Today, September 14, we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. There is still the usual Friday obligation of abstinence from meat or an equivalent act of penance.
The Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ is the central event of Christianity. Through our Lord's suffering and death on the holy Cross, he brought the old law to fulfillment and made the ultimate atonement for our sins. Through his glorious Resurrection, he gave us the hope of eternal life. The Cross is the instrument through which our salvation was won. For this reason, the Cross is the symbol of Christianity. Every altar has a crucifix on or behind it. One of the most basic signs of reverence is making the Sign of the Cross on ourselves. Whenever a priest gives a blessing, he does so with the Sign of the Cross. St. Paul wrote in Galatians 6:14, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Image credit: -stevie-
A cross is an extremely basic symbol—just two lines at a right angle—and so it has been used in some form since the beginning of recorded human history. In addition, since the beginning of history, the cross has always had some sort of religious significance, even for primitive pagan religions. One of the earliest forms of the cross is the swastika, a cross with each arm bent at a right angle. The swastika is used as a sacred symbol in India and some other places in the Orient, primarily by Hindus and Buddhists. It represents fire and the sun. In ancient Egypt, there was a form of the cross called the ankh or crux ansata (“cross with a handle”), which resembled a cross with the top arm replaced by a loop: ☥. This form of the cross was used as a hieroglyphic symbol for life and strength. It is still used by some Coptic Christians in Egypt. Meanwhile, in ancient Greece, a cross resembling the familiar Christian cross was used as a sacred symbol in burial rituals. Perhaps these ancient, pre-Christian uses of the cross were a foreshadowing by divine providence of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Finally, the cross was used by the ancient Romans as a means of execution. Crucifixion was the most cruel punishment imaginable, and it was reserved for the worst of the worst. It was originally a punishment for slaves. The ancient Roman orator Cicero called it “servitutis extremum summumque supplicium,” meaning, “the final and most terrible punishment of slaves.” If a slave murdered his master, then all of that master's slaves would be crucified. In at least one case, four hundred slaves were crucified at once, including women and children. Later, crucifixion was also administered to the lowest classes of free people who were accused of serious crimes. It was never inflicted on a Roman citizen. Part of the point of crucifixion was to put the victim on display and deter others from committing similar crimes. Cicero called it “a most cruel and disgusting punishment” and said, “The very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen's body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”
Crucifixion continued in the Roman Empire until it was abolished in AD 337 by Emperor Constantine the Great, who also legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. However, in Islam, crucifixion is prescribed as a punishment in the Quran (5:33), so it remains a legal form of execution in some Islamic states, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Sudan.
The legend of the True Cross
In the thirteenth century, Blessed Jacobus de Varagine wrote the Golden Legend, a compilation of legends about saints, feasts, relics, and biblical events. It includes the legends of how the Cross came to be. According to the Golden Legend, when Adam, the first man, was sick, his third son, Seth, returned to the Garden of Eden to acquire the oil of mercy with which to anoint Adam. At the entrance to the Garden of Eden, Seth found St. Michael the Archangel guarding the entrance, who said, “Travail not thou in vain for this oil, for thou mayst not have it till five thousand and five hundred years be past.” The 5,500 years refer to the institution of the New Covenant. Instead, St. Michael gave Seth three seeds from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Seth planted these seeds in Adam's mouth when he was buried at the hill of Calvary. The trees that grew from these seeds still existed centuries later, when the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon. The Queen declared that these trees would bring about the salvation of the world. The Romans built the True Cross from these trees, the offspring of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thus, according to this medieval legend, the same tree that brought about the fall of mankind also brought about the salvation of mankind. Although it is a lovely story, there is absolutely no authority to it, and it first appeared in the Middle Ages.
