The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Holy Cross Day

On the thirteenth of September in the 335th year of Our Lord, the Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis), now in the West usually called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by the Emperor Constantine in thanksgiving for the doctrinal agreement hammered out in 325 at the Council of Nicaea, was consecrated; on the next day, relics believed to be fragments of the True Cross discovered on the site (traditionally identified as Golgotha) by the Emperor’s mother, Helena, were solemnly exposed for veneration by the faithful. This feast was repeated annually, and by the end of the century, according to the eyewitness account of the Spanish pilgrim Egeria, the feast of the dedication of this church had become an eight-day celebration to rival those of the Epiphany and Easter – which it still does in Eastern Christian traditions.

As time went on, the feast spread: the Jerusalem fragments of the True Cross, carried off by the Sassanid Persian king Khosrow II in 614, were recovered by Emperor Heraclius in 628 and delivered to Patriarch Zacharias on 3 May 630 (thus the date for another Feast of the Holy Cross formerly observed, which through a misunderstanding came to celebrate the Finding [inventio] of the Cross previously understood to have taken place also on 14 September) and brought into the church of Holy Wisdom (Hagía Sophía) in Constantinople on 14 September 633. The feast was then introduced to the West by Pope St Sergius I (687–701), who placed a relic of the Cross in the Church of St Salvator (now called the Lateran Basilica), though other relics of the Cross had also found their way across the Christian world. The customary manner of exposing the relics gave the feast its name: the Exaltation [exaltatio, ‘lifting up’] of the Holy Cross.*

One product of the spread of the cult of the True Cross is the hymn ‘Vexilla regis prodeunt’, which (along with ‘Pange lingua gloriosi proelium’) was written by the Merovingian court poet Venantius Fortunatus in honor of a fragment of the True Cross given by Emperor Justin II to the Frankish queen Radegund for her new convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers†. The hymn was first sung on 19 November 569 as the relics were escorted into their new home in procession by torchlight and later found its way into the Roman liturgy for the Office of Passiontide and Feasts of the Holy Cross.

Holy Cross Day is most obviously a thanksgiving for Christ’s victory over death through His complete self-offering and submission to death. In contrast to its treatment in Passiontide, when the narrative and human drama of Our Lord’s suffering and death quite naturally takes precedence, the cross is seen on the present feast not primarily as an instrument of torture, but rather as an emblem of triumph: a royal banner or standard or scepter, or indeed a throne, as lines from ‘Vexilla regis’ show:

The royal banners forward go,
the cross shines forth in mystic glow...

...for God is reigning from the tree...

...gone is thy shame; each crimsoned bough
proclaims the King of glory now...

In fact, as Andrew Gould has recently written in the Orthodox Arts Journal, the processional crosses and banners – and the processions themselves – familiar to worshippers in the historic Churches derive from and replace their Roman imperial prototypes, showing forth the glory of God and the supercession of earthly authority by that of Our Lord.

Many of the bcp1979 texts for the Mass and Office of Holy Cross Day thus celebrate the ‘lifting up’ of Christ. But, as we are reminded especially on the Last Sunday after Pentecost (the Feast of Christ the King, which is also part of the eschatological arc of the Church’s year) and will be at pains to emphasize below, the triumph and rule of Christ are nothing like those we expect of earthly leaders.

First, Our Lord’s own statements concerning His being lifted up –

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
     Jn 3.14–15, Morning Prayer

Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
     Jn 12.31–36, Mass Gospel

– draw upon the account of the serpent in the Garden of Eden [Gn 3.1–15, Second Evensong] and that of the serpent set upon a staff by Moses for the healing of the Israelites from the venom of the snakes sent by the Lord on account of their unfaithfulness [Nb 21.4–9, Morning Prayer]. Thus we see Christ as irresistible savior/healer (indeed, the anthem ‘O Savior of the world, who by thy Cross and precious Blood hast redeemed us, save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord’ is associated not only with Good Friday but also with sacramental anointing for healing [bcp 282, 455]).

Second, we have the great hymn of Christ’s humility and exaltation [Pp 2.5–11, the Epistle at Mass, which also, tellingly, appears on the Feast of the Holy Name and Palm Sunday]: Christ emptied Himself, humbled Himself, became obedient even to the most humiliating, torturous death, and therefore was ‘highly exalted’ (that is, lifted up) by God. Similarly 1P 3.17–22 (Second Evensong) concerns Christ’s ascension after His death and descent to the dead – an ascension and exaltation in which those joined to Christ share.

The Psalms and First Lesson appointed in bcp1979 for the Eve of Holy Cross, however, are perhaps more difficult to connect to the themes of the feast, and even the Second Lesson bears some explanation. The date of the feast, of all things, provides the key to unlock all this.

