The Triumph of the Cross

The Triumph of The Cross

At Masses today we celebrate the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross which falls on14 September. Because it is a feast of the Lord, it outranks a Sunday of Ordinary Time.

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. The liturgy 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, although it was not known in the Latin liturgy before the seventh century.

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.

In the year 514, the Persians destroyed Jerusalem and carried off the relic of the cross. The recovery of the precious relic nearly 100 years later by the emperor Heraclius was commemorated in a feast called the 'Invention (Discovery) of the Cross' celebrated on 3 May. Both dates remained in the Roman calendar until 1960 when the feast of May 3 was suppressed. The revised Roman calendar restored primacy to the feast of the Triumph of the Cross by giving it the rank of solemnity.

A vast array of scriptural readings was associated with the two traditional celebrations of the cross of Christ. From these, the Lectionary published after Vatican II chose the Gospel passage which expresses most clearly the theme of the feast: "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.

The entrance antiphon for the feast expresses its focus perfectly: "We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection: through him we are saved and made free".


Elizabeth Harrington