14 September, Tuesday — An Act of Faith

Sep 14 – Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

The feast was celebrated in Rome before the end of the 7th century. Its purpose is to commemorate the recovering of that portion of the Holy Cross which was preserved at Jerusalem, and which had fallen into the hands of the Persians. Emperor Heraclius recovered this precious relic and brought it back to Jerusalem on 3 May 629.

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Num 21:4-9

Jn 3:13-17

So Moses fashioned a bronze serpent which he put on a standard, and if anyone was bitten by a serpent, he looked at the bronze serpent an lived.

The Exaltation of the Cross. Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Triumph of the Cross. Feast of the Holy Cross. Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life Creating Cross. There are so many names for today’s feast. Other than the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Orthodox Churches also observe this feast day. Looking at the various names given to this feast day, it appears that this day celebrates a victory of some sort. The Byzantine Church’s rather long and specific name is the one that resonated with me. This Cross is not just a Cross – it is Life Creating. What a contradiction this is, for an instrument of torture and death to become an instrument of Life. Before I go into this, I will need to delve into some history (but only a rough summary because I am very bad at history and the records happen to be very hazy on this one).

The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross usually also commemorates the Finding of the True Cross by St Helena. Roman Emperor Hadrian, in a bid to eradicate Judaism and Christianity, had most holy sites demolished and had pagan temples built atop them. One of these sites was Mount Calvary. When Emperor Constantine came to power a couple of hundred years later, he legalised Christianity and bade his mother, St Helena, to embark on a pilgrimage across Palestine to search for, and restore the sacred sites destroyed by Hadrian. In the year 326 AD, the temple of Venus was demolished and 3 crosses were discovered nearby during excavation works. With these crosses was a wooden plaque inscribed with “Iesus Nazaranus Rex Iudaeorum” – yes, THAT inscription. But which of the 3 crosses was the True Cross? Legend has it that a woman with a terminal illness was brought to the crosses.  When she touched the first 2, nothing. When she touched the last cross, she was healed, and this identified the Cross from which our Saviour hung. Other accounts added that the instruments of the Passion were later found in the vicinity. Fast forward 300 years to 614 AD, and the Persians took the True Cross by force after the sack of Jerusalem. In 628 AD, Emperor Heraclius effected a treaty with the Persians that included the return of the True Cross. Heraclius then proceeded to process through Mesopotamia, Armenia, Palestine, all the way back to Jerusalem with the True Cross, finally restoring it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 630 AD. 

Since then, the True Cross had been stolen or hidden away during various times of tumult and war, and was notably lost for good in 1187, when the crusaders lost their battle against Saladin. However, there was a large fragment of the True Cross preserved in Constantinople. This piece was shared between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Venetians. Further dispersal of the fragments of the True Cross then continued across Europe. St Louis obtained 2 pieces, as well as other relics, which were brought to France where they eventually met with the French Revolution and, predictably, disappeared. Only very few fragments and a Holy Nail were left, and these were kept at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris — yes, the one that burned down, and yes, the relics are safe. Other fragments sold and traded throughout Europe now are preserved in Greece (Mount Athos Monastery), Rome, Brussels, Venice, Ghent, and Paris. Legend also says that there is a small True Cross relic installed in several Catholic churches around the world. Perhaps we will find one fragment in the Church of the Holy Cross?

Phew. So that is the summary of 2000 years of pursuit of the True Cross by those who desired its heavenly powers, as well as by those who desired its earthly powers. And why exactly is there such a religious devotion to a brutal and gory instrument of execution? In the first reading, we see God’s punishment on the Israelites for complaining — snake bites, no less. Then God tells Moses to fashion a bronze serpent on a standard, that the people have to look upon, in order to be healed. This is a truly bizarre passage full of disproportionate punishment and possible idolatry! Or perhaps not. In the gospel, Jesus’ crucifixion is mirrored with the raising of the bronze serpent. The Crucifixion, very simply, is a symbol of Life, Life despite Death. When we behold Christ on the Cross, we are also proclaiming our belief in His triumph over sin and death, and the new life that has been given to us. So perhaps the bronze serpent was a foretelling of the act of Faith on our part to gaze upon the One who is to give us life. 

What does the Cross mean? It means both death and life. The Cross, like the deadly serpent, cannot be separated from the pain, cruelty, venom, and the death it brings. But it now also symbolises Life. Yes, it is contradictory — such a cruel and evil method of execution is now transformed into a sign of immense love that gives eternal Life. As St Paul explained to the Philippians, for the son of God to humble Himself, to descend, to lower Himself, to be tortured and executed in a most degrading manner, He was lifted high, so that every tongue acknowledges Him as Lord. Things have been flipped on their heads. 

Then, what does exaltation mean? It means an Act of Faith. An act of looking upon, and venerating the Cross that meant we are saved. Just as looking at the bronze serpent saved the Israelites, looking at the Cross saved us, and continues to save us. It is looking upon specifically on the Cross itself, a thing of abject horror, which by God’s love and ultimate sacrifice became a thing of absolute beauty. To exalt this particular cross (and we only venerate the Cross of Christ) means we believe in the Love of God, we believe in His most Holy Sacrifice, we believe that we will be healed and saved through Jesus, we believe in the eternal Life that is to come after our death.

As Christians, we strive to live a life of faith. We struggle when we feel like we have lost our faith, and this can happen quite often. Sometimes, we go through life and go through the motions without deferring to faith at all. Faith is a gift from God; it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. In the times when we struggle, it may be helpful to gaze upon the cross. Use it to centre our thoughts as we reflect on what we truly believe in. The Cross embodies God’s love for us, and that is essentially the most important thing we need to understand as we find the faith in ourselves again. 

(Today’s OXYGEN by Felicia Zou)

Prayer: Father God, teach us to seek you in all that we do. May we always remember that You are the centre of our lives, and that all that we do should be a testimony of Your dwelling in us.

Thanksgiving: Thank you Father, for always loving and being there for us. Send your Holy Spirit to guide us in our journey. 

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