Feast of the Holy Cross
Sept. 14, 2008
Woodbadge Course, Putnam Valley
“You placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth, and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered, thru Christ our Lord” (Preface).
Today’s feast is titled “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross”; in days of yore it was called “The Triumph of the Cross.” It’s the feast of the triumphant lifting up of the cross, the glorification of the cross—not so much the cross itself, as Him who is fixed to it. Thus it is a feast of the Lord Jesus, one of those occasional feasts that supplants our regular Sunday celebration in Ordinary Time.
The specific date, Sept. 14, commemorates 2 historic events and alludes to a 3d one. According to the story—whether it’s embellished history, we’re not sure—on Sept. 14, 320, St. Helena, mother of Constantine, found and identified the cross on which Jesus had been crucified, and some years later, also on this date, that most sacred relic of our redemption was solemnly installed in the new basilica that Constantine had built on Mt. Calvary. Early in the 7th century (not long before Mohammed’s followers changed everything in the Middle East), a Persian army invaded Jerusalem and carted off the cross along with other loot. Then a Byzantine army pursued and defeated the Persians and got the cross back, which was triumphantly returned to its basilica.
|Finding of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca|
Still, our feast celebrates not St. Helena or a church or a victory of Christians over pagans; it doesn’t celebrate a piece of wood. Rather, it celebrates what happened thru the instrumentality of that wood: our redemption, effected by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and of course also by his resurrection on the 3d day, which turned death into life, defeat into victory.
The preface for today, from which I quoted at the beginning of the homily, emphasizes the paradox of the cross. It alludes to the sin of our 1st parents, whom “the evil one conquered on a tree,” the tree with the forbidden fruit; the image is of the serpent twined around the tree, as we see in classical art and in cartoons. The preface tells us how God used another tree—the cross—to conquer the evil one and save us.
In the ancient world death by crucifixion was the most painful and most degrading form of capital punishment. It was reserved for rebels, pirates, highwaymen, the worst criminals, and couldn’t be inflicted upon Roman citizens; it was beneath their dignity, fit for slaves and 2d-rate peoples. You can imagine the humiliation of being stripped naked—at least in a less exhibitionist culture than ours; the pain of being nailed to a cross by your wrists and feet (the nails going right thru the ulnar nerve, they tell us); the trauma of trying to breathe while hanging by your arms for hours, or even days, as is known to have happened at times. Recall Pilate’s amazement that Jesus had died as quickly as he did (Mark 15:44), which probably was because he’d been so savagely scourged the previous evening. No wonder that early Christian hymn that Paul quotes lauds Jesus for “humbling himself, becoming obedient even unto death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).
Yet that humiliation, that suffering, that trauma, which the pagan world regarded (Paul says), and still regards, as foolishness (1 Cor 1:18,23), conquered Satan, won for mankind a victory over our sins and the condemnation that our sins deserve.
The preface proclaims that God “placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the cross.” That “placing” can be read as an allusion to Moses’ placing the bronze serpent on a pole, as we heard in the 1st reading (Num 21:4-9) or, perhaps more appropriately, Abraham’s placing his beloved son Isaac on the woodpile atop the altar, preparing to sacrifice him (Gen 22:9). We can’t really understand what God’s will involved regarding the suffering and death of Christ; certainly not a sadistic desire for blood atonement, but we can say at least a desire that his Son be faithful to the truth, proclaim forgiveness, offer God’s love to everyone, regardless of the consequences, and so Jesus was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” and his obedience “placed” him there.
|The Crucifixion, by Giotto|
“The salvation of the human race” was “on the wood of the cross.” That “salvation” is the act of our redemption, effected thru Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s also Christ himself. He is our salvation, our life, our resurrection, as the entrance antiphon proclaimed. The cross killed him, but as the preface says, from that cross “life sprang forth again,” not only for him but for all who belong to him, who are incorporated into his Body, as we are thru our Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:15).