A Reflection on the Exaltation of the Cross

By Nchedo Martin Mary Umeatuegbu (The Marian parrot)

Long live Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Alphonsus!

“When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself” (John 12:32)

It was the Church Father and the Doctor of the Eucharist, St John Chrysostom, whom we celebrated his Memorial yesterday that gave a wonderful analogy through his rhetoric on how the Cross becomes a sign of defeat. According to him, the Devil used three weapons to defeat the world in the Old Testament: a woman (Eve), a man (Adam), and the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. But in the New Testament God used the same three weapons to defeat the Devil: a woman (Mary, the new Eve), a man (Jesus, the new Adam) and the Tree of the Cross. He goes further to compare the two Adams, saying that God made both of them to experience something similar: both were caused to fall into deep slumber, yet something different occurred, for while the ancient Adam was sleeping in the garden, God pierced his side and formed a woman, and while the new Adam was sleeping on the Cross, God pierced His side and formed the Church by the outflow of water and blood which symbolize Baptism and Eucharist and other Mysteries (Sacraments). John Chrysostom then concludes that as the ancient Eve becomes the spouse of Adam, so also does the Church become the spouse of Christ. Consequently, the Church becomes Mystical, granted of the reason that it was born from the pierced side of the Body of Christ.

Dear fellow friends of God, today, the Holy Mother Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. It is relevant that before we go into the consideration of this Feast, let us pause for a brief moment in silence, as we gaze upon the Cross and stretch out our hands to Jesus who stretches out His pierced hands to us, in order to embrace Him with pity. St John Chrysostom’s teaching we considered above gives us assistance in comprehending what this Feast is. This Feast celebrates two anniversaries. The first is Emperor Constantine’s erection of a round Church in Jerusalem, the Anastasis above the empty grave of Jesus, and a basilica, the Martyrium, and in the square between the two Churches, a Shrine, the Calvarium, marking the place of the Crucifixion. The two Churches which were dedicated in 335 were destroyed in 614 by the Persians. After being rebuilt around 626 by Patriarch Modestus of Jerusalem, they were destroyed in 1009 by the Muslims. The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre which was rebuilt by the Crusaders was dedicated in 1149. The second is the discovery of the Lord’s Cross on August 18, 320, by St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. Having noted these, we now ask the questions: What is the Exaltation of the Cross? Why is the Cross exalted?

Again, John Chrysostom has answers to these two questions. To the first question he replies that it is the enthronement of a King who was unjustly condemned as a criminal. In praising Dismas, the good thief at Jesus’ right hand, he said that he (Dismas’) faith surpasses that of righteous Biblical figures of the Old Testament. He then proclaims: “O admirable thief! You saw a criminal and you proclaimed him your God!” It is for this same reason that Venerable Fulton J. Sheen echoes that on the Cross, the crucified Lord becomes a King for He has made it His Throne. So, the Exaltation of the Cross means the Enthronement of Jesus as King. This is captured in the words we proclaim during the Stations of the Cross when the priest exclaims: “We adore You O Christ and we praise You!” And we respond: “Because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world”. The implication of this is that it is only the Person who was able to save the world becomes qualified to be King of the same world He saved. If He is the King, then His Cross becomes the Throne from where He reigns. No wonder every Crucifix bears the initials of the original words Pilate placed on the Cross: INRI standing for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus the Nazarene King of the Jews). We now come to understand why every Good Friday, the priest proclaims the same words St Anthony of Padua used in his exorcism of demons: “Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi perpendit” (Behold the wood of the Cross in which the Saviour of the world was crucified). And in genuflecting we say: “Venite Adoremus” (Come let us adore).

We now proceed to the second question, “why is the Cross exalted?” Here, John Chrysostom supplies the answer, saying as we have seen above that it is because it is the sign of defeat. And who was defeated? The Devil who defeated Adam and Eve on the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil was defeated by Christ, the new Adam on the Tree of the Cross, His Throne. This is how this defeat occurred: While being crucified, Christ was mocked by the Devil through some people – the bystanders and even the thieves, but was consoled by His sorrowful Mother and few others beneath the Cross. Now, the defeat occurred when Christ forgave the good thief, gave His Spirit to the Eternal Father, after which blood and water flowed from His pierced side and healed the blind soldier, Longinus, and the earth shook, accompanied by darkness. In the mind of the Devil, he cannot understand how a so-called “criminal” can forgive a fellow criminal and wrought other wonders. This is an irony of what the Devil expected to see, and here began his downfall. Jesus proved to the Devil that He who can absolve a criminal is He who has authority over the criminal and his sins. By this, He places the Devil in perpetual suppression, for while being enthroned by the Eternal Father (cf. Phil 2:6-11), the Devil becomes dethroned; while being exalted, the Devil becomes defeated; and while being adored, the Devil is mocked.

Again, in defeating the Devil on the Cross, Jesus defeats also everything that comes with the Devil and replaces them with what came with Him (Christ). Those things that came with the Devil are: sin, death, chaos and sorrow. But the Crucified Christ brought righteousness, life, peace and joy – each combating respectively the instruments of the Devil. My dear friends come let us adore the Lord, for this explains why He resurrected from death to life, saved us from sin by making us righteous, liberated us from chaos by giving us peace, and restored our joy by overcoming sorrow. By Christ’s authority in being exalted on the Cross, He has given us authority to reproach the Devil and every sin and temptation. This is why theologians recommend meditation on Christ’s Passion and Cross each time we pray and when we are tempted. Among those who triumphed by this means in holiness was St Benedict of Nursia as he exorcised demons. His exorcism prayer reads thus: Crux Sacra sit mihi lux (May the Holy Cross be my Light), Non draco sit mihi dux (Let not the dragon be my guide), Vade retro Satana! (Get behind me Satan!). Nunquam suade mihi vana (Never tempt me with your vanities), Sunt mala quae libas (What you offer is evil), Ipse venena bibas (Drink the poison yourself). The dragon being referred to in the reproaches is the Devil.

To conclude our reflection, let us recall what medieval theologians said about man, namely, that man is “spoliatus supernaturalibus” (bereft of Supernatural Grace) and “vulneratus in naturalibus” (wounded in nature). This is because the old Adam was defeated by the Devil through original sin. But in gazing upon the Cross, the exalted Throne, we see the two hands of the Crucified Lord ready to restore with one hand, the Supernatural Grace we have lost, and with the other hand, heals our nature wounded by sin. His hands are open to receive us. Let us give Him our sins and He will give us His Grace, for St Ephrem of Nisibis said, “Stretch out your hands to the Crucified Lord, and He will stretch out His hands to you. He who does not stretch out his hands to the Crucified Lord cannot approach His Table (Altar)”. Indeed, this captures the meeting point of the Cross and the Eucharist – Adoration of the Cross by genuflection on Good Friday as we do before the Eucharist on the Altar. This is because it is the same Person of Christ who is enthroned on the Cross that is also in the Bread, for the Cross and the Altar are the same. Let us stretch out our hands to Him and gaze upon Him saying:

Through Thy Crucifixion and Death, deliver us Lord Jesus!

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