The date for the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was likely chosen in imitation of that for the dedication of the First Temple in Jerusalem, which was held at the feast of Sukkoth (‘Booths’ or ‘Tabernacles’), which begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar [Ex 23.16, 34.22; Lv 23.39–44; Ez 3; Ne 8] (it follows the Day of Atonement [Yom Kippur], which falls on the tenth day).

Sukkoth falls half a year after Pesach (Passover) and is thus its mirror: accordingly, Holy Cross Day and the Christian Pascha (Easter) reflect one another as well (the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, strongly links Christ’s self-sacrifice, which the Gospels place at Passover, with the sacrifice of atonement offered on Yom Kippur, and Ps 118, which describes the Sukkoth procession, is in Christian use – following the Gospels’ descriptions of the Triumphal Entry – identified with both Palm Sunday and Easter. It may or may not be coincidence that the ‘semi-continuous’ track of Old Testament Lessons in the Revised Common Lectionary appoints the passages concerning the institution of the Passover and the Crossing of the Red Sea to be read on the Sundays closest to 7 and 14 September, following the revelation of the Divine Name). On the Feast of the Transfiguration, I wrote about Sukkoth’s eschatological overtones, specifically in connection with the ‘dwellings’ and the light/glory of God, but I should mention here the other great pronouncement which Our Lord makes during His teaching in the Temple at Sukkoth –

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’.
     Jn 7.37–38; cf. Is 55.1

– which corresponds to the ritual drawing of water from the Pool of Siloam and the offering of the water libation which were part of that festival.

The most extended treatments of the eschatological aspect of Sukkoth are found, first, in the latter portion of Zechariah, and second, in the Revelation to St John. The tenth chapter of Zechariah‡ concerns a vision of the Lord gathering in the scattered children of Israel [cf., e.g., Is 60], while the fourteenth chapter presents a vision of the Last Things in which the remnants of all the nations will go up to Jerusalem to keep Sukkoth, all things will be as holy as the Temple vessels, and ‘living waters’ will flow out from Jerusalem. The Revelation, for its part, draws richly upon the symbolism of the Sukkoth celebration: the dwellings appear in 7.15, 12.12, 13.6, 21.3; the entire scene in 7.9–17 – the crowd around the altar with palm-branches, dressed in white, drawing ‘water of life’ from springs, sheltered by God – recalls the procession and ablutions of the Sukkoth procession.

It is these ‘living waters’ and the eschatological hope of which they are a part that connect us to the Psalms [46 and 87] appointed in bcp1979 for the Eve of Holy Cross. The streams ‘make glad the city of God’; the singers sing ‘all my fresh springs are in you’. This puts us immediately in mind of the rivers flowing from Eden [Gn 2.6, 10–14] and from the Throne of God [Rv 22.1–2, which echoes almost exactly Ek 47.1–12], which water the earth abundantly [cf. Ps 65.9ff], and make it teem with life [cf. Ex 15.22—16.1, in which by a piece of wood Moses makes bitter waters sweet], as well as of Our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well [Jn 4]. And beside, or astride, this river, Ezekiel and the Revelation tell us, is the Tree of Life [cf. Gn 3.22; Pr  3.13–18], whose fruit is continually renewed and whose leaves are good for healing. This Tree, of course, is to be identified with the Cross and is the antithesis of the Tree of Knowledge which became the occasion for the Fall.

Of most poignant interest, however, as I write this – when the Hebrew Scriptures’ narrative of promise, election, fraternal strife, and conquest is being read in many congregations that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, while history repeats itself in the Middle East; when tens of thousands of refugees (a fraction of those to be found worldwide) are staying less than 250 miles away from my home and yet the all too prevalent view of their plight as a political complication, logistical nuisance, or security risk rather than a humanitarian crisis renders them invisible – are, first, the cessation of war mentioned in similar terms in Zc 9.10 and Ps 46.10; and second, the universal reach of Christ’s work of reconciliation which is already seen in the prophetic books just mentioned: Ezekiel, despite his priestly concern for the holiness (including the ethno-religious purity) of the Temple of whose restoration he has a vision [Chapter 44], makes it clear that, when the land is restored and reapportioned, the aliens among the children of Israel will have a share in the inheritance [47.21–23]; even more tellingly, in Ps 87, everyone – the surrounding and usually embattled nations included – is counted and enrolled as a citizen of the glorious and beloved city of Zion. Here we return to Christ’s own words in St John’s Gospel: ‘I will draw all people to myself.’

