Sunday Before the Exaltation of the Cross

We are saved from the poison of our passions and sin through the Cross.

Exegesis of John 3:13-17


In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today, brothers and sisters, is the day before the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross[1]. On this day we always have this reading where Christ describes the Cross and describes the standard that Moses had, the serpent in the wilderness. And there is also this famous verse that everyone knows; in fact, even people that are not Christian know it, because they have seen it on buses and in end zones:


John 3:16 banner at a football gane.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”[2]


The real meat of this reading is not that verse. It is only describing the Lord’s loves for us; the rest of the passage teaches us how to benefit from that love. First the Lord begins by saying,



“No man has ascended up to Heaven, but He that came down from Heaven, even the Son of Man which is in Heaven.”


He’s speaking of Himself. He was standing right before them when He spoke to them; but He’s also God, so He is in all places at all times.


“Son of Man”[3], is a messianic appellation, just as is “Son of David” and many other ones; He was wont to call Himself the Son of Man” often. The Son of Man is in Heaven AND was standing before them, firmly rooted on earth. And He said that no one has ascended except the Son of Man. The inference is that He, by His Own will, can ascend or can descend and, as God, He can make it possible for us to ascend. He then ties our ascending to the way of the cross, because He refers to Moses lifting  up the serpent in the wilderness. And so must the Son of Man be lifted up:


“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

This standard with the brass serpent in the wilderness is described in Numbers[4]. The people were complaining about being a long time in the desert. They had been gone for many years because of their sins. The actual distance between Egypt and Israel is long; it is about a week’s walking journey, and yet it took them forty years because of their sins. They were well into this trip by then, and they were complaining to Moses, and the Lord sent fiery serpents upon the ground, and they bit the people, and they were dying from poisonous snake bites. The Lord told Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it upon a staff; so Moses did, making a brass serpent. And the instructions were that anyone who had been bitten could look upon this standard and live. And of course, this is a type[5] of the Cross, a foreshadowing of the Cross. Lifting up the serpent on a staff, obviously very much like a cross. And the people were saved by looking to the cross.

So the Son of Man would be lifted up as well. And we can be saved by looking to this Son of Man, the Son of God, the son of David, Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten, when we look upon Him on the Cross.

And then He says,


“That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”


He had just spoken about poison. Serpents had bitten people and the poison was in their system and was killing them, but the cross saved them. So this image of poison is true for us too.


Our poison is sin. Our poison is passions. We are saved from our passions and sin through the Cross.




Because the Son of Man has the authority to lay down His life and to take it up again. And He would shortly lay down His life and take it up again.


He has the authority to change our nature such that we no longer would be held by death.


That is what happened after His death on the Cross. He descended into Hades of His Own will and filled Hades with His divinity and broke the gates of Hades. We sing about this in Pascha, and actually we sing about it every Saturday evening[6]. And in breaking those bars, breaking the bonds that hold humanity when they die, He made us capable of ascending.

So, brothers and sisters, when you look to the Cross, you should be thinking: “The Cross is my way of life; the Cross is the reason that I can live.” 


So this is eternal life: To be saved by Jesus Christ, the One Who hung on the Cross as a symbol for all generations. What an incredible symbol! Can you think of a better symbol - Our Lord looking down upon us and saving us? Now we adorn our houses and our churches and our breast and everything else with the Cross. But we must understand what the meaning is: the Cross saves, because we need Jesus Christ to change our nature. And that’s what He did when He was up on the Cross.

In a few hours we will be singing,


“Before Thy Cross we bow down and worship, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify.”[7]


The Cross and the Resurrection must be spoken of in the same context, in the same sentence, in the same breath. When you look at the Cross, you should see the Resurrection because the Lord allowed Himself to be crucified so that He would go down to Hades and break it.

The only way to realize this salvation is of course to believe in Jesus Christ. This is what we must do. This is our task, because:


after the Lord says: “the Son of Man must be lifted up,” He follows:  “that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

I’ve spoken of this word “belief” many times. This is one of the most misunderstood words ever. To believe is not just to know something that’s true. To believe is not to think something is true. Belief is to live according to what is true.

So we believe in the Son of Man, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten. That is, we live as He lived

So when you look at the Cross, there should be many things that go through your mind. I don’t mean necessarily discrete thoughts because thoughts are really not capable of expressing the meaning of the Cross, however the soul knows.

