Holy Cross Day – Br. Todd Blackham
or Galatians 6:14-18
Psalm 98 or 98:1-4
I was a teenager when I found it. A simple silver cross only about an inch and half tall. Plain, unadorned, simple slightly rounded arms smooth and finely wrought. I found it in a little silver shop in an old mining town in Colorado. I wore it for years, first on a little box chain, then re-strung a few times, leather cords, braided hemp, wooden beads, but always that simple silver cross around my neck. It was, beyond language, a token of great importance for me. Something that I couldn’t articulate at the time, an attraction, a reminder, an anchor. This constant companion that would make itself known to me on a cool day when I might slip it under my shirt and I feel the cold metal pressed against my breastbone. Or in a daydream I’d find myself toying with it with my fingers, sometimes compelled to bring it to my lips for a kiss. It was precious to me.
And one day, after returning home from travel I noticed it wasn’t around my neck anymore. It wasn’t in my pockets or my suitcase either. It was gone. I had lost it. And, truthfully, I was heartbroken. For months I checked other coat pockets, inside shoes, anywhere it might have ended up but I never saw it again. Now, it’s not that it was such a costly item that I missed it; nor was I somehow superstitiously clinging to it for luck. It was simply because of the joy and delight I had found in it, all the things that I couldn’t speak it spoke to my heart in close proximity. Ineffable strength and peace. That’s perhaps one of the first times I found the power of the cross.
The feast we keep today is no mid-year repeat of Good Friday to keep us all on our best behavior. This Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross is specifically about finding the cross. The implement, the sign itself of our Savior’s Passion and Victory over death. In 326 St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, went searching for all the Holy Places of Christ that had been hidden and forgotten for 300 years. She found the true cross along with rock of Calvary and the empty tomb, nine years later at the consecration of the magnificent Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre built to house these holiest of places it was processed in and elevated for all to adore, and in 629 it was restored to Jerusalem after having falling into the hands of the Persians 15 years earlier. Finding the cross is what we celebrate today
This sign has been such a potent emblem for Christians that at first it was too much to bear. Fearing for their lives, only cryptic signs were used to identify the burgeoning Christ community. An anchor was a convenient concealment for the cross, the precious symbol that now proliferates all over the globe.
When the Christian faith was accepted by the Roman Empire and the cross came out into the open, laws were passed forbidding it to be painted or designed into floors and pavements so that it wouldn’t be trodden upon. Even the iconoclasts of the 7th and 8th centuries who were so opposed to any sort of depictions and so-called graven images made an exception for the cross. What was found in the cross was an inexhaustible well of divine riches. Consider the cross.
In it, St. John Chrysostom found a trove of theological virtue in the reconciling power of God. He says, “Let us consider of what great blessings for us Christ’s Cross has become the cause. For though the Lord’s Cross sounds sad and bitter, it is in reality full of joy and radiance. For the Cross is the salvation of the Church; the Cross is the boast of those who hope in it; the Cross is reconciliation of enemies to God and conversion of sinners to Christ. For through the Cross we have been delivered from enmity, and through the Cross we have been joined in friendship to God. Through the Cross we have been freed from the tyranny of the devil, and through the Cross we have been delivered from death and destruction.
‘When the Cross was not proclaimed, we were held fast by death; now the, Cross is proclaimed, and we have come to despise death, as though it did not exist, while we have come to long for everlasting life. ‘When the Cross was not proclaimed, we were strangers to paradise; but when the Cross appeared, at once a thief was found worthy of paradise. From such darkness the human race has crossed over to infinite light; from death it has been called to everlasting life, from corruption it has been renewed for incorruption. For the eyes of the heart are no longer covered by the darkness that comes through ignorance, but through the Cross they are flooded with the light of knowledge. The ears of the deaf are no longer shut by unbelief, for the deaf have heard the word of the Lord, and the blind have recovered their sight to see the glory of God. These are the gifts we are given through the Cross. What blessing has not been achieved for us through the Cross?”[i]
Later in the 5th century another writer found profound depths of mystical union with God in the Cross. They write, “This Tree is my eternal salvation. It is my nourishment and my banquet. Amidst its roots I cast my own roots deep: beneath its boughs I grow and expand, reveling in its sigh as in the wind itself. Flying from the burning heat, I have pitched my tent in its shadow, and have found a resting-place of dewy freshness. I flower with its flowers; its fruits bring perfect joy – fruits which have been preserved for me since time’s beginning, and which now I freely eat. This Tree is a food, sweet food, for my hunger, and a fountain for my thirst; it is a clothing for my nakedness; its leaves are the breath of life. Away with the fig-tree, from this time on! If I fear God, this is my protection; if I stumble, this is my support; it is the prize for which I fight and the reward of my victory. This is my straitened path, my narrow way; this is the stairway of Jacob, where angels pass up and down, and where the Lord in very truth stands at the head.”[ii]
This Holy Week reading on the cross as the cosmic tree is an excerpt from Pseudo-Chrysostom Homily VI for Holy Week (P.G. lix, 743-6).
