"The Exaltation of the Holy Cross" (detail), Luigi Gregori, c. 1885,
ceiling of The Lady Chapel, Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Notre Dame, IN)
“No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
The passage of course is John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Why do we seem to like that passage so much? Maybe you’d agree that there is a positive feeling about it – it’s heartwarming in a way. And it gets to the heart of our faith – God wants to save us and to do so he sent his Son for us to believe in.
But while we know this passage pretty well, we may not always remember the context that it comes from. It follows a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus – what he says and especially the signs that he performs. He believes Jesus must be a man of God but he can’t quite understand Jesus’s message. There’s an aspect to what he says and does that Nicodemus can’t quite figure out.
So Nicodemus goes to find Jesus and Jesus is happy to speak to him. Nicodemus clearly is a man who loves God and is seeking holiness. But Jesus says something to him that must have been very troubling: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven.” That’s a very interesting and very troubling statement. Jesus is in effect saying that, at that point, no one is in heaven with God – none of the ancient prophets or holy men and women, not even Adam and Eve who were the first friends of God and walked with him in the garden. Nicodemus realizes that Jesus is telling him that despite the fact that he is a good man, despite the fact that he loves God, despite the fact that he is seeking God – all of that is not enough to get to heaven. In fact, as Jesus says, no one has gone to heaven. There is some fundamental block, something terrible that is keeping the gates of heaven closed.
Is this not a little disconcerting to us as well? I think we often find ourselves thinking about heaven as something pretty certain for us. We think, “Well, if I’m a good person who lives a good life and I don’t commit any serious sins, then I can be certain of going to heaven.” Or perhaps we may not even really think about it – we just assume that to be true. But that kind of thinking ignores what Jesus is telling Nicodemus. Something in the world is seriously wrong; something is preventing even good people from getting to heaven; and, as you might guess, that something is our sin.
We can see now the context of that passage, John 3:16. As the passage says, God wants to save us – but he does so because we are desperately in need of salvation .. and we can’t do a thing about it. Jesus comes into the world because we are incapable of saving ourselves. It doesn’t matter how much we might love God or try to live good lives, the fact that we are weighed down by sin has condemned us to eternal separation from God. Only God can save us, and as Jesus explains to Nicodemus, God will do so through the Cross.
Today – here in the middle of September, in the middle of Ordinary Time – we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. We’re celebrating the Cross as God’s triumph, which might seem a somewhat strange idea. After all, it was the instrument used to execute Jesus. But remember what Jesus tells Nicodemus – the reason he came from heaven was to be lifted up, so that he might draw all men to himself. Our sins had condemned us to an eternity of separation from God, but when Jesus goes to the Cross, he takes those upon himself and frees us from them. Just as when the Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent, they were cured of the snakebite that was killing them, so too do we – when we look to the cross of Christ – receive forgiveness for the very sins that otherwise would mean our damnation.
At the very heart of the Christian life, at the center of our faith, stands the Cross. We can’t avoid it. We can’t get around it. When we think about what Jesus suffered or when we accept the Cross in our own lives – it’s a painful, difficult reality. But without the Cross, we have no way to heaven. Without looking up to our Lord on the Cross, we remain trapped in our sins. It’s only when we look to the Cross – when we accept the Cross as it appears in our life – that we remember our own very great need for redemption. Getting to heaven ultimately isn’t about just being good people and trying to live good lives. It’s about recognizing that we are great sinners, that we are in great need of God’s salvation, and accepting that salvation daily as it comes to us through the Cross.
At the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus again meets Jesus – but this time, as he hangs from the Cross. I like to imagine that as he looked up to Jesus, and Jesus looked down to him, it became clear to him what Jesus’ purpose and mission had always been about. I like to think Nicodemus understood there that that was his way to heaven – that, there on the Cross, Jesus was taking upon himself his sins - Nicodemus's sins - and the sins of all the men and women of the Old Testament and the sins of all of us, if we believe, so as to open the gates of heaven for us.
My friends, may we, like Nicodemus, never run from the Cross, never shy away it, but always return there to the foot of Calvary, to the place of God’s great victory, to ponder what God has done for us, and so to understand in a new way that passage we know so well: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”