The Week in the Shadow of the Exalted Cross
By Jennifer Gregory Miller ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 12, 2021 | In The Liturgical Year
From the 2014 Archives. Although the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross does not fall on Sunday, everything else is relevant. The September Ember Days for 2021 begin on September 22.
Beginning with Sunday, this week unfolds a mosaic of feast days that all relate to the cross of Christ and refer back to Sunday’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Sunday, or the “Lord’s day” is the “primordial feast” and “basis and center of the liturgical year” (as quoted in the Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy, 95). The Liturgy of Sunday, including the prayers and readings, lays the framework or theme for the whole week. Sundays take precedence throughout the year except in the liturgical seasons of Ordinary Time and Christmas, where the solemnities and feasts of Our Lord are celebrated when they fall on Sunday (see General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar). This Sunday is an example of that exception, as we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Even though the Sunday’s readings break from the cycle of readings for the weeks in Ordinary Time, this feast day still lays a theme or framework for this 24th Week in Ordinary Time. I’m sharing a a few thoughts about this week’s feasts and how they reflect this feast of the Holy Cross.
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
There is a bit of confusion regarding the origin of this feast. On September 14, 320, St. Helena discovered the true Cross in Jerusalem. On September 13, 335 two churches were consecrated on Golgotha in Jerusalem, solemnly exposing the cross for veneration the following day. These events began an annual commemoration, and in certain churches in Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome, a major relic of the true Cross was displayed in a solemn ceremony know as Exaltatio (Lifting Up).
By the eighth century there was a feast established on May 3 to commemorate the rescue by the Emperor Heraclius of the relic of the Cross from the Persians in 628. Here is where the historical confusion lies: May 3 became the “Discovery of the Holy Cross” and September 13 was called “Exaltation of the Holy Cross,” both feasts switching the actual historical events on the dates. Benedict XIV in 1741 tried to eliminate this duplication, and John XIII removed the May 3 feast in 1960 (cf. Adam, The Liturgical Year, pp. 181-182).
Our current General Roman Calendar celebrates the one feast day on September 14, the date of St. Helena’s discovering the true Cross. The Roman Missal of 1973 had this feast titled as “Triumph of the Cross” but the Third Form of the Roman Missal now has restored it to its original title, “Exaltation of the Holy Cross.”
The vestment color is red, and so much of the liturgy reminds us of Good Friday, but not the solemn sober mood. On Good Friday we were entering into the Passion and Death of Christ and awaiting the resurrection. At this liturgical season we are now celebrating the triumph of the redemption of the cross and the resurrection.
It is not used today, but I always think of this passage for this feast day on the paradox of the cross:
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside.” Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Legends and Traditions of the Cross
In many of the artistic depictions of the cross there is a skull at the foot of the cross. Sometimes the cross looks like it is on top of a cave. We know from the Gospels that Jesus was crucified on Golgotha, which means “skull.” In the Jewish tradition, the name came from the tradition that Adam was buried here, brought to Jerusalem by Shem, Noah’s son, and the place guarded by Melchizedek, priest of Salem. It is said that Jesus was crucified right on top of the sepulchre or cave where Adam was buried with the blood from Christ flowing down over Adam’s skull and bones. In the present day the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a chapel of Adam one floor below the altar of the crucifixion.
This image helps us remember that through the first man, Adam, came death and original sin. Christ is the New Adam, who destroyed death and sin. “Christ has risen from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also comes resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made to live (1 Cor. 15, 20-22).
The herb sweet basil is said to have been growing over the hillside where St. Helena found the true Cross. In the Eastern Orthodox churches a display is arranged with a cross on a bed of of basil or flowers. And this legend links the tradition of decorating and cooking with basil on this feast.
And the Church provides yet another agrarian blessing for this feast day. The Roman Ritual includes a Blessing of Crosses to be planted in Fields, Vineyards, Gardens, etc. This was originally intended to be part of the Holy Cross feast on May 3, which was removed from the calendar. For personal use this blessing could be used on the feast today.
Our Lady of Sorrows
This feast of our Lady concludes Our Lady’s Thirty Days. Beginning with the Assumption, there have been five Marian feasts in the span of thirty days:
- August 15, Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- August 22, Queenship of Mary
- September 8, Nativity of Mary
- September 12, Most Holy Name of Mary
- September 15, Our Lady of Sorrows
which gave us much time for deepening our contemplation and devotion to Mary. Today we focus on Our Lady’s Seven Sorrows, her role as Co-Redemptrix, and our consolation through our own sorrows in this “vale of tears.”
