Lift high the cross: the cross is everywhere, from rearview mirrors to gravestones, even tattoos. Its presence reminds us of suffering and tragedy, but most of all triumph.
My grandmother kept her rosary on top of the television set, its crucifix resting on the jeweled bed of beads. Others may prefer a wall display of the brightly colored crosses of Latin America with their vigorous affirmations of rural life painted across the surface, or the plain, bare wooden beams of a cross already vacated by the resurrected Lord.
Some crosses portray the anguish of Jesus in unflinching detail, reminding us that God is no stranger to our suffering; while others hold the deceased Christ, eyes closed and head bowed, a silent witness to the beautiful words of John's gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
Art and theology combine in every age to reimagine the cross: sometimes with Christ the King posing in front of it with arms liberated and raised as if to embrace us, or Christ the high priest robed in the attire of the celebrant, prepared to preside over the sacred liturgy of eternity itself.
Humble twisted sticks or braided palms from Holy Week may make up the crossbeams, or precious metals and jewels may unite to honor this holy symbol. And there's always that marketing classic: the plastic dashboard pedestal crucifix for your car, far down on the list of chic but as serviceable as any.
No matter what your level of piety, theological leaning, or taste in art may be, meditating on the symbol of the cross is just about as close as you come to a Catholic imperative. If you can't see a cross from where you're sitting, now's the time to run out and get one!
If we stop to think about it, the sign of the cross is inescapable in our lives. We are baptized into it, repeatedly blessed by it, sign ourselves with it at the beginning and end of every prayer and throughout our liturgies, and are buried under it at the end of our days. We may choose to wear the cross regularly around our necks as a sign of devotion, or simply to venerate it with the whole assembly each year during the Good Friday Passion service.
BUT THE CHURCH HAS SET ASIDE ANOTHER DAY FOR CONSIDering this sign: the celebration of the Exaltation or Triumph of the Cross. Observed annually on the 14th of September, this year it falls on a Sunday, which brings the feast to our attention in a more visible way.
This celebration of the cross is rooted in layers of history and tradition. Originally, it should be mentioned, early Christians did not much employ the image of the cross, except for the bare ones carved principally on the tombs of martyrs. First-century Christians preferred to use the symbol of the fish--a reminder of Baptism--for the community at large. Before the fifth century, the depiction of the crucifix (a portrayal of the body of Jesus still affixed to the wood) was rare.
The original cross itself, the historical beams of wood upon which Jesus hung, had not been venerated in that first generation after the crucifixion. Tradition holds that it could not have been, even if someone had wanted to, because the cross was deliberately hidden. As the story goes, the Romans or religious leaders disposed of the wood immediately after the body was removed, throwing it into a well or ditch and covering it with stones and earth to keep the followers of Jesus from finding it.
That action, of course, does not show up in the record of scripture. But what emerges in the record of history is the particular person of Helena, mother of a boy destined to become Emperor Constantine.
Helena was a woman of humble circumstances in the late third century, who married a Roman general on his way to the top of the empire. But later in his career, having a different wife (specifically, the stepdaughter of the emperor) became more advantageous to the general, so he divorced Helena and remarried. But not before she had born him a son, Constantine, who would not forget his mother when his hour came to assume the reins of power.
Up to the time of Constantine's ascendancy, neither he nor his mother were Christians. But as a result of a prayer to the Christian God that Constantine uttered on the eve of battle, he was granted a vision of a luminous cross in the sky, bearing the inscription: In hoc signo vinces, or "by this sign you will conquer." The initials of the first three words in Latin have become the "I.H.S." now familiar to us as the monogram of Christ. The vision was proved to be correct, and the new emperor issued the Edict of Milan early the following year in 313, politically guaranteeing tolerance to the Christian religion throughout the empire.
Helena was 63 years old when Christianity became legal and she converted, but she threw herself behind her new faith with great zeal. She used the wealth of the Roman treasury liberally in service to the poor, and she was known to be a mother to those in distress. When Helena was already 80 years of age, Constantine decided to build a church on the Holy Land site which was determined to be Golgotha, tearing down a temple to Venus that had been erected over it. Helena decided to oversee the project herself--and had her own agenda as well. She wanted to find the "true cross" of Jesus when the excavation of the ground got underway.
