Today is Holy Cross Day--or, more fully, The Exaltation of the Holy Cross--one of the major feasts of the church year. Historically, it’s associated with the September 14, 335 dedication of a complex of buildings established by Emperor Constantine on the supposed site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb. This first Church of the Holy Sepulcher included a large basilica and a circular church, and its initial construction was overseen by Helena, Constantine’s mother. During the excavations, a relic was discovered that was believed to be the true cross. In the late fourth-century, the pilgrim Egeria described such a cross in her detailed account of her journey to the Holy Land and experiences of the religious rituals taking place in and around Jerusalem at the time. (In fact, she mentions that there was by then a deacon guarding the cross when it was on display for veneration, because an enterprising visitor had stolen a bite of the cross when they went down to kiss it.) The feast has also been associated with the exposition of that or a similar cross in Jerusalem in the seventh century following its return by Emperor Heraclius, who recovered the artifact from the Persians after the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher was destroyed and the cross taken in 614. Although the authenticity of the relics is much disputed in modern times, Holy Cross Day still marks a moment for us to remember that “our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself,” just as we “who glory in the mystery of our redemption” are called to “to take up our cross and follow him.” (BCP 244)
The only problem is that, even as the feast itself is quite ancient, the Book of Common Prayer 1979 is the first one to include its commemoration. Why this seeming laxity on the part of our Anglican forbearers? What does our traditional avoidance of this holiday signify? I think it’s because the cross makes us uncomfortable, unsettles our ideas of what it means to be a Christian in this day and age--let alone a Protestant. How are we supposed to claim to be children of the Enlightenment when our worship is centered around an instrument of torture and execution on the part of empire, on the part of Rome? How can we in good conscience talk about taking up our crosses when history is littered with examples of the Church perpetuating similar suffering in the name of our collective salvation?
I don’t have any simple answers to those questions, because they’re ones that have troubled me for years. Coming out of my Roman Catholic days, I too was leery of allowing such cruciform-ity to shape my faith. I prayed that there was a different way to celebrate the wonderful work of our Lord in the world, remaking us into something glorious and new. I prayed for a redemption that didn’t include oppression, didn’t include the death of an innocent victim. Yet, as you’ve heard me preach before, we cannot talk about the brilliance of Easter without the darkness of Good Friday, and we cannot remove the cross from the heart of our faith. The downfall is when we let it become the last word, the static symbol of Christianity disconnected from all that came before and after. The cross isn’t about the demands of a bloodthirsty God, but the Divine reflecting back to us how easily we give into our basest instincts and our worst fears. The cross is the symbol par excellence of our own sinfulness, and turning our gaze only seems to avoid its inevitable truth. We are called to take up our crosses not suffer, though suffering will inevitably be a part of the work. We are called to take up our crosses and follow Christ into a new way of being, choosing life when so much of our culture says death. (As the founder of Latin American liberation theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, described: “...It is those who refuse to see that the salvation of Christ is a radical liberation from all misery, all despoliation, all alienation.”) It is only when the latter falls silent that the world will well and wholly be redeemed, and we will find that we have all drawn near to our Savior at last. However you do or don’t celebrate Holy Cross Day, remember that there’s more to the story. Remember that we are called to follow Jesus towards a day with no more crosses.