Honoring the Mother of Sorrows (Mater Dolorosa) became widespread in the Middle Ages, but there has been confusion because there were two feasts for one devotion. There was a “Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary” the Friday before Palm Sunday created for the universal calendar in 1741. A parallel feast with the same name was started by the Order of Servites was fixed on the third Sunday of September. It was extended to the entire Church by 1814, and then in 1913 the feast was transferred to September 15, the octave day of the Birth of Mary and the day after the Exaltation of the Cross. The current calendar combines both feasts to September 15, and is now called the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Unique to this feast day is the optional sequence Stabat Mater (At the Cross Her Station Keeping), one of very few remaining sequences in our Liturgy. Outside of Mass, we usually know this from the Stations of the Cross, where a stanza is usually sung between each Station. Since the sequence has 20 stanzas, it is rare to hear the last few stanzas at the Stations.
Mary at the foot of the Cross is one of the main focal points of today. She was so closely united with her Son that she felt the enormity of His sufferings. She felt the weight and the depths of the affects of sin. It hurts more when we love more, and Mary was in perfect alignment with God’s Will and love of her Son. Her sufferings were tremendously deep.
There are so many depictions of Mary as Mater Dolorosa. I identify more with the masterpieces such as this one by Hans Memling that show her “pondering in her heart.” Modern depictions or descriptions of Mary in sorrow almost to despair are inaccurate and misleading. Mary truly felt pain and sorrow to the depths of her being. No human being has ever felt so much sorrow. And yet, it never was to the point of despair. Never would she have tried to prevent Christ from suffering and fulfilling His Mission.
And the nearer we are to Christ, our sorrow turns to joy. Joy isn’t necessarily outward exuberance, but the peace and steadiness and happiness in one’s soul that cannot be shaken no matter how hard the sufferings may be. And this inner joy and peace was Our Holy Mother’s example. I don’t think she was stoic; I do believe Mary wept, just as her Son did on certain occasions. She did show emotions, but she did not complain. And most importantly she did not despair or question why.
We recently celebrated the feasts of Saints Monica and Augustine. We can see St. Monica’s imitation of Our Lady of Sorrow; Monica bore so much sorrow for her husband and her son, and yet never stopped praying and having hope.
There is no denying that the crosses we are given are very difficult. We see Our Lady’s example to lovingly embrace our crosses and turn to Jesus who will carry the load for us. He will transform our crosses to joy.
The Saints Following the Cross
The rest of the week are memorials and optional memorials of saints who all but one suffered martyrdom. Their lives were examples of daily accepting the cross of Christ through little ways, but through these little ways were able to embrace the cross of martyrdom, in imitation of Jesus “who gave his life for his friends.”
Memorial of Sts. Cornelius, pope and martyr and Cyprian, bishop and martyr September 16: This bishop and pope were close friends and became martyrs of the 3rd century. Both were imitating the Good Shepherd and embracing the cross of Christ by laying down their lives for their own flock. Both of these saints are included in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) of the Mass. The writings of St. Cyprian, a Father of the Church, are included in Catholic Culture’s Church Father’s collection.
Optional Memorial of Robert Bellarmine, bishop and doctor, September 17: St. Robert was a bishop during the time of the lavish European Renaissance, but he chose to imitate Christ and embrace the cross of poverty. He died on the feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis, September 17 (this is not on the current universal calendar), which gives another connection to the cross of Christ.
Optional Memorial of St. Januarius, bishop & martyr, September 19: Here is another bishop who laid down his life for his sheep in 305. He is the patron saint of Naples, and vials of his blood liquifies three times a year, including his feast day.
Memorial of St. Andrew Kim, priest and martyr, St. Paul Chong, martyr, and Companions, martyrs, September 20: These martyrs died in 1839 and canonized by St. John Paul II in 1984 (Read the Stories of the Korean Martyrs.) It is through the blood of the martyrs, who chose to imitate Jesus in giving his life, that the Church continues to grow and survive. With these Korean martyrs we are reminded that the cross is not just for priests and religious but for all, that includes the laity. As St. John Paul II spoke at their canonization:
“The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by lay people. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians in the Church of silence in the north of this tragically divided land.”
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross reminds us that the Cross of Christ is pivotal to our faith, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18). The whole Liturgical Calendar provides examples of those who followed Christ: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), but this week provides us particular examples of a wide spectrum: ancient and new martyrs, bishops, pope, laity, scholarly writers that all lived under the shadow of the Triumphant Cross of Christ. Through the intercession of Our Lady of Sorrows and these saints, may we embrace and lift high the Cross daily in our lives.
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