September 14th marks the Church’s celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a liturgical feast reflecting the redemptive power of the Cross and the mysterious “joy of the Cross” which lies at the heart of the Christian life. For our community of sisters, the day also honors the Cross of Matará (from which we take our name as Servants of “the Lord and the Virgin” carved on the Cross “of Matará“) as well as the vocation we have received to be like the holy women who stood at the foot of the Cross and had served the needs of Christ during His apostolic journeys, the first “Servants”.
History of the Feast and Liturgical Readings
This Sunday in parishes around the world the whole Church will celebrate this ancient feast which has its origins in Jerusalem during the fourth century in association with the True Cross and the dedication of the basilica over Golgotha. In the West, Pope Sergius (687-701) expanded the tradition of presenting fragments of the wood of the Cross to the people for veneration on September 14th when he “transferred another fragment of the cross from the Vatican to the Lateran: ‘From that time on,’ says the Liber Pontificalis, ‘it was kissed and venerated by all the Christian people on the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.'” (Martimort, A.G. The Liturgy and Time, Vol. IV of The Church at Prayer (1983, trans. 1986), p. 99)
The feast continued to spread throughout the seventh and eighth centuries as more depictions of the cross, especially the crux gemmata (“jewelled cross”), prepared the way for Christian art to depict crosses with Christ’s body.
Beautiful hymns to the Cross were composed in Latin by Venatius Fortunatus in the late sixth century including Pange Lingua (“Sing, my tongue” — not to be mistaken with St. Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic hymn composed in the 13th century with the same opening line), Vexilla regis (“The banners of the king”), and the stanza O Crux ave (“O Cross of Christ”), which was added to it in the tenth century. (ibid. Martimort, p. 100)
The readings for the liturgy highlight the triumph of Christ’s redemptive mission on the Cross “when he is lifted up”: Numbers (21:4b-9); Psalm 71 “Do not forget the works of the Lord”; Philippians 2:6-11 (“Hymn to the Philippians”); and Gospel of John 3:13-17. We are invited to gaze upon the Cross with wonderment at a God-made-man who has chosen to show His love and His power through obedience and self-sacrifice. The Office of Readings brings together Galatians 2 in which Paul “boasts in nothing but in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” and a discourse of St. Andrew of Crete (d. 740) in which he draws out the honor of the Cross itself as the instrument of Christ’s victory and thus worthy of our praise.
In our Spirituality: Wisdom of the Cross, Love of the Cross, and Joy of the Cross
In #42 of our Constitutions, we read: “In a special way, the Paschal mystery of our Lord is an inexhaustible source of spirituality. His Passion, Death, descent into hell and Resurrection must always illuminate our lives. We must be experts in the wisdom of the cross, in the love of the cross, and in the joy of the cross.”
Our Directory of Spirituality #137 draws from the great saints in understanding how to love the Cross. Citing St. Paul of the Cross, Letters, 52 we hold that “Everything is in the Passion. It is there where one learns the knowledge of the saints.” So too we hold that the Cross “was the pulpit of the Preacher, the altar of the Sacrificing Priest, the arena of the Combatant, the workshop of the Wonder-worker.” (Saint Robert Bellarmine, Book of the Seven Words, Preamble)
St. John Paul II and Saint Leo the Great illuminate #143 of our Directory of Spirituality which reads:
“There is no school greater than the Cross, in which Jesus Christ teaches his disciples how they should be: the cross is “for us the supreme Pulpit of the truth of God and of man.” (John Paul II, Meeting with Youth, April 6, 1979) That is why “in the school brought forth from the Incarnate Word we understand that it is divine wisdom to accept his Cross with love: the cross of humility of the reason in face of the mystery; the cross of the will in the faithful fulfillment of all moral, natural, and revealed law; the cross of one’s own duty, arduous and not so gratifying at times; the cross of patience in illness and in every day difficulties; the cross of the tireless zeal to respond to our own vocation; and the cross of the struggle against the passions and the attacks of evil.” (John Paul II, Homily in Saint Thomas Parish, at Castel Gandolfo, September 15, 1991) The cross is the Pulpit because in “it the glory of the Love disposed to all has been revealed.” (John Paul II, Homily during the Eucharistic Celebration in the Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi, December 3, 1982) The Cross is the only way of life, the sign of the predestined, the scepter of the kingdom of holiness and “the fountain of all blessings, it is the cause of all graces; through it, those who believe receive strength instead of weakness, glory instead of shame, life instead of death.” (Saint Leo the Great, Sermon on the Passion of the Lord, 6, 8)”
For us as missionaries, we often encounter and choose to embrace the “folly of the Cross” when we go to distant lands, hidden posts, poor or dangerous neighborhoods. We want to look to the Cross with love and trust when we undertake difficult projects with few resources or establish missions for the New Evangelization in highly secularized cultures.
Our Directory of Spirituality explains in #180 that “this folly consists in living the “more” and the “above”: where all equilibrium, all calculation, all tit-for-tat ceases. This folly begins when there is no longer counting, calculating, weighing, nor measuring. Do you only love the one who loves you? Do you only give to the one who can return it to you? Do you only do favors to those who thank you? How great is all that? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Mt 5:47).”
Ultimately this is the call of all Christians who conform their lives to Christ according to the vocation they have received. It is actually simple. “The folly of the Cross consists in living the beatitudes. Blessed be the fools for Christ!” (#181 of the Directory of Spirituality) May you all experience a joyful feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross!
from left to right: a sister in Guyana (South America), the community of the Catholic faithful in Aleppo (Syria), and Saint Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962) who chose a lesser treatment for a life-threatening fibroma on her uterus in order to save her unborn child; she died of septic peritonitis days after the delivery by Cesarean section.