Today’s Kalendar recognizes this as Holy Cross Day, also called more broadly within Christianity “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.”
This feast commemorates the 4th C. discovery in Jerusalem of what was then believed to be the Cross of Jesus, during excavation beneath a Roman temple that had been built on the hill of Golgotha in the years after the Roman army had destroyed the old city of Jerusalem. Ever since its finding this wood has been preserved and venerated as the True Cross, with small pieces of it distributed around the world. We have a fragment of it here in our parish, used in adoration of the Cross on Good Friday.
Historically the Cross was an instrument of cruel execution by torture. Yet it has been redefined in Christian understanding. It is carried in procession as a sign of triumph—God’s power to bring life out of death. Venantius Fortunatus, the last of the classic Latin Christian poets and 6th C. Bishop of Poitiers, speaks of it this way in the hymn we sing in each Holy Week, Pange Lingua Gloriosi: “Faithful Cross above all other . . . sweetest wood and sweetest iron, sweetest weight is hung on thee.” The following stanza goes so far as to portray the Cross in tender images of maternal care:
Bend thy boughs O Tree of Glory!
thy relaxing sinews bend;
For a time the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of Heavenly Beauty
on thy bosom gently tend!
(V. Fortunatus. English translation, J. M. Neale)
For us the Cross is no longer a symbol of degradation and death but of God’s capacity in bringing forth love and life from within the midst of the most terrible circumstances that humans can face. The Cross is a sign of hope for us now in our present troubles, as it has been for our forebears in all the generations preceding us in the Church.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington