Feast of the Holy Cross

holy-sepulcher
Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Anyone know why we keep a Feast of the Holy Cross on September 14?  (Or on the Sunday closest to September 14, if it’s a Maronite parish?)*

On September 14, AD 335, they carried a piece of the cross of Christ in solemn procession into the newly dedicated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Lord Jesus was crucified outside the ancient wall of the city, on the hill called…  Golgatha.  After He died, they laid Him in a nearby tomb, as we read in John 19:  “In the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden, a new tomb.  There they laid Him.”  Mount Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher stand only a few dozen yards apart from each other.

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the Holy Land during the 130’s, he renamed Jerusalem after himself, and he ordered that the sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial be covered over with earth, and then a pagan temple built there.  Hadrian hated Judaism and Christianity.  St. Dimitry Rostov put it like this in his homily for this feast:

[The Roman emperor wanted] the remembrance of the name of Jesus Christ to vanish from the earth…  The place where he was crucified and buried was made a dwelling-place of demons, so that every nation would forget Christ, and the places where Christ had walked would never serve to remind anyone of Him.

Therefore, the Holy Cross and the tomb of Christ remained buried underground for almost two hundred years.

But: one thing we can certainly say is that the Christians of Jerusalem knew precisely where they were.  We can safely say that, from the first Easter Sunday onward, not a single day passed without a Christian going to pray at the holy site.

So when the Emperor Constantine finally legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in AD 313, and when the emperor’s mother St. Helena went to the Holy Land to find the cross and the holy sepulcher, there were still Christians there, and they knew where to tell her to look.

Tenth Station of the Cross

So let’s keep this anniversary feast as an occasion to rejoice in the genuinely amazing faithfulness of Christians through all the tumults of history.

And let’s focus especially on this:  our forefathers and foremothers in faith have held on through thick and thin not because they have had so much virtue—though many of them certainly have had great virtue.  The main reason, though, is this: it’s the truth.

Our ancestors who have handed our sacred tradition down to us have simply been faithful to what they knew to be true.  The great triumphant mystery of God-made-man involves facts.  And those facts have been remembered faithfully and handed down to us primarily because they are true.

After all, that’s the only reasonable explanation for us being here together right now, dear reader.

Let’s look at it this way.  A man regarded by the authorities as a delusional political nuisance was executed as a common criminal on the outskirts of a ramshackle city, which the Romans thought of as an outpost in the outer reaches of barbarian hell.  If CNN had existed to report the news of the Roman Empire at the time, the chances that Wolf Blitzer would have mentioned this particular execution:  zero.

The executed man was buried nearby, in a tomb that did not belong to his family–His family being altogether too poor to own any tombs.  The chances of anyone making a written record about the location of the grave:  zero.

little last supperIn other words, we really cannot even imagine anything more obscure and forgettable than the death and burial of this particular man.  Innumerable men and women have died, and been buried, and have been altogether forgotten.  And by all external trappings, the Nazarene carpenter would fit into that human category, the category of the altogether forgettable.

Except for one fact:  He is God.

He rose from the dead.  He poured out His Holy Spirit.  He unites us to Himself through the Holy Mass.  He is the hope and the joy of mankind.

This is what Christians have known from Day One.  So they prayed at the sites of his death and resurrection.  They prayed there even when the worldly powers did everything to try to make them forget.

At Holy Mass, we take our place with these forefathers and foremothers of ours.  The living memory of the living God-made-man survived the ravages of Hadrian and the other Roman emperors who hated Christianity.  The tradition endured to the day when they carried the relic of the true cross into the beautiful new Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, seventeen centuries ago.  And the living memory of the living God-made-man has endured through those seventeen centuries from then until now.

We take our place beside all our forebears, who have held the faith through all these hundreds of years, and we declare with them:  We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You…

Because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world!

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* Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ, this Sunday I am substituting for the pastor of our local Maronite parish, while my beloved parochial vicars hold down the fort at home.

