Friday, May 3, 2013

True Cross

In the contemporary Church calendar, today is kept as the feast of the Apostles Philip and James. Those of us above a certain age, however, can well remember when today was celebrated as the feast of the Finding of the True Cross. The old 2nd Nocturn from the former feast of the Finding of the Cross recounts how St. Helena, Mother of Emperor Constantine, came to Jerusalem to seek the relic of the Cross at the traditional site of Calvary, which the Romans had rededicated to Venus after the defeat of the Jewish rebellion. The old 5th Lesson tells how, after excavations led to three crosses being found, the Bishop applied each of them to a seriously sick woman, who was immediately healed after touching the third cross, thus identified as the True Cross of Christ. The 6th Lesson further describes how, after reserving a relic of the Cross in the Basilica built on the site in Jerusalem, St. Helena sent another part of the Cross to Constantine, who put it in Rome’s Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. The Santa Croce Basilica, on the site of St. Helena's Sessorian Palace is located not far from the Lateran. It contains a rennovated Reliquary Chapel and an interesting Chapel of St. Helena (photo).
The Golden Legend some really imaginative legends identifying the actual wood of the Cross with the actual wood of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Such legends may have been inspired by the more serious connection which classical Christian spirituality suggests between the Tree, which was occasion of Adam's fall, and the Cross, which was the instrument of human salvation. The liturgy itself encourages a kind of parallelism between between Adam's tree and the Cross, itself perhaps inspired by the Pauline parallelism between Adam and Christ. Thus, in the Preface of the Holy Cross (which used to be recited more frequently than it is now), the Church prays: For you placed the salvation of the human race ont he wood of the Cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth, and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered, through Christ our Lord. The Ambrosian liturgy of Milan employs similar imagery, combined with a reference to Moses' staff: Once through the fruit of the forbidden tree, we fell; now through this tree Christ cancels all our guilt. The power of this wood was once foretold in the staff that Moses wonderully uplifted to open a saving passage through the waters and drown the enemy beneath the waves. On the tree of the cross our Redeemer hung, becoming accursed for our sake, to snatch us from the ancient foe and lead us from death's dominion into eternal life. (We Give You Thanks and Praise: The Eucharistic Prefaces of the Ambrosian Missal, tr. Alan Griffiths, 1999).
Admittedly, such highly symbolic language hearkens back to a more imaginative, bygone age. Even so, the realities which such symbolic language is intended to highlight remain at the center of Christian life - in any age.
The Easter season still has lots of lamb imagery. It used to have a lot more Cross imagery than it now does. Not only was there this feast of the Finding of the Cross on May 3 (suprressed since 1961), but there used to be a regular "Suffrage" of the Cross in the Eastertime Office. That  Commemoratio de Cruce explicitly celebrated the link between Christ's Cross and our own resurrection.

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