Reflection on the Exaltation of the Cross

In 326 A.D., the Emperor Constantine sought to recover the Cross by whose sign he had conquered and claimed the Roman Empire for Christ. To this end, he commissioned his mother Helen to travel to the Holy Land and find the relic of the wood upon which our Lord was crucified. After some investigation, Helen located the true Cross buried under a temple dedicated to Venus. According to the traditional story, the authenticity of the relic was confirmed when it was touched to a corpse and the dead man sprung back to life, after which the Patriarch of Jerusalem raised the Cross up in the Church temple, and everyone bowed before it.

Celebrated at what was the beginning of the Roman civil new year (and what is still the beginning of the school year), the Exaltation of the Cross celebrates a constitutional moment in the life of the Roman Empire. The hymn for the feast—“O Lord, save Your people”—may well be described as the “Imperial Anthem” of the Byzantine world—a proclamation that a new people had been gathered into unity under the authority of the crucified One. Though corrupted sometimes beyond recognition, we can find a core truth of the idea of a “Christian nation” in the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, which shows us what it means to be a people gathered into one not just under God, but within God through the Person of the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus Christ.

For the past eleven years, we have commemorated another event, three days before the Exaltation of the Cross. I am speaking, of course, about September 11th, and unless you have been living in another solar system until now, I need not recount the details of that day: the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center by suicidal religious extremists, and the death of thousands of civilians at their hands. The question is, can the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross shine a light back on that terrible event? Can we come to see September 11th as an echo of the Cross, and September 14th as an echo of the Resurrection on the third day?

Much has been said about the significance of September 11th. One of the preparatory readings for the Exaltation offers some additional insight, a meaning that we perhaps too easily overlook. The reading is taken from the Gospel of Saint John the Theologian, chapter eleven:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

The historian, literary critic and social philosopher Rene Girard has spoken profoundly about how societies, nations and cultures are founded and maintained. Basically, Girard suggests that human beings are naturally inclined tear each other apart and annihilate each other over their desires for land, resources, women, beliefs and so on. As we fight over these objects, we soon lose sight of why we are fighting, and the violence takes on a life of its own. All that prevents us from total annihilation of ourselves and each other is a collective decision to turn all of our violence on a scapegoat: an individual or a group whom we blame for our conflict. In uniting against the other, Girard says, we unite and make peace among ourselves, and culture and society is born. Our religious systems then continue to reenact the initial event through ritual sacrifices and regulations, so maintaining the social unity we first established through violence.

I mention all this because Caiaphas’ proposal—that it is better for one man should die for the people rather than the whole nation should perish—is simply one more example of what Girard would call “the scapegoating mechanism.” Like so many before him, the high priest believed that the divisions and conflicts threatening to divide and destroy Israel, can only be healed if everyone unites against Jesus as a scapegoat. He was wrong in this belief, of course, terribly, joyfully wrong. Rather than staying dead, like a good scapegoat, Jesus sprang back to life! Instead of binding together the nation, the sacrificial mechanism fell apart when it met the Son of God whom death could not contain. The Crucified One who rose from the dead finally dismantled the process by which we found nations and establish peoples. Since the Cross, we can no longer use violence against others to bind up our societies, no matter how hard we try.

What has all this got to do with September 11th? Simply that what the hijackers did that day was yet another desperate attempt to enact Caiaphas’ plan. Where Caiaphas proposed that one man should die for the people, the extremists hoped that by sacrificing themselves and thousands of innocent lives in one single violent act, they could unite the Islamic peoples and rise up together against those they call the “western crusaders.” And as it did before, the plan went wrong. Once again, the Gospel exposed what was supposed to be glorious and righteous act, and revealed it to be nothing less than bloodthirsty, callous, destructive violence. On September 11th, the hijackers tried to establish yet another nation through violence, blood and death, but today, on third day, the Cross is lifted up, empty of its prize, proclaiming to the whole universe that Christ has trampled down death by death, has undone it, dismantled it, and deprived it of its power. Death can no longer hold men captive, and kingdoms founded on death can no longer stand.

Our challenge today is to answer the death of September 11th with the resurrection of September 14th. The Exaltation of the Cross challenges us to build one Christian nation—a people united in God through Christ—but on a different foundation than the kingdoms of this world. While they establish peace by silencing their victims, we must confront our own temptation to blame others for our sufferings and struggles. This feast of the Cross challenges us to hear their voices crying out, like the blood of that first scapegoat, Abel, but unlike Cain, who ran away from his scapegoat and built the first worldly civilization to conceal his murderous act, we must repent. We must strive to identify daily with the sufferings of those whom we would treat as rivals and scapegoats; to see them in the compassionate light of our shared humanity; and ultimately, to meet in them the One who identified with us and died with us, so that He might draw all of us to Himself, uniting all of us into one nation, the one glorious inheritance of the Most High God.

Fr. Richard René

We will be celebrating the Exaltation of the Cross with a Vesperal Liturgy on the eve of the feast (Thursday, September 13th) at 6:30pm.

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