Lector's Notes

To the home page

of Lector's Notes

Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14, Annually
Lectionary index # 638

First reading, Numbers 21:4b-9 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

Our Liturgical Setting: In today's gospel, John 3:13-17, Jesus refers to the incident related here. "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," Jesus says. The lifting up of the Son of Man means all of his being raised on the cross, being raised from death, and being raised to the right hand of the Father. So, as is often the case, the gospel takes a symbol, a stance, or an action from the Hebrew Scriptures and shows Jesus transforming and transcending it. Jesus makes old forms obsolete, introducing something unexpected and, if not unprecedented, "underprecedented."

The Historical Situation: The Book of Numbers tells parts of the story of the Hebrews' journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, events that happened in the 13th century B.C.E. But the book as we have it was written much later. In the early 6th century B.C.E., the descendants of those earlier settlers were invaded and defeated, and many were taken as captives to Babylon. Their sixty years there are known as the Exile. When they finally got to return to their homeland, by then known as Judah, their priests wanted to help restore the nation. One of their methods was to revive a sense of the people's more glorious early history, so they retold a number of ancient stories from the time of Moses, producing what we now know as the Book of Numbers.

(Click here for a very compressed history (250 words) of the Israelite people, from Abraham, through the Exodus, then the Exile, up to the time of Jesus.)

Now this one is a strange story. In the first place, archaeologists have found small copper snakes, dating from the 13th century, in the area described. They were presumably used to ward off real snakes. But that the Lord would order the creation of a serpent statue on a staff doesn't square at all with "Thou shall make no graven images," the cornerstone of Mosaic monotheism. So why didn't the 6th-century editors just leave out this embarrassing 700-year old story? Perhaps because the monotheistic victory had yet to be won. Perhaps people were still honoring snake statues on poles. They still had reason to fear snakes (even newborn chimpanzees are afraid of snakes), and if an old superstition from folk-religion promised some security, well, why not try it? If the orthodox couldn't eradicate the practice, they could try to take over its pagan religious origins, ascribing the practice to Moses acting on God's orders. It's kind of like making a virtue out of a necessity, not the most intellectually rigourous strategy, but a serviceable one in a religion of earthy human beings.

Your Proclamation: First of all, read it slowly and pronounce everything clearly, especially "saraph serpents" and the Lord's directions about the serpent on the pole. You can't assume that your listeners already know this story or remember it from three years ago, so give them time to absorb the strange details. If you read quickly, you're implying that you take all these details for granted, as if they were the most ordinary things in the world. Well, they're not. They're strange. When you tell a strange story, you speak slowly and pause strategically to emphasize the strangeness of the narrative.

So tell it like a story, of course. Make the people sound worn out when they complain. In describing the Lord's matter-of-fact response, speak slowly and coldly. Emphasis "bit" and "died." And likewise emphasize the last word, "lived."

Second Reading, Philippians 2:6-11 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

The Literary and Theological Background: Evidence in the Greek-language original (well, in the oldest manuscripts we have) shows these paragraphs were originally a hymn (or, less likely, a poem). Paul is quoting something even more ancient than his own letter (its style and vocabulary convince scholars it's not Paul's own composition). Both Paul and the church in Philippi must have known and revered this early formulation of the mystery of Christ. When we read this today, we're getting back to basics about as far as we can get. It's possibly the oldest surviving public statement of the Christian creed. (The oral traditions about the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus didn't take written form in the gospels until after Saint Paul's death.)

So the lector should prepare for this by savoring this text slowly and reverently. Notice the cycle:

Proclaiming It: The English translation available (in the commonly used lectionary among Catholics in the U.S.) doesn't seem poetic or worthy of singing. Until the right poet/musician comes along who can render the passage more beautifully, it's up to you speak it faithfully, with the solemnity that its venerable status calls for.

Don't rush through this reading, either. I would pause at each transition from phase to phase of the cylce. Read the passage now with that in mind and decide where you will pause.

Several other commentaries on these passages. All are thoughtful, all quite readable, from the scholarly to the popular.
Links may be incomplete more than a few weeks before the "due date."
Father Roger Karban of Belleville, Illinois, USA, writes a newspaper column about every Sunday's readings. Here are his essays for today's passages, from: courtesy of The Evangelist, official publication of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York, or of The Belleville Messenger, of the Diocese of Belleville.

Read all of Father Karban's recent columns here, at the site of FOSIL, the Faithful of Southern Illinois.

Archived weekly column of Father Francis X. Cleary, S.J. (Log in using 0026437 and 63137.)
Bible Study pages of Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, Picayne, Mississippi.

The Text This Week; links to homilies, art works, movies and other resources on the week's scripture themes

The Lectionary selections in the frame at the left, if any, are there for your convenience. The publishers of the page in that frame have no connection, except for membership in the one Body of Christ, with the publisher of this page. Likewise the publishers of the pages on the links above.


Return to Lector's notes home page

Send email to the author.

Last modified: August 1, 2012