Thoughts on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (old calendar) or, to give it the full title: The Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.

The tradition states that the Emperor Constantine sent his mother, Saint Helena, to find relics of Christ in Jerusalem on pilgrimage. While there, she discovered the three crosses (of Christ and the two thieves), establishing which was the Cross of Our Lord when a dying woman touched it and was healed. The Patriarch (Macarius) of Jerusalem carried the cross into the ambo, where many venerated it. It is one of the few commemorations of the Cross outside of Lent and Holy Week, the second feast of the Liturgical year which begins in September (1/14) and one which strikes me as one of the most radical embodiments of the contradiction inherent in Christianity. I wanted to share a few thoughts with you.

Firstly, the idea that an instrument of shame, torture and death should be celebrated. Not just commemorated or remembered, but ‘exalted’. I had a quick run through the use of exaltation and exalt in my head, recalling when we use it in the services, and it is generally: ‘making high’, ‘celebrating’, ‘honouring’, ‘giving glory to’… Giving honour to the wood that crucified Christ? Where he was nailed with common criminals? To Romans at the time, the Christians must have seemed mad, to find anything worth rejoicing in from that act of unlawful punishment. Yet here we are, two thousand and more years later, prostrating ourselves before the empty Cross in churches all over the Orthodox world (‘Universal’)… I suppose the reason we should use the full title of the Feast is that it is explained: the Cross is both precious – it touched the very body of the incarnate Christ, it was the instrument of his earthly death and was capable of healing those who with faith, venerated the wood of that Cross – but it is also Life-Giving. Not just the woman who was saved from death in the time of St Helena and the Patriarch Macarius – but us.

Secondly, I am certain that most of us will understand that Christ’s death saved us; that we are granted eternal life through His love and forgiveness, embodied in His sacrifice upon the Cross. That the Cross was the physical means of that sacrifice, of the fulfilment of His dispensation: from the proskomede prayers “Thou hast redeemed us from the curse of the law by Thy precious Blood. Having been nailed to the Cross and pierced with a spear, Thou hast poured forth immortality upon mankind.” To Christians, death and life are intimately connected – we cannot have one without the other. “Whosoever seeks to save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose their life for My sake, shall find it” (Matt. 16:25). This theme is repeated in the Gospels of St Matthew, St John and St Luke – we cannot save our lives for their own sake, for our pleasure or gain. Our lives are Christ’s and when given for His sake, either in service to Him or for our fellow man, then we will gain true life. It doesn’t get much more contradictory than that.

Thirdly, it struck me most profoundly that we commemorate the Cross of our Lord, who also said (Matt 16:24) ” If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” This is no gospel of prosperity, no jam today, jam tomorrow type of faith. Christ is instructing us to take up the Cross – our Cross – deny ourselves and follow Him. IF you would be a follower, a disciple, we must deny ourselves: is that to pretend we have no personality, no quirks, no individuality or thought? I don’t think so. Deny ourselves the pleasure of the passions, the worldly passions of anger, self-righteousness, jealousy, lust for power, goods and money, of self-pity and self-justification. These passions can appear within the heart of the most pious and devout member of our Church – I would suggest they are perhaps more vulnerable to them than those who battle the more obvious passions… at the root of them all, as Fr John (Maitland Moir) would have said, is pride. Pride in our intelligence (knowledge of the services, of the music, of the Scripture), pride in our attendance at Church, pride in our appearance (being suitably dowdy and humble). Those who seek the Lord most sincerely are not safe from pride through our own efforts: we are saved through the Cross, where the passions can be lifted up – they can be seen, clearly by our confessor and ourselves. We must not hide our passions from ourselves and examination of the conscience before confession is a good tool to crucify our pride, with God’s help.

We are to lift our own Crosses, whether those are our inner passions, our temptations, our sufferings which we embrace so closely, show them high upon the ambo of our hearts and *rejoice*. This, I think, is what I have been thinking about most crucially. It is not for us to realise how broken and sinful we are then wriggle around feeling like lowly worms. We may be. We are. Practice what the modern therapists call ‘radical acceptance’ and see just how damaged our souls have become, how worn by the cares of this world our hearts are, how sore our need for warmth, acceptance and love is, in the face of repeated buffetings from those who see only their own sins and needs. See all of that and rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord always” – not when you’ve had a nice Liturgy, not when you’ve had a long Confession and feel ‘worthy’ of Communion, not when you’ve made it to all Twelve Great Feasts or all of Holy Week. Always. We may have Crosses which none can see: difficult home lives; hidden illness; emotional wounds from childhood; We may have Crosses which are physically present: family commitments which stop us attending Church or fulfilling our vocation; pain and sickness in our bodies; financial worries. Christ commands us to take these Crosses up and in our Feast tomorrow, exalt them, along with the Cross of Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Rejoice in them, accept them, offer them to Christ and do not cease having the Joy of the Resurrection within us, for the Cross is empty, the curse annulled, the stone rolled away and Christ is Risen, every day, every moment. Our Crosses become light, when His Light shines upon our hearts.