Commentary on the Gospel of
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
This feast goes back to the 4th century AD and celebrates the finding of the true cross by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. She was helped in her search for the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection by the ironic fact that the Romans tried to obscure Christian sites by building pagan temples over them. When Helena’s crew dug at the site of the Roman temple that Christians had long associated with Calvary, they discovered an ancient quarry with a mound built up around a flawed section of bedrock in one part and, a few yards to the west of that, a set of horizontal graves cut into the bedrock wall of the quarry. Archeologists have no trouble affirming this area, which was outside the city gates in the first century, as the probable site of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. The wooden beams that Helen found preserved there have a great chance of being the true cross.
We twenty-first century Christians are so familiar with the cross as a Christian symbol that we can miss the scandal it was for Jews like Saul of Tarsus, at first, to accept that someone who was killed in this form of execution could possibly be the Messiah of God. For death by crucifixion was the lowest, most degrading form of capital punishment in the Empire’s repertoire of punishment; it was only applied to non-citizens, most commonly rebellious slaves.
St. Paul was aware of this when he made today’s second reading, the famous emptying-out hymn (Phil 2:6-11), the heart of his letter to the Philippians. The Philippian church was a distinct minority in the Roman colony of Philippi, an extremely status-conscious place, to judge from the self-promoting monuments that the elite citizens put up in public places to celebrate their high places in the local pecking order. When he reminds the Philippian Christians to “put on the mind of Christ” and then proceeds to illustrate that “mind” by the hymn, he knows he is being deliberately counter-cultural with respect to the typical mind-set of Philippi. For the story of Jesus is all “downward mobility” until death by crucifixion, from which he is raised from the dead by the Father. The eternal Son “did not regard equality with God something to be clung to [a more accurate translation than ‘to be grasped’]. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness [the incarnation]; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death [his life of self-giving service] even death on a cross [the death of a slave!].” Verses 9-11 then proceed to describe the Father’s exaltation of Jesus to the point where he in honored not only as Messiah (Christ) but as Lord (Kyrios, which means not only ‘Master’--the opposite of ‘slave’--but also Lord in the sense of divine (given the passage’s allusion to Isaiah 45:23, where Lord is the name of God).
Paul really means that the Christian way is to imitate this mind-set of Christ in self-emptying service of one another. The best way to ponder this way of the cross is to read this short four-chapter letter and marvel at how Paul dares to present himself as an example of the joy that comes from the kind of imitation of Christ. He can do all things in the one (the exalted Christ) who empowers him (Phil 4:13). So can we.