The finding of the True Cross
In AD 326, St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Jerusalem in search of the True Cross on which Jesus died. It had been buried by the Jews so that no Christians could come and worship it. However, one Jew named Judas defected and gave St. Helena the location of the True Cross. When he did this, according to the Golden Legend, the devil cried out, “Judas, what hast thou done? Thou hast done the contrary that the other Judas did, for by him I have won nany souls, and by thee I shall lose many, by him I reigned on the people, and by thee I have lost my realm, nevertheless I shall yield to thee this bounty, for I shall send one that shall punish thee.” Judas was later baptized and became St. Cyriacus.
St. Helena discovered three crosses, and, at the order of St. Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, she brought them to the home of a gravely ill woman. The woman touched all three crosses. Two of them had no effect, but the third one healed her the instant she touched it. St. Helena knew that this third cross was the True Cross. From the seventh century until 1960, the feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross, celebrating St. Helena's discovery, was celebrated on May 3. St. Helena and Emperor Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the hill of Calvary where the Cross was found. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated over two days, September 13 and 14, AD 335. This is the origin of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14.
Returning the Cross to Jerusalem from Persia
In AD 614, King Chosroes of Persia raided Jerusalem, murdered thousands of Christians, and took the True Cross to Persia. Fourteen years later, in AD 628, the Christian Emperor Heraclius defeated King Chosroes and sought to restore the True Cross to Jerusalem. The next year, he arrived in Jerusalem with the True Cross and came to the hill of Calvary, adorned as an emperor with gold and jewels. However, he was unable to carry the Cross up the hill. God held him back. Bishop Zacharias, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, told him, “See, O Emperor, that it be not that in carrying the Cross attired in the guise of a Conqueror thou showest too little of the poverty and lowliness of Jesus Christ.” Emperor Heraclius took off his imperial adornments and his shoes. Dressed as a humble peasant, he carried the Cross up the hill and planted it in its rightful place on the hill of Calvary on September 14, AD 629, on the 294th anniversary of the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since then, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has been celebrated by the whole Church on September 14.
Liturgy of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
At Matins and Lauds on this day, we sing the hymn Pange lingua gloriosi, composed by St. Venantius Fortunatus in the seventh century. It is not to be confused with another hymn, also called Pange lingua gloriosi, composed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. The hymn by St. Venantius Fortunatus consists of ten stanzas. The first five plus a doxology are sung at Matins, and the next five plus a doxology are sung at Lauds. The entire hymn is also sung at the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday. It sings of our Lord's triumph over sin and death through the power of the Cross.
Pange, lingua, gloriósi
Et super Crucis trophǽo
Dic triúmphum nóbilem,
Quáliter Redémptor orbis
De paréntis protoplásti
Fraude Factor cóndolens,
Quando pomi noxiális
In necem morsu ruit,
Ipse lignum tunc notávit,
Damna ligni ut sólveret.
Hoc opus nostræ salútis
Ars ut artem fálleret,
Et medélam ferret inde,
Hostis unde lǽserat.
Quando venit ergo sacri
Missus est ab arce Patris
Natus, orbis Cónditor,
Atque ventre virgináli
Carne amíctus pródiit.
Vagit infans inter arcta
Membra pannis involúta
Virgo Mater álligat:
Et Dei manus pedésque
Stricta cingit fáscia.
Sempitérna sit beátæ
Æqua Patri, Filióque;
Par decus Paráclito:
Uníus Triníque nomen
Lustra sex qui iam perégit,
Tempus implens córporis:
Sponte líbera Redémptor
Agnus in Crucis levátur
Felle potus ecce languet,
Spina, clavi, láncea,
Mite corpus perforárunt,
Unda manat, et cruor:
Terra, pontus, astra, mundus,
Quo lavántur flúmine!
Crux fidélis, inter omnes
Arbor una nóbilis:
Silva talem nulla profert
Fronde, flore, gérmine:
Dulce ferrum, dulce lignum
Dulce pondus sústinent.
Flecte ramos, arbor alta,
Tensa laxa víscera:
Et rigor lentéscat ille,
Quem dedit natívitas:
Et supérni membra Régis
Tende miti stípite.
