HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS JOHN PAUL II
Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
Apostolic Journey to the USA and Canada
Arizona State University,
September 14, 1987
“The Son of Man must be lifted up” (Io.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. On this day when I have the joy of
celebrating the Eucharist with you here in
Phoenix, let our first thoughts be directed
to the victorious Cross of our Saviour, to
the Son of Man who is lifted up! Let us
adore and praise Christ, our Crucified and
Risen Lord. To him, and to the Father and
the Holy Spirit, be glory and thanksgiving
now and forever!
How good it is to join our voices in praise
of God on this feast of the Triumph of the
Cross. And how appropriate to celebrate the
feast here in the city of Phoenix, which
bears the name of an ancient symbol often
depicted in Christian art to represent the
meaning of the victorious Cross. The phoenix
was a legendary bird that, after dying, rose
again from its own ashes. Thus, it came to
be a symbol of Christ who, after dying on
the Cross, rose again in triumph over sin
We can rightly say that, by divine
providence, the Church in Phoenix has been
called in a particular way to live the
mystery of the victory of the Cross.
Certainly, the Cross of Christ has marked
the progress of evangelization in this area
since its beginning: from the day, three
hundred years ago, when Father Eusebio Kino
first brought the Gospel to Arizona. The
Good News of salvation has brought forth
great fruit here in Phoenix, in Tucson and
throughout this whole area. The Cross is
indeed the Tree of Life.
2. “The Son of Man must be lifted up”
(Io. 3, 14).
Today the Church makes special reference to
these words of Christ as she celebrates the
feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Beyond
the particular historical circumstances that
contributed to the introduction of this
feast in the liturgical calendar, there
remain these words that Christ spoke to
Nicodemus during that conversation which
took place at night: "The Son of Man must be
Nicodemus, as we know, was a man who loved
God’s word and who studied the word with
great attention. Prompted by his hunger for
the truth, by his eagerness to understand,
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to find
answers to his questions and doubts. It is
precisely to him, to Nicodemus, that Jesus
speaks these words which still echo in a
mysterious way: "The Son of Man must be
lifted up, that all who believe may have
eternal life in him" (Ibid. 3, 14-15).
Nicodemus could not have known at this point
that these words contain, in a certain
sense, the summary of the whole Paschal
Mystery which would crown the messianic
mission of Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus
spoke of being "lifted up" he was thinking
of the Cross on Calvary: being lifted up on
the Cross, being lifted up by means of the
Cross. Nicodemus could not have guessed this
at the time. And so Christ referred to an
event from the history of the Old Testament
which he knew about, namely, Moses lifting
up the serpent in the desert.
3. It was an unusual event that took place
during Israel’s journey from Egypt to the
Promised Land. This journey that lasted
forty years was full of tests: the people
"tested” God with their infidelity and lack
of trust; in turn this provoked many tests
from the Lord in order to purify Israel’s
faith and deepen it. Near Mount Hor a
particular test took place, which was that
of the poisonous serpents. These serpents
"bit the people" with the result that many
of them died (Nu. 21, 6). Then Moses,
ordered by the Lord, “made a bronze serpent
and mounted it on a pole, and whenever
anyone who had been bitten by a serpent
looked at the bronze serpent, he recovered”
(Ibid. 21, 9).
We might ask: why such a test? The Lord had
chosen Israel to be his own; he had chosen
this people, in order to initiate them
gradually into his plan of salvation.
4. Jesus of Nazareth explains the salvific
designs of the God of the Covenant. The
bronze serpent in the desert was the
symbolic figure of the Crucified One. Is
someone who had been bitten looked upon the
serpent "lifted up" by Moses on a high pole,
that person was saved. He remained alive,
not because he had looked upon the serpent,
but because he had believed in the power of
God and his saving love. Thus when the Son
of Man is lifted up on the Cross of Calvary,
"all who believe will have eternal life in
him" (Cfr. Io. 3, 15).
There exists then a profound analogy between
that figure and this reality, between that
sign of salvation and this reality of
salvation contained in the Cross of Christ.
The analogy becomes even more striking if we
keep in mind that the salvation from
physical death, caused by the poison of the
serpents in the desert, came about through a
serpent. Salvation from spiritual death -
the death that is sin and that was caused by
man - came about through a Man, through the
Son of Man "lifted up" on the Cross.
In this nighttime conversation, Jesus of
Nazareth helps Nicodemus to discover the
true sense of God’s designs. While Jesus is
speaking, the fulfilment of these divine
designs belongs to the future, but at this
point the future is not far away Nicodemus
himself will be a witness to this fulfilment.
He will be a witness to the paschal events
in Jerusalem. He will be a witness to the
Cross, upon which the one who speaks with
him this night - the Son of Man - will be
5. Jesus goes on even further. The
conversation becomes even deeper: Why the
Cross? Why must the Son of Man be "lifted
up" on the wood of the Cross? Because "God
so loved the world that he gave his only Son
that whoever believes in him may not die but
may have eternal life" (Io. 3, 16). Yes,
eternal life. This is the type of salvation
that Jesus is speaking about: eternal life
And then Jesus adds: "God did not send the
Son into the world to condemn the world, but
that the world might be saved through him"
(Ibid. 3, 17). Many thought that the Messiah
would be first of all a severe judge who
would punish, "separating the wheat from the
chaff" (Cfr. Matth. 3, 12). If at one moment
he will have to come as judge - at the end
of the world - now "in the fullness of time"
(Cfr. Gal. 4, 4) he comes to be judged
himself by the sins of the world, and
therefore because of the sins of the world.
And thus, Christ lifted up on the Cross
becomes the Redeemer of the human race, the
Redeemer of the world.
