Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Gillian Weyant

How We Celebrate the Glory of the Cross Today

On September 14th, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  In the days surrounding this feast, which commemorates one of the most central aspects of Christianity, it is important to reflect on the cross as it appears in the past, present and future: what gave it such great dignity to begin with, how it is manifested in our lives as we live them now and how we can bring the cross into our spirituality as we live out our Christian lives.

The Origins and Meaning of the Feast

An immediate question that comes to mind is what precisely the Church recalls on this feast.  St. Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, is credited with the discovery of the True Cross while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the year 326.  Her discovery is celebrated on this day, as well as the subsequent returning of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem several hundred years later.  The actual date of the feast originates from the dedication of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre around the year 336.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre surrounds both Calvary and the site of Jesus’ empty tomb, and is thus a poignant and beautiful reminder of the simultaneous presence of death and resurrection in the Catholic faith.

Those events, however, are only a part of why the Church saw fit to devote this day to the cross.  In a larger and more theological sense, we have this feast to help us recognize the tremendous importance of the cross throughout salvation history and in our present-day Catholicism.  After the cross became the instrument for Jesus’ death and salvation of the world, it was raised from its former lowly state, since previously it had primarily been a place for criminals to die.  St. John of Damascus describes the importance of Jesus’ crucifixion and the subsequent importance of the cross beautifully when he writes:

"Wherefore, then, death approaches, gulps down the bait of the body, and is pierced by the hook of the divinity. Then, having tasted of the sinless and life-giving body, it is destroyed and gives up all those whom it had swallowed down of old. For, just as the darkness entirely disappears when light is let in, so is destruction driven away at the onset of life, and life comes to all, while destruction comes to the destroyer" (St. John of Damascus).

With this in mind, we see the enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice: he atoned for the sins of the world through his death, and thus he brings dignity to death just as he brings salvation to sinners.  It is no small coincidence that the cross was the instrument of his death.  We can consequently draw a parallel between Jesus’ gift of such dignity to the formerly unholy cross, and his gift of salvation to us, his broken people whom he loved and graced with holiness.  Because of this, when we look at the cross throughout our lives and liturgies, we can recall the magnitude of his gift of salvation to the world, and see the love which he offered to us with his death and resurrection.

Symbolism of the Cross in Scripture

We can also see the meaning of the cross in Jesus’ death by considering the material from which his cross was made.  In Scripture, it is written that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet 2:25). It is thought-provoking to see the cross called a “tree” in Scripture, and this fact raises some further parallels that bear interpreting. 

Trees are mentioned often and variously throughout Scripture, as we frequently hear of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and we also see that the Evangelists take care to mention trees in times when Jesus approaches men who doubt or are perceived as unworthy.  Nathanael, prior to his becoming a disciple, asks Jesus hesitatingly: “‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’” (John 1:48).  In another Scriptural passage, Zacchaeus, a tax collector who was held in low esteem by others, could not see Jesus through the crowds and climbed a sycamore tree to be able to see him.  Jesus “looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today’” (Luke 19:5).

Taking these two passages together, we can see that the trees are the path by which these two men met Jesus though they did not believe that He would consider them worthy followers.  In the same way, He calls all of us to participate in his Cross, even though we doubt our own capacity to follow Him. It is important to commemorate the cross in its historical context when we meditate on Christ’s death, but we must also recognize that it is the way through which we can receive him into our souls and attain heaven.

The Cross in Art and Architecture

Another way we can remember this is through the way of art and architecture, beginning with the simplest visual representation of a cross as two intersecting beams.  This alone is already symbolic of the most foundational teachings of the Christian life: the intersection of the two is reminiscent of the intersection of the body and the soul, the human and the divine, death and life, sin and love.  Even this simple representation is deeply symbolic and holds great meaning for any Christian.

Other variants of this simple cross, however, hold even deeper meaning and significance.  The three-barred Byzantine or Slavic cross, for example, can represent numerous aspects of Jesus’ crucifixion and our salvation.  The small bar above the main beam is where the sign reading “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” was placed, representing both Jesus’ kingship as God and the humanity to which he lowered himself.  The bar below the main beam is tilted up towards the right, showing Jesus’ favor to the good thief who was on the cross to his right while showing his righteous judgment of the unrepentant thief on his left.  This indeed highlights a very real element of Christ’s crucifixion, but it also gives us pause and causes us to think more thoroughly about the role of mercy, judgment and redemption in our own lives.

Architecture is another avenue through which we may be reminded of the importance of the cross in our lives.  The floor plans of many major basilicas and churches throughout the world, such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice and Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, are laid in the shape of a cross, often with the altar in the place where either the heart or the head of Jesus would rest. This allows us to consider the real presence of the Eucharist, our roles as the members of the body of Christ, and how deeply we must immerse ourselves in carrying our own cross.  The shapes of these churches together with the Stations of the Cross that are commonly seen on the walls of churches draw us more deeply into the way of the cross, considering that we must physically enter into a cross each time we go to receive the Lord in the Eucharist at the Mass.

Although it is sometimes difficult to see how prevalent the cross truly is in our modern daily lives, contemplating the mystery of Jesus’ death and examining our lives for the presence of both physical and metaphorical crosses can help us deepen our love of Christ and his Church and understand how we may better act as its members.  The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is a wonderful and opportune time to contemplate the cross throughout salvation history and pray for the willingness and strength to accept our own.