In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – “Holy Cross Day.” The feast actually occurs on September 14, yesterday, but our practice is to keep it on the following Sunday, so that everyone can be here.
This feast has its origins in events that took place in Jerusalem in the early 4th century. In the 320’s, shortly after Emperor Constantine had made it legal to practice Christianity in the Roman empire, his mother, Helena, who was a Christian, went to the Holy Land to assist the Christian community there, to rebuild churches at the principal holy sites associated with the Lord’s earthly life and ministry. Two centuries previously, in AD 70, the Roman general Titus had destroyed Jerusalem, and torn down the Jewish and Christian places of worship. In the ensuing years, Emperor Hadrian rebuilt the city as a Roman colony, and renamed it Aelia Capitolina. On the site where Jesus had been crucified, he erected a temple to Jupiter.
Two centuries later, that temple had fallen into disrepair, but its presence meant that the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial was not lost to the collective memory. Helena ordered the pagan temple to be torn down. The lands were restored to the Christian community, a church was built on the spot, and that church, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is there to this day – albeit much modified, expanded, and changed over the centuries. While excavating on the site, Helena’s workmen discovered three Roman crosses, along with a placard reading in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” According to Saint Ambrose of Milan and others, a woman with a severe infirmity was immediately healed after she touched one of the three crosses. And it was determined thereby that the cross that occasioned the woman’s healing was the one on which our Savior had died. Pieces of that cross were sent to churches all over the world, although the largest was retained by the bishop of Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Another large piece was sent by Helena to be housed in a chapel in her private residence, the Palazzo Sessoriano in Rome. That chapel would itself be considerably enlarged and modified over the years, and would become the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which remains to this day. The relic of the cross of which we are custodians, we believe, came from this larger relic sent by Helena to Rome in 325. The largest piece of the Santa Croce relic was sent from that church to St. Peter’s Basilica, where it may still be venerated, near the Statue of Saint Helena by Andrea Bolgi, in the pier to the right and behind the basilica’s high altar.
The largest piece of the cross which remained at Jerusalem, was kept in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This church was dedicated in the year 335, a decade or so after Helena’s famous visit to Jerusalem. And the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is kept on September 14 because it was on that day, and the one preceding it, that the original dedication of the church of the Holy Sepulcher took place. The “Exaltation” (or “Lifting-up”) of the Holy Cross is in reference to the bishop of Jerusalem coming out of the church bearing the relic of the cross with great solemnity during the dedication festival, and lifting it aloft for the clergy and lay faithful to venerate. A number of contemporary and near-contemporary writers, whose works have come down to us, record the event – among them Eusebius of Caesarea, and Cyril of Jerusalem.
So that is something of the historical reason we keep this feast. But what of the spiritual reasons? Many Christians – though certainly nevertheless a smallish minority – do not think it right to venerate a material object, or even if they don’t find a moral problem with the practice, they yet think it ineffectual or vainly superstitious. But in truth the practice of devoutly engaging with material objects – and particularly those that have a close association with the events of our salvation or with the saints – is a practice that goes to the very beginning of Christianity, to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus himself. Saint Matthew’s Gospel, for example, says that when Jesus came to Genessaret, “when the men of that place recognized him, they sent round to all that region and brought to him all that were sick, and besought him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment; and as many as touched it were made well,” (Matthew 14.35f). Likewise the Acts of the Apostles says that “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them,” (Acts 5.14f). And again it says, “God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them,” (Acts 19.11).
And this should not surprise us. Despite the petulant, gnosticising complaints of protestant Christianity, the fact remains that our salvation was accomplished by very material means: the spilling of blood and the breaking of a body. Even our appropriation of it is material: water is poured over our heads as the Holy Trinity is invoked. We cannot be saved by any manner of positive thinking.
And the veneration of the cross – as in kneeling before the little sliver of wood that we believe to have been taken from the cross on which Jesus died – the veneration of the cross after this manner reminds us of this materiality of our salvation. We glory in THE CROSS of our Lord Jesus Christ, and not merely in its ideal. Because Jesus is himself – his one PERSON, body, blood, soul, and divinity – our salvation, our life, and our resurrection; through HIM, through his whole person, and not least through his BODY, and the cross to which that body was nailed, we are saved and made free.
“Saved and made free.” This is a pious-sounding religious phrase that we are probably apt contentedly and unreflectively to gloss over. But what does it mean? We are made free, as Jesus said, by our knowledge of the truth (cf. John 8.32) – which is Jesus himself, who exemplifies his own perfect freedom in his accomplishing the will of God (cf. John 6.38). There is a devastating critique of our modern, superficial ideas of freedom in this. We are apt to believe that the most perfect kind of freedom is the freedom to do whatever we want. But Jesus exemplifies perfect, divine freedom in his refusal of any and every thing whatsoever, other than the will of his Father. The implications of this dynamic (which, we should note, is rooted in and perfected by love) are counterintuitive, insofar as Jesus exemplifies perfect freedom not by doing just anything that he is inclined to do, but by doing only what another wants him to do – by doing the will of his Father.
Doing the will of someone else may not, on the surface, sound like perfect freedom. But consider that we can see intimations of this kind of freedom in, for example, the performance of a great artist. I watched recently snippets from the recently-concluded Van Cliburn competition, and I considered just how disciplined the competitors are. They do not just sit down at a piano and impulsively bang away at whatever keys they want. But the tapestry of choices that go into their performance, with respect to which keys they will touch, how hard, and for how long, is governed by a very rigorous rationale, and by years of intensely focused study and disciplined practice – the conformity of their wills to a pattern, outside of themselves, and set for them by the composers of the music they perform. But when they sit down at a piano, their freedom as pianists is not impeded by this conformity. Far from it. Their freedom has rather been manifestly PERFECTED in a way that, for example, mine has not. They are MORE free precisely because of their study and practice, because their volitions as pianists have been more minutely formed, than someone else who just sits down and bangs away.
And so it is with Jesus – and for us in virtue of our incorporation into him. So minutely was his human will governed and formed by the divine will, that his freedom is radically perfected. And this freedom – and the concomitant refusal to choose anything but the will of God – leads Jesus to the cross, through which WE are saved and made free.
And our salvation is coextensive with this perfect, divine freedom. Both our freedom and our salvation are instantiated, both become data of history, at the same moment, “in one body, through the cross,” (Ephesians 2.16). Because it is by means of Jesus’ love-bound freedom, this nexus of choices so minutely formed by the secret counsels of God, that the gates of splendor are thrown open by the Son of Man to us, his brethren, the sons of men.
As we celebrate the Holy Cross today, as we exalt and venerate the cross, let us be mindful of this gift of our salvation and this perfection of our freedom, these superlative gifts given to us on the cross. Several weeks ago I quoted Fr. Joseph Jungmann in connection with the entrance rite of the mass, and how by it we mystically participate in this taking of the gates of heaven by the force of love manifested on the cross. His words bear repeating here:
“When Christ on the Cross cried out His Consummatum est, few were the men who noticed it, fewer still the men who perceived that this phrase announced a turning-point for mankind, that this death opened into everlasting life gates through which, from that moment on, all the people’s of the earth would pass. Now, to meet the expectant longing of mankind, this great event is arrested and, through Christ’s institution, held fast for these coming generations so that they might be conscious witnesses of that event even in the latest centuries and amongst the remotest nations, and might look up to it in holy rapture.”
“We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.