In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today we celebrate our “feast of title.” We are the Church of the Holy Cross, and today is the feast of the Holy Cross – the full name of which is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
This feast, which by tradition we keep on Sunday, is celebrated in the wider Church on September 14, the yearly anniversary of an event that took place in Jerusalem on September 14 in the year 335 AD. On that day, at the conclusion of a two-day festival marking the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Bishop of Jerusalem, Maximus, came out of the church with a relic of the true cross, and held it aloft for the gathered faithful to venerate.
From the time of the Apostles, it would seem that Christians in Jerusalem held in veneration the sites associated with the life and death of Jesus, including and especially the site of his passion, death, burial, and resurrection. In the year 70 AD, the Roman general Titus (who would later become emperor) destroyed the city of Jerusalem, together with the Jewish temple. And some decades later the emperor Hadrian, a great enemy of Christianity, deliberately desecrated the Christian holy places, and built a temple to the goddess Aphrodite at the place where Jesus had been crucified.
As is often the case with the devil’s machinations, God’s providence brought about a greater and unforeseen good from this desecration. The temple of Aphrodite erected by Hadrian meant that the memory of mount Calvary was preserved. And when at last a Christian became the undisputed emperor – namely the emperor Constantine, whose mother, Helena, our patroness, was a Christian – one of the churches he ordered to be built was that of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem. They knew exactly where the church should go, because the temple of Aphrodite marked the spot.
The temple of Aphrodite was torn down, and as the ground was being excavated, an old tomb was discovered in the bedrock, together with three wooden crosses. According to a history written by Rufinus of Aquileia not long after the events, in order to determine which cross was that of the Savior, Helena had a terminally ill woman brought from the city who, after touching the third cross, was instantly healed, thus proving to the faithful that the third cross was the life-giving cross of Jesus.
This cross was divided into pieces which were sent, in turn, to churches throughout the empire. A large piece was retained in a silver reliquary at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem. Another large piece was sent to Rome, to Helena’s private chapel which became the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who was a young man when these events took place, says in one of his later works that “The whole world has since [these events] been filled with pieces of the wood of the cross.”
One such piece, a very small one, has made its way through the centuries and around the world and come into our custody at Church of the Holy Cross. It was this small piece that was carried in procession at the beginning of this mass, and which now reposes on the altar at the back of the church.
So what’s the point? Well there may be many points, many inferences to be drawn from the foregoing history of this feast. But one such inference surely has to do with the particularity of our faith, of our salvation. We are apt, I think, to reduce the mysteries of our faith to matters of the head and of the heart. To intellectual affirmations and emotional states and such things. But today we are reminded, in short, that matter matters. Our salvation is very particular and very material. It happened at a particular place – and that place may still be visited and venerated. And it took place by means of a very particular bit of wood. The cross was real. The cross was physical. It was made from the wood of some tree that grew up from some seed in some spot in Judea some 2,000 years ago. And part of that wood is in this room here with us now.
One is reminded of the old Anglo-Saxon poem, the Dream of the Rood, wherein the cross tells its own story:
It was long past – I still remember it –
That I was cut down at the copse’s end,
Moved from my root. Strong enemies there took me,
Told me to hold aloft their criminals,
Made me a spectacle. Men carried me
Upon their shoulders, set me on a hill,
A host of enemies there fastened me.
And then I saw the Lord of all mankind
Hasten with eager zeal that He might mount
Upon me. I durst not against God’s word
Bend down or break, when I saw tremble all
The surface of the earth. Although I might
Have struck down all the foes, yet stood I fast.
Then the young hero (who was almighty God)
Got ready, resolute and strong in heart.
He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,
Bold in the sight of many watching men,
When He intended to redeem mankind.
I trembled as the warrior embraced me.
But still I dared not bend down to the earth,
Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.
It is worth considering, extending the sentiment of the Jewish song for Pessach – why is this wood different from all other wood? Surely it is the plan of God set forth upon it, and by means of it, that has transformed it. The seer of the Dream of the Rood speaks this way – of the spiritual vision of the cross, suffused with glory in the spiritual realm. Its truest nature disclosed to the eyes of the seer’s faith:
I saw the tree of glory brightly shine
In gorgeous clothing, all bedecked with gold.
The Ruler’s tree was worthily adorned
With gems; yet I could see beyond that gold
The ancient strife of wretched men, when first
Upon its right side it began to bleed.
I was all moved with sorrows, and afraid
At the fair sight. I saw that lively beacon
Changing its clothes and hues; sometimes it was
Bedewed with blood and drenched with flowing gore,
At other times it was bedecked with treasure.
So I lay watching there the Saviour’s tree…
It was a bit of wood, indistinguishable from any other, until the election of God and man intersected on it, for God does nothing at random, but foresees everything from all eternity. This tree, this wood, was the subject of God’s election and the instrument of ours.
And seeing it in this light is a foretaste of our destiny in Christ, by means of his exalted cross. We too are matter, mud creatures, formed of clay. “Remember, o man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.” As George, our bishop, said in a recent teaching:
“Of course mysteries envelop all we are imagining. To God not only does all creation have an [o]n-going reality, but it is transformed! A new kind of life springs forth, and is not static, but with a finality and perfection. The corruptible is still real, our pasts not erased, but now ‘put on incorruption.’ When Christ the real Heart of all things is made transparent, they are changed, as if restored from the dead.”
Remember this. Let your looking with devotion on the wood of the cross be a reminder of this. That as real as your life is, as real as your circumstances and relationships and trials and so forth are – they are not the be-all-and-in-all of your being. You are destined to share in the glory of the risen Christ, to “put on incorruption” in Christ. And ask yourself how, in light of this vocation to incorruption, you ought to live your life here and now.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.