Today both the Eastern and Western Church gather together to honor one feast day known by many names but with one central focus: The Holy Cross of Christ, September 14th.
Sometimes called “The Exaltation of the Cross,” “The Triumph of the Cross,” or simply “Holy Cross Day,” this feast day honors a symbol not a saint…though, in fairness, all saints are symbols.
The particular perspective this feast day nods to is the one found most forcefully in the Gospel of John where the cross is seen both as human humiliation and the gate of Jesus’ glory. Early on the Church endeavored to reclaim the cross as a sign of God’s “alien work,” as our own Blessed Martin Luther called it, and today marks the reclamation on the calendar. Yet, as a symbol, the cross was rarely used in Christianity, as followers seemed to prefer the fish that you see on so many bumpers.
In the 4th Century, however, Constantine formalized the use of the cross as both a symbol of the faith and a symbol of victory…for better and for worse.
This feast day supposedly marks the day when emperor Constantine was building basilicas in Jerusalem, and upon excavating the site for one of them, “discovers” the cross of Christ. The cross was broken into pieces, and purported relics of it can be found from Iowa to Iona.
First celebrated in the 7th Century, this odd feast day continues to be popular, and even finds itself marking the names of several churches to this day. Just Google “Holy Cross” and you’ll find a slew of churches from across denominations, though Lutherans and Catholics seem particularly keen on the name, probably for very different reasons. Luther’s “theology of the cross” (which chaffs at much of what passes for Christian theology these days) remains central to the Lutheran lens on life, seeing the cross as both hinge and key to Divine work and salvation.
Many in the Protestant tradition prefer empty crosses as a sign of God’s victory over death. Many Orthodox and Roman adherents prefer a cross with a corpus, emphasizing the passion and sacrifice. Lutherans tend to split the difference, having images of either…we do love our “both/and,” don’t we?
Lore has it that Eve’s son Seth was barred entrance to the Garden of Eden, but that the angel guarding paradise gave Seth a seed from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Seth goes and plants this seed where he buries his father, Adam, and it just so happens to be at Golgotha. The tree that grows from this seed is then used to hew out the cross on which Jesus died.
Yes…it’s a fanciful story, known as the Legend of the Rood. But even in this story we see the earnest hope for the cross embedded in the Christian narrative: that all things can be redeemed in time and used for good, by God.
A symbol of both suffering and self-giving love, of victory and violence, of heartbreak and hope, the cross continues to be at the center of the faith for many. Yet, there’s no need to seek out a relic to find a piece of it.
Dig around your past. Dig inside your heart. Excavate your inner temple and find those broken things in you which, somehow, continue to have and give you life, by God.
Find those times where you were shown grace upon grace and an undeserved second (and third and fourth) chance. Find those pieces of your soul that leap and resonate with the idea that everything, every thing, is in the redemption process somehow.
Do that searching, and I bet you’ll find a piece of that cross buried in there…
-historical parts from Pfatteicher’s _New Book of Festivals & Commemorations_
-icon written by the good folx at Monastery Icons