Today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It is, of course, our “name day” or “feast of title” at the Church of the Holy Cross. This year’s feast marks the 1,676th anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem by Bishop Maximus, at the command of Emperor Constantine – a three day festival from September 13th to September 15th in the year 335 AD. In that year, the rebuilt church, which had been destroyed and had a temple to Aphrodite built on its ruins, was dedicated, and the true cross, discovered during the rebuilding, was brought out for the faithful to venerate; and pieces of it were subsequently sent to churches all over the world, by St. Helena, the emperor’s mother. We know of these things because they were monumental events in their time, and the written records of contemporary witnesses – like Egeria of Bordeaux and St. Cyril of Jerusalem – survive.
St. Cyril, the bishop of Jerusalem in the years just after these events, delivered a series of instructions to catechumens inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – a kind of “newcomers’ class” – not unlike the series we are about to commence, on Tuesday, here at Holy Cross. In these discourses, St. Cyril speaks of the cross to the faithful in the city of Jerusalem, assembled in the church built over the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. Cyril says: “[Jesus] was truly crucified for our sins. If you would deny it, this very place refutes you visibly, this blessed Golgotha, in which we are now assembled for the sake of Him who was crucified here, and the whole world has since been filled with pieces of the wood of the Cross,” (Lecture IV.10).
One such piece, after a long journey through the centuries, from Jerusalem, to Rome, and eventually to Dallas, Texas, now sits on the altar of repose at the back of this church this morning, where we faithful are again invited to venerate it, and to pray to God in its presence.
But the story of the wood of the cross is of more than merely historical interest. It is not even PRIMARILY of historical interest – because it is the story of the “tree of life,” the instrument of our salvation, on which the Son of God died so that we might be set free from the domination of sin and death and hell – it is the means by which mankind regains access again to the Garden of Eden, from which we had been cast out from the beginning. The wood of the cross was the instrument of this work that has set us free and made life and joy and peace possible. It means the end of our striving, the end of our loneliness, the end of sickness and confusion and chaos, the death of death, and a doorway opening on everlasting life. The cross of Jesus is indeed the tree of life.
We contemporary people have a propensity of thinking of salvation, and the DYNAMIC of salvation, as a psychological phenomenon. So “spirituality,” we think, takes place in the mind – its all about feelings and beliefs and motivations and dispositions and such. But the veneration of relics in general, and of the true cross in particular, remind us that salvation is intensely material. As much as it is about faith, its also about wood and nails and blood and bones and water and bread and wine. Why should this be? It is, in essence, because there is a seamless fluidity running between God’s proclamation and the enactment of his proclamation. We can see this in Genesis: ‘God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light,’ (Gen. 1.3). ‘And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters,”… and it was so,’ (Gen. 1.6-7). “God said… and it was so.”
Throughout history, the words and actions that package God’s proclamation become efficacious signs and enactments of that proclamation, until, in the fullness of time, the whole divine narrative reaches a climax with the incarnation, and God’s word becomes FLESH and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. And the Word Made Flesh is, of course, Jesus Christ.
This factuality of the divine Word should not surprise us – though it will take some effort for us to step back from the attempt to separate word and flesh that has become a hallmark of contemporaneity – and enlightenment modes of thought. But we may rest assured, this is God’s way, the way of life and light and truth. St. Gregory of Nyssa, who was born around the same time that the true cross was discovered at Jerusalem, wrote about this intimacy that, in God’s plan, connects salvation with its material instruments. In a book on baptism, Gregory answers an objection to the idea that water could have anything to do with rebirth in the sprit. He rehearses a long list of material objects that, in Scripture, were instruments of God’s salvation:
Moses’ rod was a hazel stick. And what is that, but common wood that every hand cuts and carries, and fashions to what use it chooses, and casts as it will into the fire? But when God was pleased to accomplish by that rod those wonders, lofty, and passing the power of language to express, the wood was changed into a serpent. And again, at another time, he smote the waters, and now made the water blood, now made to issue forth a countless brood of frogs: and again he divided the sea, severed to its depths without flowing together again. Likewise the mantle of one of the prophets, though it was but a goat’s skin, made Elisha renowned in the whole world…. So a bramble bush showed to Moses the manifestation of the presence of God: so the remains of Elisha raised a dead man to life; so clay gave sight to him that was blind from birth. And all these things, though they were matter without soul or sense, were made the means for the performance of the great marvels wrought by them, when they received the power of God.
“And,” Nyssa adds, “the wood of the Cross is of saving efficacy for all men, though it is, as I am informed, a piece of a poor tree, less valuable than most trees are.”
I have heard people object to the Christian veneration of the cross – even as a symbol, to say nothing of the cross itself – as something morbid, as though Christianity has a grim fascination with torture and death. But the truth is that the cross is the instrument of God’s victory over all morbidity, over all that is evil in the world: suffering, disease, insanity, oppression, selfishness, hunger, alienation, and death itself. As a versicle from the Breviary office for this feast puts it: “Lo, the Church with solemn gladness, haileth the day for ever glorious when in Kingly pomp was lifted up that dread tree of mystic triumph * On whose boughs her dying Saviour shattered death and crushed the serpent.”
This is God’s way. This was his plan from the beginning, because he loved us from the beginning. Saint Paul says: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God,” (1 Corinthians 1.27-29).
And so: “O Cross, * surpassing all the stars in splendour, exceeding dear to all Christian people and world-renowned, holiest of earth’s treasures: which only wast counted worthy to hold aloft the Price of our Redemption: sweet is thy wood and sweet thine iron, but sweetest of all the burden that hung on thee! O that all who come this day to celebrate thy praises may find in thee salvation,” (antiphon on Magnificat for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.