On the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: Why Catholics have Crucifixes

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The Roman Calendar marks September 14 as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on the anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre (September 14, 335).

In the excavations beneath the church during its construction. St. Helena discovered three crosses, one of which is believed to be the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

In some circles, this feast is referred to as the Triumph of the Cross.

Rightfully so.

While some may look at the Cross as a sign of defeat – Jesus died the death of a criminal – it’s instead a symbol of victory.

St. Andrew of Crete (7th-8th cent.) wrote about this:

Therefore, the cross is something wonderfully great and honorable. It is great because through the cross the many noble acts of Christ found their consummation – very many indeed, for both his miracles and his sufferings were fully rewarded with victory. The cross is honourable because it is both the sign of God’s suffering and the trophy of his victory. It stands for his suffering because on it he freely suffered unto death. But it is also his trophy because it was the means by which the devil was wounded and death conquered; the barred gates of hell were smashed, and the cross became the one common salvation of the whole world. ~St. Andrew of Crete, Oratio 10 in Exaltatione sanctae crucis

The fact that the Cross represents triumph is one of the main reasons Catholics have crucifixes instead of crosses.

What’s the difference?

A crucifix has a corpus – a figure of the dying Christ – and a cross does not.

The Crucifix bears our Lord’s torn and tattered Body, reminding us of his great suffering and the extreme price he paid for our salvation.

It’s a teaching tool, because it leads us more and more deeply into the reality of Christ’s Passion.

It’s a model of true love and fosters in us an attitude of adoration, thankfulness, and humility.

Can you look at a Crucifix without feeling shame and remorse for your sins? I can’t.

Also, the Crucifix offers us comfort in our sorrows and helps us to bear suffering patiently.

“A plain cross,” Pope Pius XI said, “has no blood and no nail holes – it has no trace of suffering – yet [it was the] love of a suffering God that saved the world.”

The Crucifix is the proof of God’s love.

I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of that daily. Sometimes hourly.

This morning in his homily during Mass at Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis spoke about the need to have crucifixes (as opposed to crosses) before which we can pray and meditate. But we must do so with humility, ready to accept humiliation as our Lord did, for our sake.

“When we look at Jesus on the Cross, there are some beautiful paintings, but the reality is another: He was all torn, bleeding from our sins.

This is the path He has taken to conquer the serpent in his field. Look at the Cross of Jesus, but not those artistic crosses, beautifully painted: look at the reality, what the cross was at that time. And look at His path and at God, who destroyed Himself, who lowered Himself to save us. This is also the path of the Christian. If a Christian wants to go forward on the path of Christian life, he must lower himself, as Jesus lowered Himself. It is the path of humility, yes, but also to take upon himself the humiliation as Jesus carried it.”

The Holy Father concluded his homily by urging the faithful to contemplate the Crucifix and to pray for the grace to “weep in gratitude.”

He’s right when he says this. So, my resolution for today – the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – is to ask for the grace to look upon the Crucifix with love, to be able to feel God’s love for me, and to weep with gratitude for the victory he won for my salvation.

How about you? How will you spend this feast day?

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