Homily on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Fest of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
14 September 2023
Arbor decora et fulgida,
ornata Regis purpura,
electa digno stipite
tam sancta membra tangere.
What Cicero defined as “the most terrible and most infamous torture,” the punishment reserved for slaves and which the Romans looked upon with horror, has become a reason for glory for Christians: Mihi autem absit gloriari, nisi in cruce Domini nostri Jesu Christi: per quem mihi mundus crucifixus est, et ego mundo – But may I never boast except in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ: through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:14), exclaims Saint Paul. The Introit of today’s Mass reminds us that in the Cross resides our salvation, our life, the Resurrection, and that through it we have been saved and set free.
Ever since the year 335 of the Christian era, the Church has solemnly celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross – which in ancient times was equal in dignity to Easter and Epiphany – when the Sacred Wood was found by the Empress Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine. The feast of ὕψωσις, the Exaltation of the Cross, was adopted by Emperor Heraclius in 612, but two years later the Persians sacked Constantinople by fire and sword, and their king Khosrau II seized the Cross and made a faldstool out of its wood as a sign of contempt. In 628 Heraclius, victorious over the Persians, brought back the Holy Cross, first to Constantinople and then to Jerusalem.
The texts of the liturgy still echo the penitential character and the sadness of the moment in which the Byzantine Empire, troubled by the war against the Persians, saw the Holy Cross, which until then had been carried at the head of the Christian army, stolen and profaned. Today we too find ourselves troubled by these twofold sentiments: on the one hand, joy at the triumph of Christ’s Cross; on the other, sorrow over the state of nations and of the Church herself. We too see new Khosraus desecrating the symbol of Redemption: those who are invading civil society and the ecclesial body. And what pains us most is to witness this impious desecration accompanied by the silence or even the complicity of the Hierarchy of the Church, which is subservient to the enemy and traitor of Christ.
Satan’s hatred against Our Lord is unleashed precisely against the Holy Cross because, as Saint Anselm writes, “Hell has been stripped through You; it has been closed for all those who have been redeemed in You. Through You, demons are terrified, constricted, vanquished, and crushed. Through you the world is renewed and embellished by virtue of the Truth that shines and the Justice that reigns in Him. Through You sinful human nature has been justified: it was condemned and has been saved; it was a slave to sin and hell and has been set free; it was dead and has been resurrected. Through you the blessed heavenly City is restored and perfected. Through you, God, the Son of God, willed for our sake to obey the Father unto death (Phil 2:8-9). For this reason He, lifted up from the earth, received a name that is above all names. Through you He has prepared His throne (Ps 9:8) and restored His Kingdom.”
But this infernal hatred can do nothing against the Cross of Christ: the present tribulations – to which we are all subjected in order to merit Heaven by following the Divine Master on the way to Calvary – will end, just as the violence and profanations of Khosrau and of all the tyrants hurled from Hell against the Church and Christian society have all ended.
On the base of the Vatican Obelisk, on top of which are placed the Relics of the True Cross, is the inscription: Ecce Crux Domini: fugite partes adversæ. Vicit Leo de tribu Juda. Behold the Cross of the Lord: begone all evil powers. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered. And also: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat, Christus ab omni malo plebem suam defendat. Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules, may Christ defend his people from all evil. Victory and defeat, triumph and gallows, life and death: these are the apparent contradictions that accompany our earthly life.
There are various victories: of our soul over temptations; of Christian civilization over the impious and pagan world; of the Holy Church Militant over its internal and external enemies. There are silent triumphs of Grace, which is poured out upon souls, gushing from the open side of the Crucified Savior. It is the Lord of Life who, suffering the unspeakable torments of the Passion, nails the ancient Serpent to this blessed Wood, so that the tree that marked our damnation by Adam’s disobedience at the dawn of human history is supplanted by the Salvific Tree of the Cross, by the obedience of the new Adam, and by the mediation of the new Eve, Mary Most Holy.
John Chrysostom wrote: “Kings take off their diadem and take up the Cross, the symbol of the Death of their Savior; on their purple robes: the Cross; in their prayers: the Cross; on the sacred altar: the Cross; throughout the universe: the Cross. The Cross shines brighter than the sun.” Let us therefore prostrate ourselves before this Wood and repeat in unison with the words of the hymn: O Crux ave, Spes unica! It will be this Most Holy Cross that we will kiss in the agony of death; it will be this Cross that we will see appear glorious at the end of time, when all things will be made new in Christ. And so may it be.
+ Carlo Maria Viganò, Archbishop