The Second Lesson for the Eve of the Holy Cross [Ep 2.11–22] spells out even further the union of all people in Christ: precisely through the Cross, Christ has reconciled both Jew and Gentile to God, so that those joined with Christ are ‘no longer strangers and aliens, but... citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’. And thus the Temple built by Solomon (who, after all, acknowledged that God could not really be contained in a temple ‘made by human hands’ [cf. Ac 7.48, 17.24]), the Temple foreseen by Ezekiel, the Temple with whose rebuilding Zechariah was concerned – all are gathered up in the living Temple of the Body of Christ, the dwelling-place of God.

This leads us to another hymn that is eminently relevant here. ‘Lift high the cross’ was written by the Very Rev’d Dr George William Kitchin for a service of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts held in 1887 at Winchester Cathedral, of which he was then Dean. After Dean Kitchin’s death in 1912, the Rev’d Michael Newbolt revised it somewhat for inclusion in the 1916 edition of the venerable Hymns Ancient and Modern. It has subsequently appeared, often very much reduced from Fr Newbolt’s twelve stanzas, in many hymnals – but the effect of these omissions and other emendations, ostensibly undertaken to reduce the amount or impact of militaristic imagery, has instead been to make the hymn more triumphalist than triumphant and, especially in conjunction with the tune written for it by Sidney Nicholson, strongly redolent of a kind of ecclesiastical jingoism. To read the entire text is something of a revelation; the fuller treatment of the effects of the Cross and especially the sequence of stanzas (strongly echoing the Psalms and Lessons for the Eve of Holy Cross as discussed above) depicting the increasing scope of its reach, culminating in the penultimate stanza, ‘set up thy throne, that earth’s despair may cease / beneath the shadow of its healing peace’, imparts a very different flavor than the martial mood of the Hymnal version. To ‘lift high the cross’ can only ever mean to set forth the example of Christ’s suffering love and, by the grace of God, to live continually into that self-sacrifice. This force, stronger than any sword, is the only thing that ever can or will compel others to ‘adore His sacred Name’.

It is worth noting that 14 September is also, ironically, the anniversary of two other influential events: on this date in 1224, St Francis of Assisi received the stigmata – the five wounds of Christ – while in 1814, exactly two hundred years ago, Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombing of Ft McHenry by the British Navy and wrote ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. The latter, while not necessarily in and of itself the glorification of war that its critics sometimes make it out to be, nevertheless is of course a touchstone of American patriotism – in a way, the secular American counterpart to the familiar version of ‘Lift high the cross’ – and is similarly too easily interpreted as an affirmation of superiority rather than a call to service. St Francis’s vision and life, on the other hand, remind us that Our Lord came not to start a movement, found an institution, establish a party, create a state, nor to fight with the sword, but rather to teach, point to, challenge, heal, forgive, reconcile, unite, redeem, die. Our ultimate allegiance, as our crosses, banners, processions, and hymns should always remind us, is to God, following in the Way Christ has gone before.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
     Collect used Fridays at Morning Prayer,
     on Monday of Holy Week, and as a
     station Collect at the Palm Sunday Procession

Afterword: The Autumnal Ember Days

The Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Holy Cross Day are the fall Ember Days [bcp 18]. Though bcp1979 restricts the focus of the four sets of Ember Days to ordinations, which traditionally took place only at these times, the quattuor tempora, modeled after Roman and/or Jewish observances, traditionally also involved fasting, thanksgiving, and agricultural themes. The Lessons for Mass of the autumnal Saturday Ember Day in the Roman Rite, in fact, explicitly connect this observance to the festivals of the Jewish seventh month, and as such point the way to Advent and its celebration of the ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, which gets underway at All Saints’ Day (1 November).

Finally, I might also mention that in the East, 23 September (essentially, the autumnal equinox) is kept as the Feast of the Conception of St John the Baptist (Forerunner), whose Nativity is celebrated, East and West, nine months later (24 June): Zechariah, the father of St John (we might well think of the prophet Zechariah whom we mentioned earlier), is said to have been ministering in the Temple during the seventh month when the annunciation of the Forerunner was made [Lk 1]. Thus the cycle of feasts celebrating the First Coming of Christ begins during this period as well.

*  Both the 3 May and 14 September feasts had a slightly uneven history in the series of prayer-books issued for use in public (the Books of Common Prayer) and in private (the Primers) in the English Church between the 1530s and 1550s but finally reappeared to stay in the Church of England’s public Kalendar in 1561 – though, typically, without any proper texts assigned to them. They were not carried over into American prayer-books and did not appear officially in the Episcopal Church until bcp1979 made provision for ‘Holy Cross Day’ (as it is called in the English Prayer Book) on 14 September.

†  Founded after she had retired from (or fled) the court of the King Clothar I, who had taken her as one of his six wives after her uncle and guardian’s defeat in battle.

‡  Note that it is just before this that we read of the king coming ‘humble and riding on a donkey’ [Zc 9.9].