Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Holy Cross Day – Sunday 14 September 2014
|St Helena and the exaltation of the Holy Cross|
detail from the icon cross in the monastery church
For some idea of what this means we look to the readings from Holy Scripture. Each of the Scripture lessons for Holy Cross Day reflect a similar structure of celebration and resolve, pointing toward the mystery and wonder of Jesus’ death on the cross and our call to follow him. In Isaiah, God’s righteousness ultimately triumphs over all evil and injustice, ushering in a universal acknowledgement of God’s glory. In the light of this promise we recognize the sovereign nature of God. In the letter to the Philippians, Jesus is the ultimate model of self-giving love and humility and now risen and ascended is the one to whom all shall one day bend the knee. In the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks of his cross as his glory, the act that conquers evil, atones for sin, trampling down death by death - and the event and sign that draws all the world to him. But don’t we cover all of this on Good Friday? Why another day, stuck in the middle of September, to recall Christ’s death on the cross?
A bit of background: the official story of the origin of this feast is basically this: in the fourth century, St. Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, who had legalized Christianity, led an expeditionary pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem. While digging through a pile of debris in the area thought to be the original hill of Calvary, they found a cross, which they believed to be the true cross of Jesus. On the site the first version of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built, later to be replaced by the building which now encases what are believed to be the actual places of both Jesus’ crucifixion and, at the other end of the church, his resurrection. The dedication of the first building took place on September 14, 335 and became the date of Holy Cross Day at that time.
Beneath the official story lies a universal story that connects St. Helena, the Collect, and the Scripture lessons to us today. St Helena, even if she was not aware of it at the time, was not principally interested in preserving history, although that is there. She was seeking to encounter the sacred. She was living out an impulse that lives in every human heart to some degree – placed there by God - to meet the divine through the physical world – whether in an object, a place, a building, or something that evokes and recalls an event in a beautiful and inviting way. Because we are physical beings with senses of sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing, we employ all our senses in our search for God and worship of God. The same desire that drew Helena across all those miles of travel has also inspired countless artists and architects to create icons, paintings, stained glass, statues, and buildings that seek to express the divine, to draw the human experience into contact with God. To this day millions of Christians continue to visit holy sites, venerate relics, and use art that recalls these places and events in worship. We are following in St Helena’s footsteps in a quest to find ways to have a point of contact with symbols that point beyond themselves.
We glory in the mystery of our redemption best in space that enhances that intention. In a culture which is more and more addicted to the quick, the disposable, and the shallow, sacred places like this chapel, places adorned with visual reminders of the presence of God, help us to get in touch with the transcendent and ultimate. To be still and quiet, to listen and pray, to hear Scripture and sing – these are the acts that begin to define the Collect’s language of glorying in the mystery of our redemption.
The art in this chapel is here for just that purpose. All of the symbols mean something beyond themselves, point to a reality that invites our participation, our glorying in the mystery. Icons, candles, stained glass, incense, water, an altar, bread and wine - are not decorations for worship that happens within me, they are all involved in the human response to God. Worship is not the escape from the physical signs as if we need to enter some kind of non-material realm in order to engage God. No, worship utilizes our senses to point our attention toward God among and within us.
On this day especially, we are drawn toward the crosses in this chapel. The crucifix evokes the historical event of the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. Nails, the crown of thorns, the very human flesh and bone – an artistic representation of a real man nailed to a real cross. The icon cross behind the altar, written by John Walsted in the early 1970s, is also a scene of Jesus on the cross, but inhabits a different time and space. There is blood flowing from hands and feet, but no nails, no crown of thorns. This Jesus is not so much fastened to the cross as suspended in front of it, echoing it – already risen and ascended. He is very much alive, serene, gazing down on us with compassion.
This style of icon cross is designed specifically to be hung behind an altar because of the obvious Eucharistic symbolism. This is Christ present with us today in His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist. And if you look closely at the scenes surrounding Christ, you will find, in the lower right, good old St Helena and the event of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. So the crosses become a kind of circle, each pointing to the other, each speaking of celebration and resolve rooted in history and living within us and among us now. We need both crosses for the spiritual journey. A faith grounded in revelation – in the life of Christ, in Scripture, in Creed and Council. A faith enlivened and inspired by the glory of the mystery of Christ’s living presence among us. We act out this journey as we move from the liturgy of the word to the liturgy of the Table – hearing the story of Christ and then encountering his living presence.
So as we have heard in prayers and scriptures and seen in the symbols of Christian art and worship, remembering and doing flow into one another. It is in receiving Christ in history and in his Church that we are then fed and inspired to take up our cross and follow him. Living out Christ’s life among and within us, in the shape of the cross, in the shape of continual humility and self-giving love turns us into living Collects and transforms us into signs of celebration and resolve. Amen.