Friday, September 14, 2018

Faithful Cross

Tradition credits Constantine's mother Saint Helena with the discovery of the buried cross of Jesus during the second quarter of the 4th century in Jerusalem. Immediately this relic became the object of tender devotion and lavish ritual. The pilgrim nun Egeria has left us a vivid account of the ritual for exposition and the procession to venerate the cross on Good Friday in Jerusalem. The true cross became a nexus of holiness, sacred presence and healing. Egeria even writes of one overzealous devotee caught biting off a chunk of the cross during the Good Friday Liturgy.

The Fathers of the Church loved to find in every reference to wood or tree, staff, rod or ark in the Hebrew Scriptures a type of the cross of Christ. Cyril of Jerusalem declares, "Life ever comes from wood!" Paulinus of Nola chants to the cross, "You have become for us a ladder for us to mount to heaven." And in an anonymous Easter homily inspired by Hippolytus, the tree of the cross reverses the destruction wrought by the tree of Eden: “For me this tree is a plant of eternal health. I feed on it; by its roots I am rooted; by its branches I spread myself; I rejoice in its dew; the rustling of its leaves invigorates me...I freely enjoy its fruits which were destined for me from the beginning. It is my food when I am hungry, a fountain for me when I am thirsty; it is my clothing because its leaves are the spirit of life.” Pascha IV

The poetic intuition of the Fathers found beautiful expression in the splendid processional hymns of Venantius Fortunatus. The Pange Lingua written to celebrate the reception of relics of the true cross by Queen Radengunde at Poitiers in 569 addresses the cross directly:

Faithful cross, O Tree all beauteous
Tree all peerless and divine!
Not a grove on earth can show us
Such a leaf and flower as thine.

The lovely Vexilla Regis hails the cross as a triumphant emblem of victory:

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow,
Where he as man who gave us breath,
Now bows beneath the yoke of death.

On this Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, we rejoice for the cross is the place where Jesus gave himself completely to us, there he shed his precious blood to free us from the inevitably of unending death.