Holy-Cross-Day Miscellany

In these parts, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross arrived today with a chilly, chilly morning.

Fittingly so: For the contemplative sons and daughters of the Church, the year has two poles, like the globe. Easter means the beginning of the bright days when we touch the mysteries of heaven. September 14 means the beginning of pre-Lent, when we shoulder our crosses and march with Christian confidence towards the dark door of death, through which our Captain passed on Good Friday…

A sandhill crane
A sandhill crane

…President-elect Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington on February 23, 1861. (In those days, we inaugurated our presidents on March 4.) Congressman Sherrard Clemens, of Virginia, laid eyes on Lincoln and wrote to a friend, “Abe looks like a cross between a sandhill crane and an Andalusian jackass.”

Andalusian donkey
Andalusian donkey

For the better part of my life, whenever I have caught a glimpse of myself before my morning shave, I have wondered, What epithet would most lyrically describe this specimen of humanity that I see before me? That mystery has now been solved.

…I am sorry that I have not had the leisure to write about some recent adventures I have had on the Appalachian Trail. One of them involved a bona fide, long-house-dwelling, tomahawk-toting Mohawk–a latter-day St. John the Baptist who lives solely on the meanest of trail rations, water filtered through a sock, and preternatural zeal for the Gospel of Christ. Perhaps time will permit me to discourse more about him at some later opportunity.

For now, I would simply like to communicate an Annie-Dillard-esque experience I had while descending Fullhart Knob this afternoon.

First, consider all the creatures that lie within striking distance of a hiker at any given moment. Then retain for consideration only those that might like to take a bite of human flesh.

It occurred to me that, if all those creatures acted together in a concerted attack, I would never make it to the bottom of the hill. The worms and insects immediately beneath me in the dirt would spring upon my legs; the squirrels would maul me about the arms and shoulders; the hawks and vultures, and all other assorted nearby fowl, would peck me about the head. If I were beset in this manner, I would be done for, even before the nearest black bear arrived to gore me.

But this did not happen. All these creatures could have had all they wanted to eat for at least a fortnight; they could have had two weeks off from their usual chickenscratch efforts at survival. But they did not take the opportunity, and I made it home fine.

Now, what did this potential army of the forest lack? Not the physical wherewithal for victory, to be sure. I would have been more or less defenseless against them. I could have flailed and batted and run, but, in the end, they would have had the better of me.

No, what they lacked was: the creative intellectual capacity to conceive of the attack (which I, alone among them, could imagine), the deliberative capacity to enact a decision, and the capacity to communicate the idea among themselves.

Intellect, will, communication skills.

I bring this up solely to illustrate the following. If someone asks, Why is there something, rather than nothing? (And who doesn’t ask that?) If someone asks this question, answers like The Great Turtle or The Big Bang simply will not do. The only real answer is: The Person. The impenetrably grand Person, of whom we human persons–with our intellects, and our wills, and our communication skills–offer only a pale reflection.

We Christians cannot, of course, prove that this Person has an equally impenetrably grand Father and Spirit, which He revealed by speaking through prophets and then becoming man Himself. But we can say: the only reasonable answer to Why is there something rather than nothing? is: God.

_____________________

Bibliography

1. The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton. One of the most wonderful books I have ever read.

2. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Read the book instead of seeing the movie! The movie stinks. The book has occasional bad words, but they hardly distract you from one of the most delightful tales ever told about through-hikers who never quite made it.

“They will look upon Him” (Zechariah 12:10)

Homily for the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross

“As the serpent was lifted up in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

In the first reading we heard the account of what happened to the Israelites in the desert. The Lord Jesus referred to this episode in order to explain the mystery of salvation.

The journey the freed slaves had to make from Egypt to the Promised Land was long and hard. It was a trial. The Lord had promised His people that He would provide for them and get them to the land of milk and honey, but He did not “beam” them there like Scottie on the Starship Enterprise—they had to make the long and arduous pilgrimage.