Jesus of Nazareth prepares Nicodemus, the
eager student of the Scriptures, so that in
time he will understand the saving mystery
contained in the Cross of Christ. And we
know that, in time, Nicodemus did
understand, but not during that night.
6. What, then, does this "being lifted up"
In the second reading of today’s liturgy,
taken from Saint Paul’s Letter to the
Philippians, "being lifted up" means first
of all "being brought low". The Apostle
writes about Christ, saying: “Though he was
in the form of God, he did not deem equality
with God something to be grasped at. Rather,
he emptied himself and took the form of a
slave, being born in the likeness of men”
(Phil. 2, 6-7). The Godman! God becoming
man. God taking on our humanity: this is the
first dimension of " being brought low ",
and at the same time it is a "lifting up".
God is brought low, so that man may be
lifted up. Why? Because "God so loved the
world". Because he is love!
Then the Apostle writes: "(Christ) was known
to be of human estate, and it was thus that
he humbled himself, obediently accepting
death, death on a Cross" (Ibid. 2, 7-8).
This is the second and the definitive
dimension of being brought low. It is the
dimension of being emptied which confirms in
the strongest way the truth of those words:
"God so loved the world that he gave his
only Son". He gave. This emptying is itself
the gift. It is the greatest gift of the
Father. It surpasses all other gifts. It is
the source of every gift. In this absolute
lowering, in this emptying, is the beginning
and source of every "lifting up", the source
of the lifting up of humanity.
7. The Cross was " lifted up " on Golgotha.
And Jesus was nailed to the Cross, and was
therefore lifted up with it. To the human
eye, this was the culmination of humiliation
and disgrace. But in the eyes of God it was
different. It was different in the eternal
designs of God.
The Apostle continues: “Because of this, God
highly exalted him and bestowed on him the
name above every other name, so that at
Jesus’ name every knee must bend in the
heavens, on the earth, and under the earth,
and every tongue proclaim to the glory of
God the Father: Jesus Christ is Lord” (Ibid.
Christ is the Lord! This will be confirmed
in the Resurrection, but it is already
contained in the Crucifixion. Precisely in
To be crucified, humanly speaking, is to be
disgraced and humiliated. But from God’s
point of view it means being lifted up,
indeed, to be lifted up by means of the
Cross. Christ is the Lord, and he becomes
Lord of everything and everyone in this
elevation by means of the Cross. It is in
this way that we look upon the Cross, with
the eyes of faith, instructed by the word of
God, guided by the power of God.
Here then is the mystery of the Triumph of
8. This mystery reaches us in a particular
way and with a special power when the Church
celebrates the Sacrament of the Anointing of
the Sick, as she does this evening. By means
of this sacrament, and through all her
pastoral service, the Church continues to
care for the sick and dying as Jesus did
during his earthly ministry. Through the
laying on of hands by the priest, the
anointing with oil and the prayers, our
brothers and sisters are strengthened with
the grace of the Holy Spirit. They are
enabled to bear their sufferings with
courage and thus to embrace the Cross and
follow after Christ with stronger faith and
This holy anointing does not prevent
physical death, nor does it promise a
miraculous healing of the human body. But it
does bring special grace and consolation to
those who are dying, preparing them to meet
our loving Saviour with lively faith and
love, and with firm hope for eternal life.
It also brings comfort and strength to those
who are not dying but who are suffering from
serious illness or advanced age. For these
the Church seeks healing of both body and
soul, praying that the whole person may be
renewed by the power of the holy Spirit.
Every time that the Church celebrates this
sacrament, she is proclaiming her belief in
the victory of the Cross. It is as if she
were repeating the words of Saint Paul: “I
am certain that neither death nor life,
neither angels nor principalities, neither
the present nor the future, nor powers,
neither height nor depth nor any other
creature, will be able to separate us from
the love of God that comes to us in Christ
Jesus, our Lord” (Rom. 8, 38-39).
From the very early days until now, Phoenix
has been a city to which people have come
for health care, for relief of suffering,
for new beginnings and fresh starts. Today
as in the past, the Church welcomes such
people, offering them love and
understanding. She is grateful to the sick
and elderly for the special mission which
they fulfill in the Kingdom of our Saviour.
Your hospitality, which I myself have also
received, reflects the beautiful saying in
Spanish: "mi casa, su casa". I pray that you
will always remain faithful to this
tradition of Christian community and
By such fidelity to your Christian heritage,
through the Sacrament of the Anointing of
the Sick, and in the celebration of the Holy
Eucharist, you express your deep conviction
that suffering and death are not the last
words of life. The last word is the Word
made flesh, the Crucified and Risen Christ.
9. The responsorial psalm of today’s liturgy
"Hearken, my people, to my teaching;
Incline your ears to the words of my mouth .
I will utter mysteries from of old" (Ps. 78
It was exactly in this way that Christ
revealed the mystery of salvation to
Nicodemus, and to us. And to all people.
The words which follow, in that same psalm,
also refer to us:
"But they flattered him with their mouths
and lied to him with their tongues,
Though their hearts were not steadfast
nor were they faithful to his covenant”
"While he slew them they sought him
and inquired after God again;
Remembering that God was their rock
and the Most High God, their Redeemer"
And this is how God continues among us, from
one generation to the next, as our Rock, our
Redeemer. This is the mystery of the Triumph
of the Cross, the rock of our salvation.
Let us fix our gaze upon the Cross!
Let us be reborn from it!
Let us return to God!
May the humiliation of Christ - his being
brought low by means of the Cross - serve
once again to lift up humanity towards God.
Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts! Amen.
© Copyright 1987 - Libreria Editrice