The Feast of the Holy Cross

Holy CrossSeptember 14 is the Feast of the Holy Cross. In the Eastern Church it is called the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

The historian Eusebius, in his Life of Constantine, tells how that emperor ordered the erection of a complex of buildings in Jerusalem “on a scale of imperial magnificence,” to set forth as “an object of attraction and veneration to all, the blessed place or our Savior’s resurrection.” The overall supervision of the work – on the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands – was entrusted to Constantine’s mother, the empress Helena. The dedication of the buildings was completed on September 14, 335.

The Prologue of Ohrid says this of the feast:

Two events in connection with the Honorable Cross of Christ are commemorated on this day: first, the finding of the Honorable Cross on Golgotha and second, the return of the Honorable Cross from Persia to Jerusalem. Visiting the Holy Land, the holy Empress Helena decided to find the Honorable Cross of Christ. An old Jewish man named Judah was the only one who knew where the Cross was located, and, constrained by the empress, he revealed that the Cross was buried under the temple of Venus that Emperor Hadrian had built on Golgotha. The empress ordered that this idolatrous temple be razed and, having dug deep below it, found three crosses. While the empress pondered on how to recognize which of these was the Cross of Christ, a funeral procession passed by. Patriarch Macarius told them to place the crosses, one by one, on the dead man. When they placed the first and second cross on the dead man, the dead man lay unchanged. When they placed the third cross on him, the dead man came back to life. By this they knew that this was the Precious and Life-giving Cross of Christ. They then placed the Cross on a sick woman, and she became well. The patriarch elevated the Cross for all the people to see, and the people sang with tears: “Lord, have mercy!” Empress Helena had a silver case made and set the Honorable Cross in it. Later, the Persian Emperor Chozroes conquered Jerusalem, enslaved many people, and took the Lord’s Cross to Persia. The Cross remained in Persia for fourteen years. In the year 628 the Greek Emperor Heraclius defeated Chozroes and, with much ceremony, returned the Cross to Jerusalem. As he entered the city Emperor Heraclius carried the Cross on his back, but suddenly was unable to take another step. Patriarch Zacharias saw an angel preventing the emperor from bearing the Cross on the same path that the Lord had walked barefoot and humiliated. The patriarch communicated this vision to the emperor. The emperor removed his raiment and, in ragged attire and barefoot, took up the Cross, carried it to Golgotha, and placed it in the Church of the Resurrection, to the joy and consolation of the whole Christian world.

———-

Through the incarnation the Son of God took on the fallen nature of humanity. The Son freely accepted for himself the fate of the world in its fallen form. Creation had become trapped within its own boundaries and was bound for dissolution and death. In becoming flesh the Son took on the constraints of flesh including hunger, thirst, pain, tiredness and so suffered until even this life was taken from him. His suffering was real.

Some will say that Christ suffered because he emptied himself of divinity. But his divinity is his personal relationship with the Father. The self-emptying, kenosis, of Christ did not alter the incarnation. He suffered, rather, because he took on human nature and remained obedient to its constraints and limitations. In Christ we have the fullness of God. Nothing of his divinity was lost in the incarnation. He was completely human and completely God. The Son of God was fully involved in the suffering, sorrow, and death as told in the passion narratives. However, God, in his eternal existence, is not bound by the constraints of creaturehood. God is uncreated and thus, free from the limitations experienced by all created things including suffering, sorrow, pain, and death.

Metropolitan John Zizioulas states,

The Church teaches us that all that happened to Christ, including the pain, sorrow and death that he underwent, must be understood as an extreme and incomprehensible act of freedom and love….We stand before the mystery of the incarnation and wonder how God could act in this way to become passive to all that man could inflict on him. We cannot explain how Christ could suffer, but must say that it is the love of God that has brought this about and so we can only express our thanksgiving. (p. 111)

Christ suffers despite his divine nature because he voluntarily decides to do so not because he is compelled to do so. He chose human nature and in so doing he freely chose to love, to suffer and undergo the passion for our sake. This can be explained only in terms of God’s freedom to exercise his power and love in the form of weakness.

Suffering and love intersect in the form of the cross.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer).

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