THE HOLY CROSS
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 13th 2009
Philippians 2: 16 “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth”
So St Paul proclaims that through the Cross of Christ there is a triumph leading to the declaration of Jesus as Lord. And from that passage we get the custom of bowing our head at the name of Jesus.
Today’s readings are those set for Holy Cross day, September 14th – the whole theme is one of the triumph of the Cross. In John 3:13-17 Jesus talks about himself being lifted up on a pole, like that strange bronze serpent recorded in Exodus. When the Jews looked at the bronze serpent they lived, instead of dying from the bite of serpents. Jesus says that just as they were given life by that figure on a pole, so the world receives life through him being on a pole, on Calvary.
This feast-day of the Triumph of the Holy Cross emphasises the victory, the glory, and the triumph of the Cross. It’s an unusual sort of feast. The true day for celebrating the Cross of Christ would have to be Good Friday. That is the day when we particularly focus on the suffering of Christ on the Cross. The hymns on Good Friday and those marvelous cantatas speak to us of the suffering of Christ.
In fact the liturgy set for Good Friday here does set forth the victory of the Cross – but Good Friday is surrounded by the suffering and passion of Christ, that a sense of triumph is hard to discern. Indeed on Good Friday the sanctuary and altar are stripped of all their ornaments, and it is not so long ago that black vestments were worn.
On Good Friday the world mourns the death of its Saviour – and his victory and triumph do seem far away. That is natural when our Saviour is fully human, so much so that he actually suffers and dies just like any of us. Who among us can not identify with the words of Faber’s hymn: “O come and mourn with me awhile….Jesus our Lord is crucified. Have we no tears to shed for him? Jesus our Lord is crucified“?
It is the same with Maundy Thursday. The wonderful occasion of the first Eucharist is over-shadowed by the impending passion, betrayal and death of Jesus. Thus it was that the feast of Corpus Christi was inaugurated just after Trinity Sunday so that Christians might celebrate the gift of Holy Communion with joy and gladness after the great celebration of Easter.
In the same way, Holy Cross day gives an opportunity for the faithful to celebrate the glory of Christ’s victory on the Cross. That being the case – why not celebrate it on the Friday after Corpus Christi? That would seem logical.
There is a wonderful reason why Holy Cross day is celebrated on September 14th. Its history has a background we do well to ponder. It goes back to the 4th century. In 326 AD, St Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her aim was to discover where Calvary had been.
The Roman city that replaced Jerusalem had extended its walls to include the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. But in the time of the persecutions the site had been defiled and ordered to be covered with rubbish as a sign of sacrilege.
As St Helena supervised the excavations there was a great excitement when they discovered what turned out to be the remains of the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. One can imagine the joy of those Christians so long ago at the time when Christianity and the Church were just emerging from 300 years of persecution!
Following Emperor Constantine’s decision that Christianity no longer be outlawed – his mother, St Helena, convinced him to erect three great basilicas: one in Constantinople, one in Bethlehem (on the site of the Nativity), and one in Jerusalem (on the site of the excavations). In 335 the great Church of the resurrection was dedicated composing within it the sites of Calvary and the empty tomb.
That Church still exists – though just a shadow of its former glory. It is, of course, still a centre of pilgrimage by Christians. The consecration of the Church was a two day event. September 13th was the actual day chosen because in the Jewish calendar that year it was the date of the dedication of Solomon’s temple. The symbolism was obvious. A new temple for Christ had replaced the temple of the old covenant.
The next day, September 14th, the true Cross was brought outside the Church so all could worship and venerate it. That first veneration of the Cross it repeated every Good Friday in Christian churches throughout the world – wherever the traditional liturgy of that special day is celebrated.
Now we could be sceptical about those events over 1700 years ago – after all there are splinters of the true Cross all over the world, one is even found in Walsingham! However, by God’s grace that discovery was both significant and timely.
In the 4th century there was a heresy rampant in the church called Gnosticism. You may be familiar with the word. Gnosticism was an appealing heresy – it said that Jesus was more divine than human. He only appeared to be human. He was really God disguised as a man. This made him out of touch with the human race. In Gnostic teaching in order to have a touch of this demi-god the mystery had to be revealed through special teachers, secret ceremonies, and special knowledge.
Sounds familiar? Doesn’t it! Think of the new age bookshops and various cults ranging from scientology to Mormons to Shirley Maclean.
Most of all you got to heaven through your own efforts. You were not saved by Christ’s death on the Cross.
So when St Helena found the Cross in 4th Century it proved that Jesus really did die on the Cross. It wasn’t just a symbol or a story. And on September 14th, 335, they proclaimed with great ceremony that it is in the Cross of Christ we glory – and through him we are saved and made free.
Jesus had already said this. In John 3:13 he refers to that mysterious event when Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on a pole – and through it the people were saved from death. In the same way he will be raised on a pole – the Cross of Calvary. And through him we will be saved from death and hell.
This is a mystery that can only be understood in faith – just as the people of Israel had to have faith that God would heal them when they looked at the serpent. Sadly the centrality of the Cross and our need for a Saviour are overlooked in our modern, politicised church. The way people behave in worship or speak of our Blessed Lord often reveals a lake of understanding of who Jesus is and what he did.
Saint Paul tried to explain it in Phillipians 2: 6-11. He says that though Jesus was an equal member of the Trinity who always existed, yet for our sake he became like us. “Emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”, St Paul says, deliberately hiding his glory and divinity.
We’ve seen it when Jesus healed people and asked them not to talk about it. But St Paul says Jesus went one step further: “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death – even death on a Cross”. Yes, he the eternal one and Lord of life, willingly submitted to death – for the salvation of the world.
St Paul now finishes with a flourish: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow”. Yes Jesus is our Lord!
Holy Cross Day proclaims this…
Through his Cross and resurrection we receive life. Though it we triumph with him!