And in one of my favorite Compline lullabies, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius finds in the cross the comforting and protecting power of the Cross against the forces of the evil one. Those lyrics sing out,
“Servant of God, remember
The stream thy soul bedewing,
The grace that came upon thee
Anointing and renewing.
When kindly slumber calls thee,
Upon thy bed reclining,
Trace thou the Cross of Jesus,
Thy heart and forehead signing.
The Cross dissolves the darkness,
And drives away temptation;
It calms the wavering spirit
By quiet consecration.
Begone, begone, the terrors
Of vague and formless dreaming;
Begone, thou fell deceiver,
With all thy boasted scheming.
Begone, thou crooked serpent,
Who, twisting and pursuing,
By fraud and lie preparest
The simple soul’s undoing;
Tremble, for Christ is near us,
Depart, for here he dwelleth,
And this, the Sign thou knowest,
Thy strong battalions quelleth.
Then while the weary body
Its rest in sleep is nearing,
The heart will muse in silence
On Christ and his appearing.”[iii]
In the cross are treasures too many to number, joy too full to contain, power stronger than death. Consider the cross, the tool by which God wrought our salvation when we were helpless in sin; it is a tool for your prayer to apprehend the power of God when your power has failed. What have you found in the cross of Christ? What truth, what communion, what solace, what wonder? Come, find the cross anew and be refreshed.
We adore you oh Christ and we bless you. For by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
[i] St. John Chrysotom, On the Holy Cross
[ii] Pseudo-Chrysostom Homily VI for Holy Week
[iii] Marcus Aurelius Prudentius, Servant of God, Remember, https://hymnary.org/text/servant_of_god_remember_the_hallowed_fon
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WOW! Thank you. I understand your loss, I have a smail less than 1/2 an inch tcross hat I have worn for over 25 years. I know I would be sad to lose it. It is a reminder of what was sacrificed for me a sinner and all the love that required it to be the sacrifice. It reminds me that I am loved beyond measure and that through his power I am able to be his servant and servant to others. Peace.
Here is a wonderful hymn, words by Donnel O’Flynn and music by Dianne Adams-McDowell, honoring the fruitfulness of the cross as the tree of life.
It is labelled on YouTube as “Tree of Life song”.
Your beautiful reflections on the meaning of the cross in our life, Br. Todd Blackham,
made me think of this!
There are three verses: verse one about the exile from the Tree of Life in the garden (Genesis), the second verse about the identification of the cross itself as the Tree of Life in early Christianity, and the third verse about the Tree of Life as it appears in Revelation (with twelve fruits for the healing of the nations.) A very blessed Holy Cross day to all the world!
Thank you Br. Todd: I have to confess I have been ordained 36 years and never really realized the history behind the celebration of Holy Cross – so for me your homily is both educative and inspirational. I too wear a cross around my neck – replacing a beloved one I had lost. But perhaps more precious to me is a tiny plastic cross, about the size of a quarter, with members of the Holy Family displayed in each quadrant and a message on the back – “I am a Catholic. Please call a priest”. I found it in my mother’s things after she died. I carry it with me in my wallet always, as did she. As you say, not for superstition, not because it is in any way comely but because if I can’t speak for myself, the Cross speaks for me. Elizabeth Hardy+