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Searching for the Holy Cross
A belated sermon for Holy Cross Day
Yesterday was Holy Cross Day, an odd feast day in the Western Church based on some questionable history, and yet a good occassion for reflection. Below is a sermon I preached for a celebration of Holy Cross Day at Christ Chruch in Little Rock, Arkansas back in 2018.
When I was a child I had a small museum in the bedroom I shared with my brother. On the walkway toward our house, there was a hand painted sign directing visitors where to go, and near the entrance to our room I had a “pay what you can” donation jar. My aim was both educational and entrepreneurial.
The museum itself consisted of bookshelves with glass display cases containing a mix of discoveries. There were fossils, both ones I’d found and those I’d purchased in rock shops. I also had arrangements of artifacts from the lives of the people who had proceeded me in that place—a child’s leather shoe cobbled with nails that I’d found in the woods, scrapers and paint stones from the Caddo tribe that had lived among the East Texas pines.
My parents, being generous with their storage, kept most of these items over the years through college and my early adulthood, but recently, now firmly settled with storage of my own, they kindly returned all those boxes they’d been moving around. And as I’ve unpacked them I’ve had both the pleasure of discovering old treasures and the realization of the mistakes of my childhood.
While the boxes contained some really wonderful fossils and artifacts that are now displayed in my living room, many of the boxes also contained items that my childhood imagination had lept to turn into the treasures they were not. An old rusted piece of metal I was sure was a horse bit from the old west, I now saw to be a piece of construction detritus from the 1970s; a fossil I was sure was an ancient plant preserved in limestone I now realized was only an interesting pattern cut by water. What my childhood imagination had made possible, my adult rationality now parsed and dismissed.
Today is Holy Cross Day, a feast on our calendar whose celebration we receive from the attic of our faith. It’s occasion comes to us, not from some great event of the bible or a Cross-patterned martyrdom from the early church, but rather from the discovery of the true cross of Christ. The story goes that St. Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine went to Jerusalem in search of the holy sites of the the bible. It was there that she had a temple to Venus destroyed, and beneath it she discovered the very cross on which Jesus had died. Being a good and loyal son, Constantine built a church over the site of the Jesus’s tomb and had a portion of the cross kept there. That church was dedicated on September 13th with the true cross processed out for all to see on September 14th in year 335. It is that occasion we now celebrate over 1600 years later.
I am a child of the reformation whose founder, Martin Luther, pointed out that there were by his time, 3,000 pieces of the true cross of Christ in Germany alone. Even before liberating the church from the indulgences, he sought to liberate it from its superstition around relics. And I must admit that the story of St. Helen’s discovery, brings forth more than a little of my Reformed skepticism. It doesn’t help that her son Constantine’s embrace of Christianity was done with mixed motivations at best. The blending of Christianity and Empire that he inaugurated has done a great deal of damage to the faith we hold dear.
And yet, as skeptical as I am about the holy sites of Jerusalem and the discovery of the true cross, I understand the desire to lay hold of the real thing; to see and touch and pray before the very instrument of torture where Christ defeated Death. Perhaps St. Helen realized a truth that it is easy for we moderns to miss—that it is imagination that makes whole what facts cannot. It is said that when the cross was discovered a woman was healed by touching it; that is far better proof than any carbon dating.
Still, I’d find it difficult to fulfill my own desire to touch the cross on which Jesus died with such verifications. And so I’m left asking, is it still possible to find the true cross of Christ? Is a fragment of it still here, somewhere among the crumpled newspapers of unpacked boxes?
While the feast of the Holy Cross was long celebrated in the Eastern Church, it did not enter the Western calendar until the 7th century, after the Emperor Heraclius, recovered the cross from the Persians who had taken it from Jerusalem. The story goes that the emperor insisted on returning the cross to Jerusalem himself, but that something stopped him. His feet became leaden, he could not move forward. It was only when he took off his crown, when he stripped himself of all the symbols and finery of his earthly power, that he was able to move forward. He finally arrived in Jerusalem, carrying the cross, dressed in the rags of a barefoot pilgrim. In that journey, I do not know the exact object that Heraclius held in his hands, but whatever it was, I believe he found the true cross of Jesus along the way.
The truth is that the cross of Christ is not to be found in a piece of wood celebrated by emperors and collected by kings, fought over in crusades and covered over in silver. The true cross is discovered when we go down, following the path of humility and humiliation that led to our salvation. As a hymn of the earliest Church bares witness, Jesus is the one who:
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness...
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
We too can find that cross and touch its scarred and sacred wood. We uncover it by following Jesus to live, not among the lofty, but among the lowly, not among the powerful, but among the powerless. We see it when we turn from the selfish desires of our hearts and live instead with compassion and kindness and forgiveness. So on this feast day, let us remember that the cross on which Jesus died has been found and we can see it, touch it, venerate it, not through a pilgrimage of miles, but by following the humble path of love that led Jesus to it first, and all his followers after him, even to this day. Amen.