‘Exaltation’ seems like such a strange word to use in reference to the Cross of Christ. Exaltation? Why on earth would we want to exalt an instrument of horror, humiliation, torture and death? What conceivable reason could there be for having a feast day to celebrate the Cross?
The Christians of earlier centuries seemed to have had much the same thought; on the relatively rare occasions when a Cross was depicted in early Christian art, it was the Cross alone, in it’s simplest and plainest form, and certainly never with the figure of Christ upon it. Only much, much later did we begin to depict Christ upon that Cross – and only later still was he shown in His sufferings. Exaltation, then, was clearly not at the fore of the Christian mind when it came to the Cross in the first several centuries of the history of Church.
In the years decades and centuries since then, the mystical perspective of the Church came a little more to the forefront, and a variety of different Saints gave the witness and example of a deep devotion to the Passion of Christ and to His holy Cross; indeed, some of them even bore the very marks of the Cross upon their own bodies.
Today, we will not enter a Catholic Church without seeing a Crucifix – not simply a Cross – displayed with reverence. At the start of Mass, we process to the altar led by a Crucifix. Moments later, we each make the Sign of the Cross upon ourselves, doing this again at the end, before taking the grace of the Mass out into the world with us. And for many of us who profess a Catholic faith, we keep a Crucifix in our homes as a visible reminder of our faith in the One who hung upon that Cross.
We exalt the Cross – and celebrate It’s feast day – precisely because it is the instrument of our redemption. The hymn at Morning Prayer today contains these lines, which express it very simply –
Give glory to the Risen Christ
and to His Cross give praise;
the sign of God’s unfathomed love,
the hope of all our days.
Speaking two years ago about the Cross, Pope Francis reminded us that the Cross does not simply depict an event from some two thousand years ago; rather, that event reverberates throughout all time, in every moment of human history, and in the moments of every human life – especially in those where we find ourselves carrying our own crosses. The Holy Father said –
“Before the image of the crucified God, we will bring in prayer the many, the too many, who are crucified in our time, who can only receive from Him the comfort and the meaning of their suffering. Ever since Jesus took upon Himself the wounds of humanity and death itself, God’s love has irrigated these deserts of ours, He has enlightened our darkness.”
The Cross is the light which shines through the darkness of human suffering, it is the spoken Word of the God who accompanies us most powerfully in those moments, cutting through the silence and isolation of our suffering. It is our strength in our weakness, holding us up and supporting us when nothing else can. It is the Tree of Life which overcomes the deadly fruits of the Tree in the Garden.
The readings at Mass today reminds us of this; from the Book of Numbers, we heard about the bronze serpent on the standard, which Moses raised up before the people in the desert, and through which they were healed – this standard typifies and looks forward to the true Standard, the Cross itself, through which all are offered life. And in the Gospel, from St John, Christ refers back to this occasion with Moses – “the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Speaking a little while ago, the Holy Father had this to say, ending with a question for all of us – “Faith is not spread with worldly power but with the wisdom of the Cross; not with structures but with witness. From the eloquent silence of the Cross, the Lord is today asking you: Do you want to be my witness?”
These, then, are the reasons why we truly exalt the Cross of Christ – through it, through the death of the One whom it bore, we find eternal life. The Cross is the very symbol of all we believe as Christians; but more than just a sign from long ago, it presents to us today the reality it signifies.
Morning Prayer today ends with this prayer – “God our Father, in obedience to Your will, Your only-begotten Son endured the Cross for our salvation. Grant that as we have come to know the mystery of the Cross here on earth, we may receive its rewards in Heaven.”