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The Feast of the Holy Cross

September 14, 2010

Today is a singular day in the Church’s Calendar, a day when we commemorate not a person, but a thing, an object, particular to a place and time and yet transcending both place and time as a symbol.  So, why this day?  Why September 14, it seems so random?  And don’t we sort of celebrate the cross on Good Friday?

St. Helena and Heraclius taking the Cross to Jerusalem

All of these are good questions.  You have heard me preach in the past two Sunday sermons about symbols, and how a true symbol points beyond itself to something greater.  The cross then, having once been a symbol of torture, pain, and death has become a symbol of Jesus the Christ, His Resurrection and triumph over death, and our redemption found in that saving grace.  The cross, as a symbol, is very important to us and to our faith.  The cross, as an object, was likewise important to early Christians.  During the reign of Constantine, his mother, Helena, took it upon herself to travel to Israel and try to locate historical sites important to believers.  She was aided in this quest by the fact that when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and Israel, they built pagan shrines over the same sites so as to push Christian worship out.  However, whether the sites we now recognize because of Helena are the actual sites where these events occurred is a matter of faith and pious legend rather than empirical fact.  Modern archaeology leans toward the correctness of these sites, but it is unprovable.

Fr. Ryan at the Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jerusalem, Israel

One of those historical sites is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the all encompassing site Helena found where she believed Jesus both died on the cross on the hill of Calvary and the tomb where He was buried and from which He rose.  The idea that these two sites would be in such close physical proximity to one another is not astonishing to me; everything in Jerusalem is in close physical proximity to each other!  It is a very crowded geographical area!  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre now contains both the crucifixion site and the burial site, and it was dedicated to that purpose on September 14, 335.  So, that is why we commemorate the Holy Cross today.

Ok, so why have a day at all to commemorate the Holy Cross?  Don’t we venerate the Cross on Good Friday?  Yes, we do, but that veneration takes on a different, more solemn and sad tone that is appropriate to that day.  Today celebrates the Holy Cross as a symbol of triumphant victory, worthy of singing, horns, and festival!  Today is a day we remind ourselves of the promise symbolized in Christ’s victory over death.  From the Gospel of John, “And when I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto me.”  (John 12:32)  This kind of celebration and festive atmosphere would not fit on Good Friday.

Many of our parishioners make the sign of the cross upon themselves in both worship and in their daily prayer lives.  Certainly you have seen me use the sign of the cross in blessing.  When I pour the blessed water into the chalice full of wine at the Preparation of the Elements during the Eucharist, I do so in the sign of the cross.  Some of the times when it is especially appropriate to make the sign of the cross upon oneself are during references to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; at the end of the Gloria; at the end of the Creed during the line “we look for the Resurrection of the dead…”; at the beginning of the Benedictus que Venit (the “second half” of the Sanctus that says, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.”; during the Invitatory of the Daily Office – “O Lord, open thou our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim thy praise); at the beginning of the Gospel Canticles – the Benedictus (or the Song of Zechariah, Canticle 16 in Morning Prayer, p. 92 of the Book of Common Prayer), the Magnificat (or the Song of Mary, the first Canticle of Evening Prayer, p. 119 of the Book of Common Prayer), and the Nunc Dimittis (the second canticle of Evening Prayer, p. 120 of the Book of Common Prayer).  You will notice that the general theme which binds these times together is reference (either implicit or explicit) to our salvation and our future bodily resurrection in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Of course, there is no bad time to make the sign of the cross upon yourself as a sign of blessing because, just as we might place our initials on things as a symbol of our ownership of them, the Holy Cross is the personal symbol of Jesus Christ and whenever we make that sign upon ourselves we are reminding ourselves to whom we belong.

The Collect of the Day

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

Fr. Ryan+

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Fox permalink
    September 14, 2010 3:48 pm

    “In hoc signo vinces” !!!

  2. Alice permalink
    September 15, 2010 10:09 am

    Well said. I love the idea that crossing myself signals that Christ owns me. I belong to God the Holy Trinity and nothing can dissolve that ownership, no one can buy me out from under His protection and grace. Such peace and assurance!

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