The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Sep 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The Byzantine Liturgical Year kicks off with two feasts that are also observed, on the same dates, in the Roman Rite: the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The latter, which we observe today (September 14), is an appropriately paradoxical feast, being also a fast.

It is difficult to say anything about this particular thing, beyond St. Paul’s exclamation: But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world (Galatians 6:14). The Catholic Church takes Paul’s words about the Cross symbolically and, much to the consternation of some, literally. Bits of wood are preserved around the world and presented to the faithful as fragments of the very cross upon which our Lord was crucified. For the life of me, I cannot see how this is any more offensive than the claim that, as a matter of historical fact, the Son of God was put to death by being nailed to this gibbet.

Of course, some have tried to say something about this archetype of our faith, and among many attempts I particularly appreciate the following, especially in light of today’s Feast: The Dream of the Rood (Old English poem, c. 7th century) and The Elevation of the Cross (Alexander Schmemman, Celebration of Faith, vol. II: The Church Year. See Part II, Chapter 1, “The Elevation of the Cross,” beginning on page 41.)

The Exaltation of the Cross is Good Friday viewed through the prism of Easter Day, which is to say that today is something like the epitome of Christianity.

And the serpents bit the people; and much people of Israel died.  Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a brazen serpent, and set it for an ensign ; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.  And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it up for an ensign, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

(Numbers 21:6-9, Lesson for Matins, Roman)

Dearly beloved, when we look to Christ lifted up on the Cross, the eyes of faith see more than what the wicked saw, unto whom it was said through Moses : And thy Life shall hang in doubt before thee, and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy Life.  They saw in the Crucified nothing but the work of their own wickedness.  As it is written : They feared greatly.  But their faith was not unto faith, which giveth life by justification, but unto the torture of their own bad conscience.  But our understanding is enlightened by the Spirit of Truth.  And so with pure and open hearts we can see the glory of the Cross shining over heaven and earth, and discern by inward sight what the Lord meant when his passion was nigh at hand, and he said : Now is the judgment of this world ; now shall the prince of this world be cast out ; and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.

(From a Sermon by Pope St. Leo, Lesson for Matins, Roman)

The Cross is raised on high, and urges all the creation to sing the praises of the undefiled Passion of Him who was lifted high upon it. For there it was that He killed our slayer, and brought the dead to life again: and in His exceeding goodness and compassion, He made us beautiful and counted us worthy to be citizens of heaven. Therefore with rejoicing let us exalt His Name and magnify His surpassing condescension.

(From Great Vespers, Byzantine)

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  1. Andrew,

    I have found very few problems with the things written in the articles on this website, but I must say that your statement, “It is difficult to say anything about this particular thing….” is a pretty poor showing for such a dramatically fundamental principle of our faith. In addition to the quote which St. Paul made regarding being crucified to the world he also stated that he “…resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…”

    No disrespect to you, you have contributed such wonderful posts, but frankly, if St. Paul resolved to know nothing beyond Christ Crucified, dare we preach anything else?

    The Cross of Jesus Christ MUST be the center of our message. Far from being an ancilliary message worth only a few paragraphs, the Cross forms the foundation for all of Christian thought. The Cross is not just a historical reality, it is that, but it is also more, it is the very way that GOD lives HIS Life. Being the way GOD lives His life, it then is the foundation for the way we live our lives. The Way of The Cross predates the fall and transcends time. Revelation teaches that Jesus is the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world….” In the Eternal Awesomeness of WHO GOD IS, the Lamb was slain. What can this mean? Mytery is wrapped in mystery here, but one thing is clear, the Cross predates Creation.

    So a discussion on the Exaltation of the Cross of Jesus Christ should at the very least encompass how this incredible instrument of torture is eternally part of they way GOD Lives as well as how it forms and undergirds all human interaction. This is NOT Hyperbole. The Cross of Jesus Christ can NOT be overstated. It is, however, (as St. Paul states) fundamentally offensive in its nature. It is my personaly hypothesis that this fundamental offensiveness contributes to it being overlooked or ignored. It hurts to talk about it.

    I apologize if the tone of this comment is too sharp, my intent is to cast a vision for the awesomeness of the Cross and the far reaching scope of its influence.

  2. Jeremiah,

    Strangely enough, you seem to have both missed and illustrated my point. A couple of years ago I participated in a discussion, the gist of which I wrote up here, on the meaning of the Atonement. Consider that it took the Catholic Church about one thousand years to produce a theologian who produced a treatise on this topic, although she had been participating in the mystery throughout this time, especially in every Eucharist. Of course, The Dream of the Rood predates Cur Deus Homo by several centuries, but I wouldn’t say that that was easy either.

  3. Andrew,

    Thanks for the quick reply. We must be talking past one another. I read the post you linked to and still don’t see how it has much to say about the point I am presenting. The discussion appeared to revolve around atonement. Atonement is definitely a part of the Cross, but it seems to me it is only a very little part of the Cross. The Cross, or more specifically The Way of the Cross, would still stand and be necessary even if atonement were not. This is the deeper more all encompassing Truth which I am wanting to see addressed.

    I don’t understand how the summary of a discussion on the atonement addresses this (i.e. The Way of the Cross). When you say “…a treatise on this topic,…” Which topic do you mean? If you mean atonement, then we are going past each other for sure.

    The confusion which limits The Cross to Atonement is something which I would like to see ended. While Grace may be presented and flow through the Conduits of Baptism and The Eucharist, we can, on our end limit our reception of this Grace. I think this misunderstanding of limiting The Cross to Atonement is a limiting factor to us (not to GOD of course) which keeps us from participating in the Covenantal Partnership with Him as fully as we could. Interestingly, as it applies here to this website, I think limiting the Cross to Atonement is a very Protestant thing to do….It ignores the ongoing Sacramental Reality by making the focus of Christianity on just “getting saved”

    Not sure if any of this makes sense or not….

  4. Jeremiah,

    Your point seems to be that the Cross is central to the Faith. I thought that I had affirmed as much in the post, which concluded by affirming that the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is in a sense “the epitome of Christianity.” I wonder if you overlooked that bit, or else have wrongly inferred, from my claim that saying something about the Cross is difficult, that I held the matter to be ancillary to the Faith (despite my clear statement to the contrary). Otherwise, it would seem that you are criticizing the post for not being profound. Okay. But please see some of the links.

    Allow me to clarify what I mean by “difficult to say anything” about the Cross: There is an old adage to the effect that the larger, the more fundamental, the more awesome, is one’s subject, the more difficult it is to adequately express in words. I think that this is true. By saying something about the Cross, I meant not merely the spilling of words. I meant a coherent account, in poetry or prose, that touches upon some facet of this fundamental, awesome thing in a not hopelessly inadequate manner.

    This is why I responded to your comment by alluding to theories of the Atonement, which is one way that people have tried to express at least some aspect of this mystery. But I did not set out, in this post, to discuss theories of the Atonement, or to offer mystical reflections on the Way of the Cross. I simply wanted to take the occasion of this Feast to point our readers to this fundamental thing, and to link to a few more substantial reflections on various dimensions of the Cross (i.e., Schmemman’s bit on the Feast, the old Anglo-Saxon poem about the Rood, the article on the finding of the True Cross, and the selections from the Breviary).

    By the nature of the case, it is hard to be more than tentative on the matter, unless one is committed to being profound. For example, one doesn’t want to baldly say, “Hey everybody, isn’t the Sun wonderful–light and warmth and all that?” Still, sometimes even the club-tongued want to praise the Sun; likewise, the infinitely more wonderful, life-giving Cross. C.S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity that there is a huge difference between the Atonement itself and theories of the Atonement. Likewise, there is a difference between explicit accounts (whether theoretical or practical) of the significance of the Cross and that dependence upon and devotion to the Passion as cultivated by the liturgy of the Church, especially in the Mass, and not least in the veneration of the Cross. I wanted to highlight the latter, without prejudice to the former (even as Lewis sought to underscore the fact of the Atonement, by blood-sacrifice, without prejudice to theories about why it works like that).

    All of this, of course, is designed to enable us, with all the saints, to participate in the life of God as made available to us by the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. I think that the gist of the Christian life is given in the instruction of the Middle English poet: “Loke, mon, to Iesu Crist, high-neiled upon the Rode.” There are many modes of “looking”: devotion before a crucifix, adoration of the consecrated Host, contemplative reading of the Passion narratives, conformity of one’s behavior to that supreme example of submission, humility, and self-giving love.

    I am curious about a couple of your claims. (1) You say that grace “may” be “presented and flow” through Baptism and the Eucharist. Do you doubt that it always is? (2) You wrote: “The Cross, or more specifically The Way of the Cross, would still stand and be necessary even if atonement were not.” How so? Scripture and Tradition testify that Christ was crucified for our sins, and that the Fall, by which man fell into sin, was a “felix culpa” in that God brought about a more excellent union by way of redemption. I can think of no way of extracting the Way of the Cross from the Atonement, unless you are using “Cross” in some highly metaphorical sense, not connoting the Passion. I can see where that might go, e.g., the Son being eternal disposed to do the will of the Father, and in that sense being eternally “slain” (i.e., supremely self-giving). I am not using “the Cross” in that sense.

