On September 14 we celebrate the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Join us as we enter the mystery of the cross through the gifts of tradition and Scripture and draw life from the life-changing wisdom revealed in Romans 6.
The feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross (or Triumph of the Cross) invites us to reflect on, and pray about, the cross of Jesus. Rightly, we tend to associate the cross with Lent, Holy Week and especially Good Friday, when we venerate the wood of the cross upon which hung the Saviour of the world.
The public veneration of the cross of Christ began in the fourth century, and today’s feast marks the discovery of the cross on September 14, 326 AD, by St Helen, mother of Constantine, while she was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From then onwards, the feast day has a long pedigree, stretching back to the seventh century and inspired by the recovery of a portion of the cross said to have been taken from Jerusalem by the Roman Emperor Heraclius in 629 AD.
Our word ‘exaltation’ is rooted in the Latin for ‘raising, lifting up’, and on this special feast day, we hope to raise awareness of the deeper meaning of the cross and how, on a daily basis, it can have an impact on our lives in a real and meaningful way.
We tend to think of the cross first as a historical event – Jesus was crucified at Calvary in the first century – and then as a liturgical event, where every celebration of the Eucharist makes real and present the passion, cross and resurrection of Jesus. However, St Paul pointed to an understanding of the cross of Jesus by which grasping its meaning can transform our lives, and through which we can know and experience new life, the life in the Spirit. It seems fitting that, as the liturgy invites us to contemplate the triumph of the cross, we should deepen our understanding and knowledge of it in a way that can renew us in our inner being, and even transform our lives.
Our faith teaches us to exult in the cross because it was the instrument of our salvation. Adoration of the cross is the adoration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God made Man, who suffered and died on the Roman instrument of torture for our redemption, to save us from sin and death. The cross represents the sacrifice by which Jesus, obedient even unto death, accomplished our salvation. It forms part of the Paschal Mystery, which comprises the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. Because of what it represents, the Cross is the potent and universal symbol of the Christian faith. For example, the Sign of the Cross is such a wonderful prayer because it invokes the Holy Trinity and reminds us of the centrality of the cross – In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We make a little sign of the cross on our forehead, lips and heart at the reading of the Gospel. We pray the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, and we venerate the cross by kissing the feet of the image of our crucified Saviour. We also place a crucifix (a cross with the image of Christ’s body upon it) in our churches, schools, homes, cars and on our necklaces. All of these are signs and reminders of Christ’s ultimate triumph, his victory over sin and death.
We remember Jesus’ words: ‘He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it and he who loses his life for my sake shall find it’ (Matthew 10:38-39). St Paul left us in no doubt about the importance of Jesus’ cross in his own life. He understood that he had been crucified with Christ. ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me’ (Galatians 2:20). What does this mean? St Paul was not present at the crucifixion and we know he had devoted himself to persecuting and tormenting the early believers. All is revealed in his Letter to the Romans and especially Chapter 6.
We could title this chapter: ‘Dead to Sin, Alive in Christ’. To immerse ourselves (immerse being the word) in this chapter is to enter into the mystery of the cross, which is none other than the mystery of baptism. It is imperative to have some understanding of what happens in baptism. Do not worry if you don’t or have lost clarity – you are in good company – St Paul had to remind the Romans: ‘Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?’
St Paul, hopeful that this amazing and incredible truth of faith has struck home, unpacks it even further: ‘We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life’ (Romans 6:4). Most of us are baptized as babies, some as adults. Regardless, faith invites us to consider the mystery we were immersed into – the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yes, the resurrection also. For St Paul says, ‘If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection’ (Romans 6:5).
All this is marvellous and truly a source of joy and celebration, but how does it impact or change our lives today? What are we to do with this revelation of faith, this insight into the mystery, nay, triumph of the cross? St Paul explains, ‘Now if we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God’ (Romans 6:8-10). Faith, then, invites us to hold firm to a mystical truth: when Jesus died, we died; when Jesus rose, we rose. Practically, what are we to do? How do we know this new life? How can we experience it? How is this grace, this blessing of the cross, poured out into our lives? St Paul says that we play a part in this – by ‘counting’ or ‘tallying’ or ‘trusting and believing in’ that we are, in fact, dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. By offering ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life and commit themselves to the Lord every day, to living under the blessing of and through the triumph of the cross.
If you really want to plumb the depths of the mystery of the cross, then study, pray about and reflect upon the life-giving teaching contained in Romans 6. ‘In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its evil desires. Rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life.’