Sola digna tu fuísti
Ferre mundi víctimam;
Atque portum præparáre
Arca mundo náufrago;
Quam sacer cruor perúnxit,
Fusus Agni córpore.
Sempitérna sit beátæ
Æqua Patri, Filióque,
Par decus Paráclito:
Uníus, Triníque nomen
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle
Sing the last, the dread affray;
O'er the cross, the victor's trophy,
Sound the high triumphal lay:
Tell how Christ, the world's Redeemer,
As a victim won the day.
God, his Maker, sorely grieving
That the first-made Adam fell,
When he ate the fruit of sorrow,
Whose reward was death and hell,
Noted then this wood, the ruin
Of the ancient wood to quell.
For the work of our salvation
Needs would have his order so,
And the multiform deceiver's
Art by art would overthrow,
And from thence would bring the med'cine
Whence the insult of the foe.
Wherefore, when the sacred fullness
Of the appointed time was come,
This world's Maker left his Father,
Sent the heav'nly mansion from,
And proceeded, God Incarnate,
Of the Virgin's holy womb.
Weeps the infant in the manger
That in Bethlehem's stable stands;
And his limbs the Virgin Mother
Doth compose in swaddling bands,
Meetly thus in linen folding
Of her God the feet and hands.
To the Trinity be glory
Everlasting, as is meet;
Equal to the Father, equal
To the Son, and Paraclete:
Trinal Unity, whose praises
All created things repeat.
Thirty years among us dwelling,
His appointed time fulfilled,
Born for this, he meets his passion,
For that this he freely willed:
On the cross the Lamb is lifted,
Where his life-blood shall be spilled.
He endured the nails, the spitting,
Vinegar, and spear, and reed;
From that holy body broken
Blood and water forth proceed:
Earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean,
By that flood from stain are free.
Faithful cross! above all other,
One and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peers may be;
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For awhile the ancient rigour,
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heavenly beauty
On thy bosom gently tend!
Thou alone wast counted worthy
This world's ransom to uphold;
For a shipwrecked race preparing
Harbour, like the ark of old;
With the sacred blood anointed
From the smitten Lamb that rolled.
To the Trinity be glory
Everlasting, as is meet;
Equal to the Father, equal
To the Son, and Paraclete:
Trinal Unity, whose praises
All created things repeat.
The readings from the first nocturn of Matins are from Numbers 21:1-9. In the first reading, Numbers 21:1-3, the Lord destroys all enemies of Israel. In the second reading, Numbers 21:4-6, the people begin to doubt God and have little faith that God would care for them, so as a punishment, God sends venomous snakes to bite and kill them. In the third reading, Numbers 21:6-9, God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent so that all who look upon this bronze serpent could be cured. This bronze serpent foreshadows the Holy Cross. In John 3:14, Jesus says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up.” In the second nocturn, the readings tell the story of the True Cross's return from Persia by Emperor Heraclius, as described above. Finally, in the third nocturn, the readings are from St. Leo the Great's eighth sermon on the Passion of Christ.
sancti Evangélii secúndum Ioánnem
In illo témpore: Dixit Iesus turbis Iudæórum: Nunc iudícium est mundi, nunc princeps huius mundi eiciétur foras. Et réliqua.
Homilía sancti Leónis Papæ
Exaltato, dilectíssimi, per Crucem Christo, non illa tantum spécies aspéctui mentis occúrrat, quæ fuit in óculis impiórum, quibus per Móysen dictum est: Et erit péndens vita tua ante óculos tuos, et timébis die ac nocte, et non credes vitæ tuæ. Isti enim nihil in crucifíxo Dómino præter fácinus suum cogitáre potuérunt, habéntes timórem, non quo fides vera iustificátur, sed quo consciéntia iníqua torquétur. Noster vero intelléctus, quem spíritus veritátis illúminat, glóriam Crucis, cælo terráque radiántem, puro ac líbero corde suscípiat; et interióre ácie vídeat, quale sit quod Dóminus, cum de passiónis suæ loquerétur instántia, dixit: Nunc iudícium mundi est, nunc princeps huius mundi eiciétur foras. Et ego, si exaltátus fúero a terra, ómnia traham ad meípsum.
