Feast of the Holy Cross
The cross is everywhere. The geometric figure of a horizontal and vertical line intersecting one another is an archetypal form, noticed in nature and reproduced by hand by most humans in most cultures. But I am referring only to the cross we know best, in all its stylistic and material variety. Picture in your mind’s eye simply two or three of the probably hundreds of crosses you have seen in your life. I immediately think of the plain wooden cross above the pulpit in the Baptist church of my childhood, the garish crucifix that hung over the temperamental photocopier in the Roman Catholic high school where I taught theology, and a simple brass cross with a tree in the center, a gift from my mom when I told her I might want to become a monk. In flea markets, Bible outlets, laser light shows, ancient catacombs, and war memorials; as two sticks tied together on the corrugated aluminum walls of a shack in Jamaica or Colombia or India or Louisiana; as a gilded masterpiece commissioned by royalty and venerated by pilgrims in Rome or Jerusalem or Canterbury; in polished mahogany, in precious stones, in welded scrap metal, in glow-in-the-dark plastic: the cross is everywhere.
But beyond this literal and material sense, there are at least two other senses in which the cross is everywhere.
We find the cross in a less obvious but no less palpable guise in every place where innocent victims suffer: in the daily misery of prisons and sweatshops and government welfare offices and understaffed hospitals. We find the cross written in black ink in discriminatory laws, tax codes, business practices, and in edicts of transnational corporations that destroy life, crush communities, and smother ecosystems. Manifestations of this cross are reinvented each day with cruel ingenuity, and millions of Christs suffer upon them no less than the One Christ on Calvary. This is the unholy cross of the world and its ways, the cross as an instrument of victimization and death.
But there is for us another cross, a true cross, a holy cross. There is a strand of mystical interpretation beginning at least as early as St. Paul and fed by Christian imaginations guided by faith that also claims: the cross is everywhere. Though once the instrument of shameful death devised by the Romans, by Christ’s saving death upon it, it is now a cosmic tree, a ship’s mast, a ladder to climb up and out of hell, and much more. There is one astounding compendium of such mystical imagery, an anonymous Greek homily from the third century. Here is an excerpt:
This tree is my everlasting salvation…Fearful of God, I find it a place of safety; when unsteady, a source of stability. In the face of a struggle I look to it as a prize; in victory, my trophy. It is the narrow path, the restricted road. It is Jacob’s ladder, the passage of of angels, at whose summit the Lord is affixed. This tree, this plant of immortality, rears from earth to reach as high as heaven, fixing the Lord between heaven and earth. It is the foundation and stabilizer of the universe, undergirding the world that we inhabit. It is the binding force of the world and holds together all the varieties that human life encompasses. It is riveted into a unity by the invisible bonds of the Spirit, so that its connection with God can never be severed. Brushing heaven with its uppermost branches, it remains fixed in the earth and, between the two points, its huge hands completely enfold the stirring of the air. As a single whole it penetrates all things and all places.[i]
For this early Christian preacher, the historical fact of the cross, the real suffering of the Crucified who died upon it and the ever-present reality of the unholy cross erected by the world are clearly only one part of the story. Christ is the eternal Word from before the ages. He is the Redeemer of all time in his resurrection from death and ascension to the Father. And he is the mysterious agent in whom “all things hold together.”[ii] This Christ wields one carefully-chosen, peaceful weapon as he wrenches the doors of hell from their hinges and liberates Adam and Eve and all their children: the holy cross. Everything in heaven and on earth has been reconciled with God by Christ’s peace-making death upon this cross. It is now an invisible extension, an undergirding principle of His redeeming work in the world: a redeeming work that happens through our voluntary consent to take up our cross and follow him. In patient endurance of our own suffering and in our solidarity with our suffering neighbor in intercessory prayer and loving action, we find the antidote to every unholy cross the world invents. St. Athanasius writes, “A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead.”[iii]
A feast day in the calendar dedicated explicitly to this Holy Cross offers us the opportunity to refresh, renew, or rediscover our relationship with this inexhaustible symbol. As outward signs, these physical crosses we see and touch everywhere can fail to transmit their meaning by their sheer ubiquity and domestication. They can become illegible or even unholy, if used as weapons. But if we read or touch or gaze upon these crosses through the lens of the holy cross that undergirds and redeems all things then every glimpse of the cross, every sign of the cross we make, every prayer or blessing or confession of sin that invokes the cross has the power to enfold us once again in the fabric of God’s new creation. This new creation was born from Christ’s wounded side on Calvary and is being woven still by the warp and weft, the vertical and horizontal threads of the holy cross. That cross is everywhere.
[i] Ps.-Hippolytus, Hom. Pasch. 51 (SC 27.177-179)
[ii] Colossians 1.17.
[iii] Athanasius, De Incarnatione. 5.27.
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