Tradition tells us that's how the three crosses in the old cistern were discovered, and Helena identified the "true cross" either deductively or by a miracle, depending on the source of the story. But ancient sources agree that Helena died in the Holy Land, after seeing to the construction of two more basilicas, one on the Mount of Olives and one in Bethlehem. The "true cross" was preserved in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built over the site at Golgotha.
THE EVENT OF THE FINDING OF THE CROSS, CELEBRATED BY the church on May 3, is not quite the root of our feast day of the Triumph of the Cross, however. For that we have to go forward in history to the year 614, when the Holy Land was invaded and Jerusalem sacked by the King of Persia.
The relic of the "true cross" was one of the precious treasures to be seized and carried off. The Emperor Heraclius of Constantinople defeated the Persian army and regained the cross, restoring it to Jerusalem in 629. Heraclius brought the relic back personally, stopping at the gate of the city that led to Calvary and taking off his shoes and marks of royalty. Then, barefoot and in sackcloth, he carried the cross in a penitential reverence up the street to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is this "exaltation" of the cross that we commemorate on this September feast.
But the liturgical calendar doesn't ever celebrate history as a series of dead events that happened once long ago and no more. Our readings for the feast day recall the time when Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the desert to heal the people poisoned by snakes in the camp.
We read also the hymn to Christ in Paul's letter to the Philippians, and are stirringly reminded that "Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at." Instead, Jesus chose to be human, chose mortality, chose to suffer, and by extension, freely chose "even death, death on a cross." And for this willingness to embrace humility, God highly exalted Jesus with "the name above every other name." This, too, is what we mean by our celebration of the Exaltation of the Cross.
BUT WHAT ELSE DOES THIS FEAST SIGNIFY? IT REMINDS US that the cross of Christ triumphs over sin and suffering and death. For people of faith, it is a reminder that the world's anguish can also be lifted up to God for redemption. What the world destroys, God recreates anew. The violence of the world meant as blasphemy can be consecrated to God's holy purposes, the way a martyr's cruel death becomes a blessing for the church. Humanity may disfigure the beauty of creation, but God will transfigure it again in the coming reign of glory. Nothing that is lost cannot be found in the sight of God.
What does this mean for us? That whatever our afflictions are, they are neither forgotten nor forsaken by the God who so loves the world. The woman who loses custody of her children is not deserted in her hour of remorse. The lonely old man in the hospital bed rests in the hand of God more surely than in the care of his doctors. The young man going to jail for his stupid decision to rob the liquor store is not written off for good in the book of life. The young widow is not abandoned to her grief, and the old widow is not isolated in the all-too-familiar silence.
The Exaltation of the Cross means that human suffering has already been lifted up into the presence of God. Though our illness is a secret we carry wrapped in unspoken dread, or our regret for past errors threatens to eat us alive, we share these and all the contents of our hearts with the God who brought the world's salvation out of the horror of the Crucifixion itself.
In light of this, nothing we bear can be so cruel, sad, or ugly that God cannot transform it into glory. Meditating on the cross reminds us of this. The cross was intended by its perpetrators to be the end, a roadblock to the movement started by Jesus, a definitive no to a way of life deemed too threatening because it was all too liberating to the wrong kind of people. Yet the cross, far from being the end, opened like a door to the Resurrection, to Pentecost, and to the church whose vitality in Christ is assured to the end of time.
This is why the gospel is good news: because the end has now become the beginning. Whenever we feel that life has delivered us a death sentence, knowledge of the cross enables us to resist that thought.
The truth is that, wherever you and I are sitting, we can see the cross in a thousand configurations being administered in our world: in the horror of war, the sorrow of loss, the tragedy of disability, the invisible scourge of poverty, the fear of being unlovable, or the wretchedness of feeling unforgivable.
The cross of human suffering has already been lifted up, and we are privileged to be witnesses to this news. Even death, death on a cross, has been found redeemable through the love of God. This is reason enough to celebrate this symbol of triumph, and reason enough to keep a reminder of this mystery within our sight at all times.
ALICE CAMILLE, author of Seven Last Words, a meditation on the sayings of Jesus from the cross (ACTA Publications, 1998) and collaborator on the homily service, "Prepare the Word" (TrueQuest Communications).
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2003|
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