This coming Sunday we celebrate the great feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, also known as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the old calendar. The cross has power even for non-Christians as perhaps the most recognizable symbol in the world. In the Middle East, the cross is toppled and the black flag of Jihad is raised above ancient churches. In the persecution of Christians around the world the cross is banished from the public square and sadly this is true even here in America. At the same time, many people wear the cross as jewelry, or on their clothing, or even as a tattoo, even if they do not fully understand the mysteries of the Crucifixion.Fr. Brian Jordan blesses the World Trade Center cross (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
In the days after September 11th, workers discovered an enormous cross of broken girders in the rubble and wreckage of the World Trade Center. That cross is now displayed in the museum at the memorial built on the site of that tragedy which we remember this week, but it has been the subject of continuous litigation by atheists who want to have it removed. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti which killed hundreds of thousands including the bishop there, the survivors took some small measure of comfort in a large crucifix which remained standing even as the stones of the destroyed cathedral fell around it.
These images remind us that everything happens for a reason. Indeed, the True Cross itself was no coincidence, but is full of richness and meaning. In our fall from grace, a woman took the forbidden fruit from the tree in the garden and ate it and death came into the world. In Christ’s saving death, the fruit of a woman’s womb was hung on the tree and when we eat it, our life is restored. In the Golden Legend, a cutting from the forbidden tree was planted on Adam’s grave. The tree which grew there was then cut down and hidden during the reign of Solomon. The same wood was then later used to make the True Cross which was erected in the very same spot where Adam was buried. All of salvation history begins and ends on Calvary.
As Mary wept at the foot of the cross, she had the faith to remain there while her son endured unspeakable agony even though she did not yet fully understand the mystery of what was occurring. At the foot of the cross, we weep with sadness, but also with joy. We too are confronted by great suffering and tribulations, but the cross stands for all time. The motto of the Carthusians is, “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis,” which translates as, “The Cross is steady while the world is turning.” The more we are persecuted, the more we suffer, the more we must hold fast to that one point which is firm and unyielding.
As the hymn for the adoration of the cross on Good Friday tells us:
Flecte ramos, arbor alta,
Tensa laxa viscera,
Et rigor lentescat ille,
Quem dedit nativitas:
Et supeni membra Regis
Tende miti stipite.
Sola digna tu fuisti
Ferre mundi victimam:
Atque portum præparare
Arca mundo naufrago:
Quam sacer cruor perunxit,
Fusus Agni corpore.
Bend thy boughs, O Tree of glory!,
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For awhile the ancient rigor,
That thy birth bestowed, suspend:
And the King of heavenly beauty
On thy bosom gently tend!
Tree, which solely wast found worthy
The world’s Victim to sustain.
Harbor from the raging tempest
Ark, that saved the world again!
Tree, with sacred blood anointed
Of the Lamb for sinners slain.
Cristo crucificado by Diego Velázquez, 1632
During the Paschal Triduum, we live outside of time. Beholding the crucifix, we contemplate the beginning, the end, and the eternal. By contrast, the fall is a time of great activity and we feel the urging and pressing passage of time with great sensitivity and acuteness. The days are growing shorter, school has started, football season is here, and we’re already starting to make travel plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fall is a beautiful time, but it is also the occasion of much stress and anxiety. In the fall, the world is aflame with colors, but in the end, we are left with the naked, bare, and monochrome world of winter.
The cross reminds us to prepare for the dark days which lie ahead, but also that the cross will be there for us through it all. The cross is our tree of life in the hour of death. The cross is our ark of safety in the deluge of sin. The cross is our doorpost of security in the darkness of night. The cross is our banner of victory in the battle with the evil one. The cross is everywhere, even where we least expect it, but always when we need it the most.