    I would not separate the Way of the Cross from the Atonement itself. Isn’t the former a participation in the latter? You pointed out that the Lamb of God is “slain before the foundation of the world.” But to what end? I submit that this eternal aspect of the Cross is not unrelated to the purpose of Atonement, as expressed, e.g., in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19. In fact, it is only in light of the Passion that we speak of “the Cross” in this religiously significant sense.

  5. Andrew,

    I understand much better now, thank you for taking the time to clarify your tentativeness in approaching such an important topic. There is a point, when contemplating anything of surpassing excellence, where words fail and the admirer is left to either clumsily gawk or abashadly draw back. It is hard sometimes to know what to do or what approach is appropriate.

    By way of clarifying my claims I will start with the first. “(1) You say that grace “may” be “presented and flow” through Baptism and the Eucharist. Do you doubt that it always is?” I believe it is orthodoxy that the flow of Grace to the sinner can be hindered by the sinner in manifold ways. If this is not true, I would gladly hear how I have misunderstood this point.

    As to the second point, “(2) You wrote: “The Cross, or more specifically The Way of the Cross, would still stand and be necessary even if atonement were not.” How so?” you then speculate as to my thoughts on this concluding with “I can see where that might go, e.g., the Son being eternal disposed to do the will of the Father, and in that sense being eternally “slain” (i.e., supremely self-giving).”

    This is exactly the sense in which I am referring to the “Way of the Cross”. A close examination of John 14-18 shows that not only is the Son eternally laying down His Life for the Father and the Holy Spirit, but so too the Father and the Holy Spirit are also eternally laying down their Life to the other members of the Trinity. So The Way of the Cross, the way of laying down ones life for the benefit of another, forms the fabric of the more intimate interrelationships within the Godhead. We now see that the Wooden Roman Cross thus becomes becomes an insubstantial metaphor speaking to the more solidly real relationship of the members of the Trinity. Perhaps metaphor is the wrong word. Icon seems better. Whatever the case, I’m not sure I know the correct word for when something which is constructed of the atoms of this world represents the more substantial world that is GOD’s domain, but that is what the Wooden Roman Cross is.

    From this foundation, all Christian thought emanates. It becomes impossible to say much of anything substantial without it driving back to, fundamentally, the Way of the Cross. Conversely, to attempt to say something apart from the Cross is generally to speak of peripheral issues.

    I have been testing this last hypothesis out for the past few years and haven’t found an exception yet….Your thoughts?

  6. One last thought, in a fallen world, redemption dominates the landscape; in an unfallen world, the pathway is transcendence. Transcendence being the path of finite beings eternally becoming like an infinite Being. So the eternal aspect of the Cross, of laying down our lives for others, is never separate from atonement, rather atonement is seen to be a parentheses within the Way of the Cross, where laying down our life for another was a part of Normal Christian Living prior to the fall and will still be part of life after the consummation of all things….

  7. Jeremiah,

    Yes, that sounds about right about the grace of the sacraments. The grace is always present, and in that sense I would say that it always “flows” towards man, but man can set up various impediments to the reception of this grace, after the manner of dropping a sluice gate, so that the grace does not flow into him, bringing forth its proper fruit. (Cf., CCC 1127-29.)

    Regarding the “way of the Cross,” you are emphasizing the eternal realities made manifest by the Passion, while my post touches more directly on the historical, visible, and yes material realities of Incarnation, death, and the instrument of death, which very instrument, in its physical properties no less, continues to build up the Church in faith, hope, and love. That is the thing about the Catholic Faith–it comes with bodies and relics, sacraments and sacramentals, as well as the transcendent realities of an eternal God, and the soul, and timeless truth. All of this comes together in the Second Person of the Trinity.

    Just as Jesus’ humanity is not an “insubstantial metaphor” for his deity, his death on the Cross does not merely “represent” some higher reality. As for the true Cross–it is a relic, which is more than a reminder. But I am not insensitive to your appeal to eternity. I think that the interrelation between God and creation as expressed in Christian revelation, handed on in the Catholic Church, involves representation–created things “testifying” in various ways to that which is Uncreated. But this relation, at least where our salvation in Christ is concerned, also involves a *participation* of created nature in the divine nature. We not only follow Christ’s example (“Take up your cross and follow me”), we are made living members of his mystical Body, and so share in his sufferings, which, as you rightly point out, is in a sense part and parcel of sharing in the very life of God–eternal life. Christ redeems us from pleasure-seeking in selfish isolation; he lays down his life for us so that we may share in his life and know the true pleasure of mutual self-giving in that realm where to live is to eternally love one another.

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