by Fr. Mike Stubbs
When we encounter a double meaning in a joke, it often serves as a way to sneak in suggestive material, material that otherwise would not be acceptable.
Another word for that is double entendre. In its more innocent version, a double meaning can simply be a play on words, a pun. But in either case, the double meaning does not claim much importance. It does not take itself too seriously.
On the other hand, we sometimes encounter passages in the Bible with a double meaning that seek to make a very serious point. For example, in chapter 40 of the Book of Genesis, the cupbearer and the baker in Pharaoh’s household both dream while in prison that their heads will be lifted up. Their dreams come true, but in drastically different ways. The cupbearer’s head is lifted up, in the sense that he is restored to good standing in Pharaoh’s eyes — he can once again lift his head up high, he can be proud of himself. The baker’s head, however, is lifted up because Pharaoh has him beheaded. His head is lifted up because it is physically separated from his body. It’s the same phrase, but with two very different meanings.
Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 3:13-17, offers us a similar example: “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.” Since we celebrate Sunday as the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, that gives us a clue as to one meaning of this passage. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross when he is crucified. That is the primary meaning. But it is only the starting point.
The possibilities continue from there. Jesus will be lifted up when he rises from the dead on Easter Sunday. Jesus will be lifted up when he ascends into heaven. The crucifixion of Jesus begins an upward movement that continues long afterwards. That upward movement had been suggested in the previous verse: “No one has gone up to heaven, except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.”
The multiple meanings of “lifted up” greatly enriches the passage for us. We are able to get more out of it.
Ultimately, that is important, because we become the location where Jesus is lifted up. Jesus is lifted up in the eyes of the believer. He becomes our center of attention, so that we might have eternal life. Jesus is exalted in our hearts. We lift him up in our praise. We exalt him in our worship.
That is the purpose of this feast we celebrate, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. By exalting the cross, we exalt the one who died on it: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”