lesson, God sent a plague of saraph serpents which bit and killed many of the people. Of course, they pleaded for mercy. As a cure, God instructed Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and mount it on a pole. Those bitten needed only to look at it to be saved. The very thing that became the Israelites’ cure was the nuisance they just as well would have destroyed.

Like squishing an ant.

The serpent mounted on the pole was a foreshadowing of our Lord being mounted on the cross. The Scribes and Pharisees saw Jesus as a nuisance—a nasty little thing that bit at them and threatened their status quo—and so they decided to squish him, so to speak, by crucifying him. They, too, were ungrateful for all God had given them.

Our Lord had the power to strike them all dead then and there. Instead, he emptied himself and took the form of a slave. In complete obedience to the Father, he allowed himself to be mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns, beaten, and hung on a cross to die an agonizing death. Like the serpent, the One mounted on the Cross became the means of salvation.

Perhaps we might like to ask ourselves how we respond to the One mounted on the Cross. There are some, sadly, who would prefer to stomp on it and walk away. There are others who don’t understand its significance at all. There are others who understand its significance but ignore it or forget about it. Like an ant crossing the sidewalk or a garden snake slithering away into the tall grass, they pass by and don’t give it much thought.

The One mounted on the Cross is no ant, no serpent, and no mere man. He is the Son of God, the God-Man, the Christ. Let’s not just pass him by. Rather, let’s take a moment—or an hour, or a day—to gaze in love at the instrument of our salvation and to offer him the respect, honor, gratitude, praise, and worship he deserves.