Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Jesus said to Nicodemus:
‘No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who came down from heaven,
the Son of Man who is in heaven;
and the Son of Man must be lifted up
as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost
but may have eternal life.
For God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved.’
From “The Crucifixion” by Sir John Stainer
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son.” Those wonderfully consoling words from today’s Gospel were set to music by Sir John Stainer in 1887 for St Marylebone Parish Church in London, as part of his oratorio, “The Crucifixion”. With the possible exception of some of his hymn-tunes, it’s probably Stainer’s best-known work – which is remarkable, as he himself is said to have dismissed it as “rubbish”. Countless audiences and listeners beg to differ.
Much less well-known is the bass recitative that comes immediately beforehand, setting the text about Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert. Stainer picks up an important detail of the biblical text: St John uses almost exactly the same words about the believer having everlasting life when looking upon the serpent, and when looking upon Jesus - and Stainer uses very similar music for these two passages, the chorus echoing the music first heard in the bass solo.
The message for us is clear: salvation comes from the Cross of Jesus, and if we fix our gaze upon our Crucified Lord and put our faith in him, just as the Israelites put their faith in the bronze serpent fashioned for them by Moses, then we too will have everlasting life, we too will be saved from evil, suffering and death. God loved us so much that he wanted us to have everlasting life – and he went to extraordinary lengths to make it possible. No wonder the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross is celebrated with so much joy.
Reflection written by Monsignor Philip Whitmore. He is the parish priest of St James' Church, Spanish Place, in central London. Previously he lived for over 20 years in Rome, working first in the Vatican and then as Rector of the Venerable English College. Before becoming a priest, he was a music historian based at Magdalen College, Oxford.
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