From the Holy Gospel according to John
At that time, Jesus said unto the multitudes of the Jews: Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And so on.
Homily by Pope St. Leo the Great.Dearly beloved brethren, when we gaze upon Christ lifted up upon the Cross, the eyes of our mind see more than that which appeared before the wicked, 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 Lord nothing but the work of their own wickedness, and they feared greatly, not with that faith which giveth earnest of life by justification, but with that whereby the evil conscience is tortured. But our understanding is enlightened by the Spirit of truth, and with pure and open hearts we see the glory of the Cross shining over heaven and earth, and discern by inward glance 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 things unto me.
|O admirábilis poténtia Crucis! o ineffábilis glória Passiónis, in qua et tribúnal Dómini, et iudícium mundi, et potéstas est Crucifixi! Traxísti enim, Dómine, ómnia ad te, et cum expandísses tota die manus tuas ad pópulum non credéntem et contradicéntem, tibi, confiténdæ maiestátis tuæ sensum totus mundus accépit. Traxísti, Dómine, ómnia ad te, cum in exsecratiónem Iudaici scéleris, unam protulérunt ómnia eleménta senténtiam; cum, obscurátis lumináribus cæli et convérso in noctem die, terra quoque mótibus quaterétur insólitis, univérsaque creatúra impiórum úsui se negáret. Traxísti, Dómine, ómnia ad te, quóniam, scisso templi velo, Sancta sanctórum ab indígnis pontifícibus recessérunt; ut figúra in veritátem, prophetía in manifestatiónem, et lex in Evangélium verterétur.||How wonderful is the power of the Cross! O how unutterable is the glory of the Passion, wherein standeth the Lord's judgment-seat, and the judgment of this world, and the might of the Crucified! Lord! Thou hast drawn all things unto thee! Thou didst spread out thy hands all the day unto an unbelieving and gainsaying people, but the world hath felt and owned thy Majesty! Lord! Thou hast drawn all things unto thee! All the elements gave one wild cry of horror at the iniquity of the Jews the lights of the firmament were darkened, day turned into night, earth quaked with strange tremblings, and all God's work refused to serve the guilty. Lord! Thou hast drawn all things unto thee! The veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, the Holy of Holies denied itself as a Sanctuary for the ministration of unworthy Priests, that the shadow might be changed for the substance, prophecy for realization, and the Law for the Gospel.|
|Traxísti, Dómine, ómnia ad te, ut, quod in uno Iudǽæ templo obumbrátis significatiónibus tegebátur, pleno apertóque sacraménto universárum ubíque natiónum devótio celebráret. Nunc étenim et ordo clárior levitárum, et dígnitas ámplior seniórum, et sacrátior est únctio sacerdótum: quia Crux tua ómnium fons benedictiónum, ómnium est causa gratiárum; per quam credéntibus datur virtus de infirmitáte, glória de oppróbrio, vita de morte. Nunc étiam, carnálium sacrificiórum varietáte cessánte, omnes differéntias hostiárum una córporis et sánguinis tui implet oblátio: quóniam tu es verus Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccáta mundi; et ita in te univérsa pérficis mystéria, ut sicut unum est pro omni víctima sacrifícium, ita unum de omni gente sit regnum.||Lord! Thou hast drawn all things unto thee! That which was veiled under types and shadows in the one Jewish Temple, is hailed by the love of all peoples in full and open worship. There is now a higher order of Levites, a more honourable rank of elders, a Priesthood with an holier anointing. Thy Cross is a well of blessings for all, and a cause of thanksgiving for all. Thereby for them that believe in thee, weakness is turned into strength, shame into glory, and death into life. The changing ordinance of divers carnal sacrifices is gone; the one oblation of thy Body and Blood fulfilleth them all. For thou art the true Lamb of God, which takest away the sins of the world, and art in thyself all offerings finished. And even as thou art the one sacrifice which taketh the place of all sacrifices, so may thy kingdom be one kingdom established over all peoples.|
At Mass, the Epistle is taken from Philippians 2:5-11. In this passage, St. Paul writes of Jesus's humility and his ultimate triumph over the Cross. Because of this triumph over the Cross, the Name of Jesus is exalted above every other name. All genuflect in adoration of the Holy Name of Jesus when the subdeacon sings the words, “Ut in nomine Iesu omne genu flectátur coeléstium, terréstrium et infernórum” (“So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven, on earth and under the earth”).
