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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Late entry--Feast of the Holy Cross

I didn't manage to get a post in yesterday, but it was the Feast of the Holy Cross. This is one of those feasts that commemorates an important element of the Christian Faith but is not part of the regular yearly cycles. For those readers (assuming I have any readers so far!) who are not familiar with the traditional Christian liturgical year, there are basically two cycles--one of them based on the celebration of Easter in spring, preceded by the forty days of Lenten fasting and followed by the fifty days of celebration; and the other based on the celebration of the birth of Christ on Dec. 25 and following the events of Christ's life (and, in those traditions not pared down by the Reformation, the life of the Virgin Mary) throughout the year. So we get the feast of the Circumcision of Christ (or the Holy Name of Jesus, or the Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin) on Jan. 1, the Epiphany (commemorating the Visit of the Magi) on Jan. 6, the Baptism of Christ the next Sunday (or, in the Eastern tradition, on Epiphany itself), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on Feb. 2 (forty days after Christmas), the Annunciation on March 25 (nine months before Christmas), and so on.

Obviously, in this system the commemoration of Jesus' crucifixion comes on Good Friday (and to some extent on Palm Sunday). So why do we have another feast in September to celebrate the Holy Cross? Actually, the story of this feast begins in the reign of Constantine, when Christianity had been made a legal religion of the Roman Empire (not yet the one official religion, though it was heavily favored), and new churches were going up everywhere, sponsored by Constantine and his pious mother Helena. Helena took a particular interest in the (supposed) site of Jesus' crucifixion, where she built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the process, she discovered what was believed to be the Cross itself on which Jesus was crucified. (According to the legend, three crosses were discovered, and the one that had healing properties was recognized as the True Cross.)

As a matter of fact, though, this feast does not only commemorate the finding of the Cross in 326. There is in fact another traditional feast of the Invention (i.e., finding) of the Cross on May 3, although this is no longer widely celebrated. The date of Sept. 14 actually derives from the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335, but the celebration of this feast became popular largely because of an incident in the history of the Byzantine Empire (i.e., the Eastern Roman Empire) three centuries after Constantine. In the reign of the emperor Heraclius, the Persians invaded the Empire, captured Jerusalem, and carried off the relics of the Cross as a trophy. In 626, Heraclius managed to defeat the Persians and recover the Cross, which was then solemnly "elevated"--that is to say, displayed publicly in Jerusalem for the people to venerate.

So what does this feast mean for us, in a world where most of us are rather suspicious of Constantine and the legal establishment of Christianity? Why are we celebrating this ancient notion of the Triumph of the Cross--the pomp and ceremony of Imperial Rome mustered to celebrate the torture and death of a Galilean peasant? Isn't this ironic and even hypocritical? Furthermore, both the story of the finding of the Cross and the historical incident of its recovery by Heraclius are marred by anti-Jewish violence. According to the legend, Helena imprisoned all the learned Jews of Jerusalem and coerced them into helping her find the cross. One of them agreed to cooperate, and eventually converted to Christianity as a result. In the reign of Heraclius, the Jews had sided with the Persian invaders, and in retaliation Heraclius tried to force all the Jews in the empire to become Christians. (This of course failed, and it was more or less an anomaly in the history of Christian treatment of Jews, sorry as that history is.) So aren't we simply perpetuating the legacy of Christian intolerance and triumphalism by celebrating the Exaltation of the Cross?

No, I don't think so. However we have distorted the meaning of the Cross, it remains at the heart of what we believe as Christians. And although we have succeeded in perverting the Cross into a symbol of our desire to rule and dominate, its presence at the center of our faith remains a witness against that perversion. There is always an intrinsic conflict between the symbol itself and the way we have used it. The Triumph of the Cross does not mean that the Cross becomes a golden trophy of empire. The Cross (however much we may try to hide the fact) always remains a bloody symbol of torture, a reminder that the Kingdom of Christ is never the same thing as the empire of the world. To follow Christ is to give up the desire to dominate and coerce. Reigning with Christ means reigning, like Christ, from the tree of the Cross. It means identifying ourselves always with the victims, with the sufferers of the world, never with the conquerors.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
Because by your Cross you have redeemed the world.

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