In this way, the journey of the Israelites is an image of human life. God starts us out on the journey to heaven, and He accompanies us the whole way. But most of us have to persevere and bear up under the strain of traveling a long distance. We don’t get beamed-up to heaven until we finish the work the Lord gives us to do here, whatever it may be.

The Israelites did not bear up well under the strain. They grew tired and impatient with God’s plan. Therefore, they were subjected to the attack of poisonous snakes. Many of the Israelites were bitten and died. The poison in these snakes is also an image for us: It represents the weakness of our human nature. The poison in us is our propensity to selfishness, pride, self-indulgence, cowardice, and malice. The snakes in the desert would have been harmless if they weren’t poisonous, just as our human nature would not be dangerous to us if Adam and Eve had never fallen. But as it is, our flesh does have poison in it. The poison can strike us and kill us spiritually, which is what happens when you or I commit a mortal sin.

As the Lord Jesus explained it, though, the imagery from the Old Testament reading does not end here by any means—thanks be to God. What did the Lord command Moses to do to heal His people who were poisoned? He ordered Moses to mount a bronze serpent on an upright pole for the people to gaze upon. But the serpent on the pole was not full of poison. It looked like the poisonous serpents which had stung the people. But the bronze serpent was itself perfectly pure and free of poison.

As the Lord Jesus explained to Nicodemus: The mounted bronze serpent–in the image of the poisonous beast but itself free from poison–is the image of the Son of Man sacrificed on the Cross. God hung on the Cross in the likeness of our sinful flesh, even though He was completely free from sin. Those who have looked upon Him without faith saw nothing but a criminal being executed in the notorious Roman way. But those who know Who the Crucified One truly is see something else: We see a perfectly pure and innocent man offering Himself to the Father on our behalf.

Dear brother, dear sister: you and I deserve to be on the cross. For forsaking the truth, for pouring contempt on the weak, for smiling at evil, for distracting ourselves from our duties, for running my brother down behind his back, for putting me, me, me in the center—for these and countless more faults, wrongs, and sins, you and I deserve agony and death. God owes us nothing; all we have is a gift. And we have not been grateful, submissive, and obedient like we should be.

But the man on the Cross was never ungrateful. He was never disobedient; He was never selfish. He was never petty or mean; He never lied or prevaricated—to anyone else or to Himself. He walked in this world with the gentleness of a doe, the deft strength of a lioness protecting her cubs, and the pure beauty of a lark singing.

There has never been one ounce of poison in the flesh of the Son of Man. On the contrary: His humanity oozes healthful medicine. When He walked the earth, it was as if His hands secreted aloes and balms that soothed every wound He touched. The same healing powers flow out from His heavenly Body which He makes present to us on the altar.

Christ made His pilgrimage on earth with perfect abandonment to the will of the Father. He preserved what the Israelites lost in the desert. God was leading them to the Promised Land, but their way there passed through the desert, and they ran out of trust. The Father was leading the Lord Jesus to the Promised Land, too. His way there passed through the Cross. He walked calmly to it. The Lord’s execution did not take Him unawares. He knew and accepted His mission with serenity from the beginning. He had come to suffer our punishment for us, so that we would not have to suffer it.

The purity and innocence of Christ’s obedience to the Father is reflected in the pure and innocent obedience of His saints. Today our Holy Father Pope Benedict has gone on pilgrimage to the place where St. Bernadette humbly and simply obeyed the orders of the heavenly Lady 150 years ago—Lourdes, France.

Pure water flows out from our Lady’s spring in the grotto there, water with the power to cleanse and heal. Lourdes water is an image, too—an image of the cleansing, invigorating spiritual water that flows from the Sacred Heart of the Crucified One. This spiritual water flows out onto all those who gaze upon Him in faith. Let us draw near to the holy altar of Calvary to bathe our souls.