|Fratres: Hoc enim sentíte in vobis, quod et in Christo Iesu: qui, cum in forma Dei esset, non rapinam arbitrátus est esse se æquálem Deo: sed semetípsum exinanívit, formam servi accipiens, in similitudinem hóminum factus, et hábitu inventus ut homo. Humiliávit semetípsum, factus oboediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis. Propter quod et Deus exaltávit illum: et donávit illi nomen, quod est super omne nomen: GENUFLECT ut in nomine Iesu omne genu flectátur coeléstium, terréstrium et infernórum: et omnis lingua confiteátur, quia Dóminus Iesus Christus in glória est Dei Patris.||Brethren: Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who though he was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave and being made like unto men. And appearing in the form of man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross. Therefore God also has exalted him and has bestowed upon him the name that is above every name, GENUFLECT so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.|
The Gradual is taken from Philippians 2:8-9, two verses from the Epistle we just heard. The Alleluia verse is paraphrased from the hymn Pange lingua gloriosi from Lauds.
factus est pro nobis oboediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem
crucis. Propter quod et Deus exaltávit illum, et dedit illi
nomen, quod est super omne nomen.
Allelúia, allelúia. Dulce lignum, dulces clavos, dúlcia ferens póndera: quæ sola fuísti digna sustinére Regem coelórum et Dóminum. Allelúia.
became obedient for us to death, even to death on a cross.
Therefore God also has exalted him, and has bestowed upon him the
name that is above every name.
Alleluia, alleluia. Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the load that hangs on you: to bear up the King and Lord of heaven, you alone were worthy. Alleluia.
The Gospel is taken from John 12:31-36, in which Jesus foretells his Passion and Death on the Cross. He declares that he will be lifted up from the earth and will draw all things to himself through the Cross.
|In illo témpore: Dixit Iesus turbis Iudæórum: Nunc iudícium est mundi: nunc princeps huius mundi eiiciétur foras. Et ego si exaltátum fuero a terra, ómnia traham ad meipsum. (Hoc autem dicébat, signíficans qua morte esset moritúrus.) Respóndit ei turba. Nos audívimus ex lege, quia Christus manet in ætérnum: et quómodo tu dicis: Opórtet exaltári Fílium hóminis? Quis est iste Fílius hóminis? Dixit ergo eis Iesus: Adhuc módicum lumen in vobis est. Ambuláte, dum lucem habétis, ut non vos ténebræ comprehéndant: et qui ámbulat in ténebris, nescit, quo vadat. Dum lucem habétis, crédite in lucem, ut fílii lucis sitis.||At that time, Jesus said to the multitude of the Jews: Now is the judgment of the world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself. (Now this he said, signifying what death he should die.) The multitude answered him: We have heard out of the law, that Christ abideth for ever; and how sayest thou: The Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man? Jesus therefore said to them: Yet a little while, the light is among you. Walk whilst you have the light, that the darkness overtake you not. And he that walketh in darkness, knoweth not whither he goeth. Whilst you have the light, believe in the light, that you may be the children of light. These things Jesus spoke; and he went away, and hid himself from them.|
Thus, through this beautiful and sacred liturgy, the Catholic Church venerates and adores the Holy Cross, on which our salvation was purchased.