What is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross about?

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Q: Why do we have a feast day for the cross in September? Isn’t that what we do on Good Friday each year?

A: Every year on the 14th of September we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. While this feast focuses on the cross of Christ, it is not the same celebration that occurs on Good Friday when we enter into the Passion of the Lord and prayerfully participate in Jesus’ death. Let’s focus our reflection on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross itself.

While early Christians did use the sign of the cross in their private prayer and blessing, prior to the fourth century they did not publicly venerate or display the cross. That is because Romans continued to use the cross as a gruesome, cruel and humiliating form of capital punishment. Early Christians did occasionally reverence a decorated form of a cross (called crux gemata) — of which a remnant can still be seen in the apse of the Lateran Basilica — but not a crucifix. They also included cryptic references to the cross in other early Christian images, like the anchor, which was a symbol of hope.

It was only after the legalization of Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313, and the subsequent abolishment of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment, that Christians began to publicly reverence the image of Jesus crucified.

This devotional development may have been triggered in part by the very legalization of Christianity. During the times of persecution, Christians knew well the sacrifice of faith; in the absence of persecutions, they needed to remind themselves of our Lord’s sacrifice through the image of his crucifixion. The earliest known image of a crucifix publicly displayed for veneration can still be seen on the carved cypress doors of Santa Sabina in Rome (from the mid-fifth century).

It was also after the legalization of Christianity that the remnants of the True Cross were found in Jerusalem and Helena, the mother of Constantine, built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher over the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross commemorates these two events (finding of the cross and construction of the basilica) on the anniversary of the day when this church was dedicated and a piece of the True Cross was exposed for public veneration. The annual celebration of the cross on September 14, in one form or another, has continued since 335.

While pagan governments may have intended the cross to be a sign of defeat, suffering, intimidation and failure, it means something very different to Christians. For us, the cross is the instrument of our salvation from which Jesus accomplished his greatest ministry: the redemption of the world. The cross of Christ, then, is a reminder of God’s great love for every man, woman and child; it is the source of our forgiveness, reconciliation and peace; it is the means by which all people are offered a sharing in the communion of life and love with God; it is the throne on which Jesus established the kingdom of God in his very person.

The cross is no longer a symbol of defeat. It is the most perfect sign of our Lord’s triumph over the forces of sin and death. The cross of Christ is the good news of God’s mercy and presence with all who suffer.

Our annual celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is an opportunity for us to remember how God can use the worst and darkest human actions to accomplish his divine will. It is also an important annual reminder of how we are called to embrace the cross. (see Luke 9:23)

Jesus told us that where the Master goes, his disciples will follow. Our Lord also told us that we must be prepared to accept the cross in our own life if we would follow him. The cross for Christians is the suffering that we willingly accept as a consequence of our decision to follow Jesus. This annual feast reminds us that the cross always leads to the Resurrection, and so even suffering can be a necessary and divinely intended means of our salvation and sanctification. For this reason, Jesus proclaimed those who suffer for the sake of righteousness to be “blessed.” (see Matthew 5:11-13)

It requires the eyes of faith to joyfully and willingly embrace such faithful suffering. It requires serious and mature prayer to see the beautiful invitation to close friendship with Jesus in moments of faithful suffering.

“We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, for by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - September 2019

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.