Hail, Cross!

Hail, Cross!

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The Prior of Holy Cross, Leicester, preaches on its patronal feast.

Today we unashamedly recall historical events. Encouraged by his mother, St. Helen, the Emperor Constantine had the sites of Our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection excavated, and churches built over them. These were dedicated in September 335.

Within ten years, fragments of Christ’s Cross were being distributed, whilst part remained in Jerusalem, with the title Pilate had placed over Jesus’ head. (This ended up in Santa Croce, the church built into St. Helen’s palace in Rome. Eventually walled up for safety, it was rediscovered in 1492. Its odd features show it is unlikely to be a Mediaeval forgery.) It seems that Cross and title had been discovered during the excavations Constantine ordered.

In 614 the Persian Emperor conquered Jerusalem and took away the relics. In 629 the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius defeated the Persians and asked for the relics back.

The September Feast originally commemorated the dedication of the churches at Calvary and the discovery of the Cross. But a separate Feast of the Discovery of the Cross was established in May, leaving the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross to commemorate Heraclius’ recovery of the relics. Since 1970 we have kept the one Feast in September.

This Feast is the occasion for churches that possess one to venerate their relic of the Cross. (The relics have been measured. Too little Wood survives to make a single cross — the slander about ‘enough to make a battleship’ is one of the lies that have become accepted ‘facts’.)

Human beings live in time, space and society. Dates are important. The anniversary of a loved-one’s death weighs on us. Places are important. Few people do without a home; many have favourite places for meeting friends. The well-being of our communities is important. A nation’s sporting success affects the mood of many. Put all this together, and the destruction, loss, restoration or recovery of some national symbol can be crucial.

So the Word, who enlightens everyone, became flesh; Mary, her sister, Mary of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and John, beheld his glory. By nature we have the power of reason, a kind of sharing in the Father’s Word, the eternal Wisdom. By grace we can have friendship with God, supernatural light, an intimacy with God destined to grow into heaven’s clear vision; this is a higher sharing in the divine Wisdom.

Like our natural light, it could have come to us in a secret, interior way. But no: this divine light comes to us in a more human way. God’s Wisdom was born of a particular Woman, grew up among particular relatives, taught particular disciples, and was nailed to a particular piece of wood. Those who witnessed His hour of glory, found His tomb empty on 5 April in the year 33 (or maybe 9 April in the year 30).

From that single time and place, the Spirit flows to people of all times and places. None are excluded from grace; but its characteristic route is the sacraments. Through particular people’s gestures, Jesus of Nazareth reaches down to us through the centuries.

In particular buildings, on particular days, our friendship with God is strengthened. Pilgrims go to where Mary, John and the holy women saw Jesus’ glory. We kiss the Wood on which he revealed God’s mercy.

We live out friendship with God in particular acts of care. We live out friendship with God both in communities and as a community, a Church. We work for visible unity. We try to ensure that the Church’s leaders command respect. We engage in damage-limitation after scandals. We uphold theology’s intellectual rigour. We endeavour to influence public policy for the common good. We pray for the good estate of the Church; for grace builds on nature, and if the Church flourishes friendship with God is facilitated.

But scandals and persecutions come. Christians find they need God’s and each other’s forgiveness. Individuals and communities within the Church are put to the test. In dark times, we are not cut off from grace, for grace comes through Jesus’ deliberate self-abasement. When Heraclius carried the Wood of the Cross back in triumph, he found he could not enter the Holy Places till he had taken off his crown, and robe, and shoes.

Readings: Num 21:4b-9 | Phil 2:6-11 | John 3:13-17

fr. Richard Conrad teaches dogmatic and sacramental theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, where he is also the director of the Aquinas Institute.