What is everlasting life? It is to know Jesus Christ. This is very early in the Gospel of John, only the third chapter. Later on in the 17th chapter, after many months of ministry and perhaps even years of ministry, the Lord spoke to His disciples about eternal life at the Last Supper, at the institution of the Eucharist, and He said,


“This is eternal life, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou has sent.”[8]

Eternal life is possible because of our Lord’s death on the Cross. So when you look to the Cross, look to the source of your salvation, and note that the original cross, shall we say, or one of the original crosses, one of the many types of the crosses in the Old Testament, was this standard with the serpent on it. And the people were saved from the poison that was in their systems. And there is poison in you. And that poison, the Lord wants to have obliterated, and that poison is sin and passion.


This is the road to salvation: To look upon the Cross and to desire to follow the way of the Cross, which is our Lord’s way. And may God help you.

Now, remember that tonight at two o’clock we’ll have vigil for the Exaltation of the Cross[9]. This is a very, very important service. At the end of the service we prostrate ourselves before the Cross, and then we stand up again because the Cross is the source of our resurrection.

It is one thing to talk about it, but it is another thing to live it. You should be living in the Resurrection right now today, brothers and sisters, living for eternity, not for anything temporary. You’re no longer creatures of the earth, but you’re creatures of Heaven. You’re citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom now. And indeed in the Divine Liturgy we are in the Kingdom at this very moment, although you might not feel it; it’s only because of what’s wrong with us that we don’t feel it; because it is true.

So may God help us to follow the way of the Cross and to be saved. Amen.



Priest Seraphim Holland 2010.    

Transcribed by the hand of Helen; may God save her and her loved ones.

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[1] The Exaltation of the Precious Cross is celebrated on Sept 14 (Sep 27 on the civil calendar). The service is very similar when the cross is also commemorated on the third Sunday of Great Lent.


[2] John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It was common in the seventies to see these signs (with the verse or just the verse reference)  unfurled in the end zone when an extra point was being kicked in football games.


[3] “Son of Man” is used dozens of times in Ezekiel, and in Daniel there is this famous verse: “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.” (Daniel 7:13)


[4] Numbers  21:5-9  And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.  (6)  And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.  (7)  Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.  (8)  And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.  (9)  And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.


This incident is referred to in the services for the exaltation of the Cross. For example:


“Moses set up on a wooden pole a cure against the deadly, poisonous bite of the serpents as crosswise upon the wood - in a symbol of the cross - he placed a serpent that creeps upon the earth, and thus he triumphed over the calamity. Therefore let us sing to Christ our god, for he has been glorified.” (Matins canon, Exaltation of the Cross)


[5] A “type” is an allegorical foreshadowing of a future event or person. You cannot read more than a page in the Old Testament without encountering one, and all the important types – regarding Christ, the crucifixion, the virgin birth, baptism, etc are mentioned in the hymns of Orthodox services – particularly in Vespers and Matins. 

[6] There are literally hundreds of examples. Every Sunday we celebrate the resurrection with dozens of hymns that describe the event of the resurrection, the cross, and all their implications in Vespers and Matins for Sunday. Pascha hymnology is full of this teaching too. Perhaps the best and most clear example is the Paschal troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life”.

[7] See for a discussion of this hymn:

Normally Christians do not prostrate themselves on Sunday. Why? What is a prostration? On the Sunday of the Holy Cross we do prostrate. Why and when?


Christians do not prostrate on Sunday because this is the day we always celebrate the Resurrection, and we recall how God is able to make us stand. Our standing reminds us of the resurrection. There are one or two Sundays a year when we do prostrate (the Third Sunday of Great Lent, and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, if it falls on a Sunday. On this day, the hymn "Before Thy cross", which we sing while prostration, teaches us what our prostrations mean:


Before Thy Cross, / we fall down in worship, O Master, / and Thy holy Resurrection / we glorify.


When we prostrate, it is in worship of the Risen Lord, and when we raise ourselves up, we recall the resurrection.


A Christian prostrates when he makes the sign of the cross, and falls to his hands and knees (it is usually easier to have the hands touch the floor a moment before the knees), and bows his head to the ground, then gets back up.

[8] John 17:3

[9] The Exaltation of the Cross was Monday that year. I have often struggled with a way to get people to attend vigil on Sunday because many do not want to go home and then come back. I cannot say that any solution has been satisfactory – either serving vigil early in the afternoon, after we have eaten breakfast, or serving at the usual time at night.