The Exaltation of the Glorious Cross
Psalm 77:1-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
Glory in the Cross
“It is for us to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom is our health, life and Resurrection: through whom we have been saved and set free” (Introit). Celebrating today the mystery of the Cross, we fix our gaze not upon an instrument of torture and of shame but, rather, upon the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2). We lift our eyes to the royal throne of the King of glory, the sign of the Son of Man that will appear in the heavens at the end of the age (Mt 24:30). To the eyes of faith, the Cross shines like the sun over the eastern horizon.
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
In Rome, the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme is the scene of a solemn festival today. Pilgrims from all over the world will cross the threshold of the church established by Saint Helena; they will kneel before the wood of the True Cross. Great numbers of them will go to their confession. The relics of the True Cross will be carried in procession and placed upon the altar during Holy Mass.
Everywhere in the monastery and basilica of Santa Croce one sees the insignia of the holy and glorious Cross; it is painted, carved, and even woven into the cloth of the vestments. It is the life-giving and glorious Cross of Christ, studded with precious stones, and glimmering with the splendour of the stars. The arms of the Cross are thrown open wide to embrace the very limits of the cosmos. What did we sing at First Vespers? “Hail, O Cross! Brighter than all the stars! To the eyes of men thou art exceedingly lovely!” (Magnificat Antiphon I). The art in the basilica cries out, over and over again, the essential relationship between altar and Cross. The altar is the bathed in the glory of the Cross.
The Visible Sign of God’s Healing Mercy
Today’s liturgy — in the Divine Office and the Mass — infuses an awe-inspiring awareness of the Cross as the visible sign of God’s healing mercy, the cause of our indefectible and abiding joy. “The Royal Banners forward go; the Cross shines forth in mystic glow” (Vexilla Regis, Vespers). We sing in today’s introit that the Cross of Christ is the source of health (salus), of life, and of Resurrection. The eyes of the Church are filled with the brightness of the Cross. She looks towards the wood of the Cross and is made radiant by the Resurrection. Look to the Cross, and be radiant; let your faces not be abashed (Ps 33:6)!
The Saving Wood
The wood by which Adam fell (Gn 3:12) is today the wood by which Adam is saved. The wood by which Noah, “his sons, his wife, and his son’s wives” (Gn 6:14) were saved from the flood is today the wood by which joy has flooded the world. The wood by which Moses sweetened the bitter waters of Marah (Ex 15:25) is today the wood by which all the world’s bitterness is made sweet.
Health to Sickly Souls Is Given
The First Reading is a dramatic reminder that all of us, without exception, have suffered the venomous bite of the ancient serpent. We cross the wilderness of this life limping, and burning with a fever for which no earthly remedy can be found. Our new Moses, Christ, intercedes with the Father on our behalf and, in response, we are given the mystery of the Cross. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32). The Cross is the source of our healing; it is the remedy for every affliction, the antidote for every poison, the medicine for every weakness. One of the antiphons at Matins, rhythmically translated, says: “Cross most gracious / from whose aspect / health to sickly souls is given/ with what praises shall I praise thee / who hast brought us life from heaven?
When We Are Stung by Vipers
Like the children of Israel we have to be brought back again and again. When we are strong and successful, when we “wax fat, grow thick, and become sleek” (Dt 32:15), how easily we forget the works of the Lord! When we experience the gift of salutary failure, when we stumble, fall, and lose our way with darkness all about us, when we are stung by vipers and beset with fever and thirst, then do we turn back, led on by severe and tender mercies to the source of all healing and strength.
The Holy Spirit and the Cross
The Cross is where the weakness of the flesh encounters the power of the Holy Spirit. It was from the Cross that the gift of the Holy Spirit was first poured out upon the Church in the kiss of the Bridegroom’s mouth and in a mystery of water and of blood. “He bowed his head, says Saint John, and gave up his spirit” (Jn 19:30). And again, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn 19:34). The breath, the blood, and the water are the abiding signs of the Spirit poured out whenever the Church assembles in faith at the foot of the holy and life-giving Cross. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is, at once, an actualization of the mystery of the Cross and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Secure in the Arms of the Cross
Again, the Cross is where every brokenness, injury, and wound encounters the compassion of the Father. We are called not so much to embrace the Cross as to allow ourselves to be embraced by it, for the arms of the Cross are the strong arms of the Eternal Father’s compassion. When the Holy Spirit begins to work in a soul, that soul is compelled to throw herself into the arms of the Cross because there, and there alone, is she held secure in the embrace of the Father’s unfailing compassion. The Cross of the Son shines with the love of the Father; that compassionate love is the remedy for every misery, shadow, weakness, betrayal, and fear.
Jacob’s Mystic Ladder
We celebrate the glorious Cross as a Trinitarian mystery; the healing compassion of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit await us in the Cross of the Son. By the Cross of Christ, as by the mystic ladder beheld by Jacob in a dream (Gen 28:12) the mercy of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit descend even to us. By the same Cross of Christ, we ascend to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jacob dreamed “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it” (Gen 28:12). This is the mystery of the Cross revealed in figure and foreshadowing; this is the reality of the mysteries we celebrate here and now.
The Place of Christ’s Priesthood
The Cross is the place of Christ’s glorious priesthood with its descending and ascending mediation. Wheresoever and whensoever the liturgy is enacted, Christ the great High Priest stands in our midst, and his glorious Cross is rendered present. Health and joy descend into the world — and into our hearts — by the wood of the Cross and, by the wood of the Cross, the ladder that spans the chasm separating time from eternity, and this world from the next, we who are estranged and exiled from the beauty of the divine glory ascend into the splendour of the Kingdom.
The Mass: Presence of the Cross
The Cross is present in every Holy Mass, not as the memory of a hill far away, but as a dynamic reality drawing us together into unity and then, upward, to the Father, with the Son, in the Holy Spirit. The Liturgy of the Word is always a preaching and a presence of the Word of the Cross, “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The Liturgy of the Eucharist is always a confession and a presence of the mystery of the Cross in the fullness of its Trinitarian dimensions, and in the actualization of its power.
Through the Cross into the Kingdom
If you have heard the Word of God, you have been embraced by the mystery of the Cross. Held fast in its embrace, let us go to the altar. Through the Word of the Cross, the compassion of the Father, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the glory of the Son have descended into our midst today; let us then, ascend, by the mystery of the Cross present in this Eucharist, to the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit to whom be all glory and praise, now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen, Alleluia!