The Exaltation of the Holy Cross - 14th September 2014

At Masses on Sunday 14th September the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, previously called the Triumph of the Cross, will be celebrated in place of the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time. A feast of the Lord, it celebrates the “lifting up” of the Son of Man on the cross into glory, and the paradox of the cross as a sign of humiliation and death, yet the source of victory and life.

In previous columns I have quoted from the writings of Egeria, the nun who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands between 383 and 384 and whose travel diary tells us so much about the liturgy in Jerusalem at the time. Egeria describes a great feast day in September:
“They call Dedication Day the day on which both the holy church on Golgotha and the church on the site where the Lord rose after his passion were consecrated to God. The dedication of these churches is celebrated with great solemnity, for the cross of the Lord was discovered on that day.”

The two basilicas that Egeria describes were consecrated in 335. The liturgy to which she refers took place on 14 September. It reached its climax with the solemn presentation of the cross for the veneration of the faithful, as is celebrated on Good Friday. The commemoration of the dedication of the two churches took second place to the great solemnity of the exaltation of the cross. The celebration of September 14 spread rapidly, first throughout the east and then in the west.

Devotion to the cross of Christ was in evidence long before this however. Constantine had built a church at Rome dedicated to the cross. According to tradition, Constantine's mother St Helena discovered the cross of Christ during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She brought a piece back to Rome and placed it in the new basilica.

The entrance antiphon for Exaltation of the Holy Cross expresses its focus perfectly: "We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered", as does the Gospel reading for the day: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (John 3:16).

As always, the first reading links with the Gospel. Today it is the story of the episode with the bronze serpent in the desert to which Jesus refers. The epistle reading is the one used also on Passion/Palm Sunday, the classic Hymn to Christ from Paul's letter to the Philippians.

Reflecting on the Collect and Preface of the feast would be a good way to prepare for the celebration.

“O God, who willed that your Only Begotten Son
should undergo the Cross to save the human race,
grant, we pray, that we, who have known his mystery on earth,
may merit the grace of his redemption in heaven.”

“For you placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross,
so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth
and the evil one, who conquered on a tree,
might likewise on a tree be conquered,
through Christ our Lord.

Elizabeth Harrington