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The Holy Cross

Holyrood Day or Roodmas
September 14th

Faithful Cross, above all others,
One and only noble Tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be;
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.

We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy Holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world.

At the center of Christianity, at the center of the world, at the center of history, stands the Cross of Jesus. An instrument of humiliation and agonizing death, the Cross stands as a stark symbol of the hardship, pain, and sorrow of sinful humanity that has wandered far from the paradise God created for us to live in and enjoy. At the same time, the Cross is the remedy for the sin of the world, the mystical tree of life, and the throne of glory on which the Son of Man is exalted as the Son of God. When Jesus was lifted up on the Cross, he raised up all who have fallen under the burden of sin; when his body was broken on the Cross, he made the world whole; when he died on the Cross, he gave life to those who were perishing.  The 20th century historian of religion Mircea Eliade observed: "Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all." ("Symbolism of the Centre" in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991, p.39)  For Judaism, "the hill of Zion [is] the very center of the world" (Psalm 48:2). The Temple in which God himself chose to dwell, even in its absence today, still orients the Jewish people and gives meaning and direction to their lives. For Christians, that center has moved a few hundred yards to the west, to the hill of Calvary, to the place where God suffered and died in the flesh, and rose again, establishing a new and unbreakable axis mundi (center of the world) by which the direction of all human endeavor is judged and permanently reoriented.

With the tangible reality of the Incarnation at its heart, Christianity has always taken places and things very seriously. Ours is not an ephemeral religion of ideas and principles. It is about the Word made flesh and the indelible mark which God makes on the physical universe which he created and delights in. England's unofficial anthem, "And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England's mountains green?" puts into words the ongoing desire of Christians to maintain physical contact with the God who became man in Palestine. From the earliest times, Christians remembered the specific places where Jesus walked and talked, where he lived and died and rose again. Non-Christians knew this and did their best to conceal and destroy those places. Nevertheless, when Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, went to the Holy Land in 326 to look for the holy places, there were those who were able to help her. The most important place of all, Calvary and the garden tomb, had been covered over centuries before. The site had been filled in and a temple to the god Jupiter had been erected over the place where Jesus Christ died and rose again. These obstacles were no problem for the mother of the first Christian emperor. The temple was demolished and the site was excavated, revealing the rocky hill called Golgotha, and the tomb nearby where Jesus had lain until the third day. The place was also pocked with cisterns, and in one of them three crosses were found, together with the title that had been fastened to the Cross of Jesus. The title was detached, so it was not clear which cross was the one on which the Savior had died. There are various accounts of what happened next. One says that the three crosses were taken to the home of a dying woman and each one was placed on top of her. When the true Cross touched her, she was miraculously healed.

Helena embarked on an ambitious building program which included the massive Basilica of Constantine in front of an open air shrine enclosing Calvary and the Tomb of Jesus. Work on the shrine would continue for some time until it was finally completed as a walled and domed rotunda. Centuries later, after fires, earthquakes, and war had altered the original complex dramatically, the rotunda was incorporated into the smaller medieval Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Helena's basilica was dedicated on September 13, 335, and on the following day, a portion of the True Cross was  brought into the church and exalted and enshrined there. That day became the annual feast, celebrated throughout the world and known variously as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Holy Cross Day, and, in medieval England, Holyrood Day or Roodmas--"rood" being the Middle English word for "cross." The day came to celebrate another event, as well, the return of the True Cross of Jerusalem in 629. In 614, when the Persians overran Jerusalem, they carried away the relic of the True Cross as one of the spoils of war. In 628, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered the relic and brought it back to Jerusalem the following year. Another day, May 3rd, was also known as Roodmas. This western celebration of the Invention (i.e., the finding) of the True Cross, has more recently been dropped from the calendar, so the September 14th is the day that is set aside for the celebration of the Cross--not replacing Good Friday or even recapitulating it, but celebrating the Cross itself as the instrument and place where human salvation is localized and lifted up.

It was inevitable that something so mysterious and powerful would accumulate a rich history of legends that seek to explain its origins and its meaning. Legends are not necessarily fictional stories. They are simply stories that have been written down so that they can be read (Latin legere, "to read") again and again. They may not, in fact, be historically accurate, but they are often "true", nonetheless, because they express meaning figuratively, if not literally. One of the loveliest of these legends tells how basil plants sprang up from the ground under the Cross where drops of the Savior's blood fell. A related tradition says that Helena was aided in her search for the True Cross by a bed of basil that was growing over the very place where the Cross had been buried. Another tradition says that a sprig of basil which growing out of the wood of the Cross itself. The name of the herb comes from the same root as the Greek word for "king," basileus, thus it is an herb made for a king. In Orthodox churches, the cross that is exalted liturgically on this feast, traditionally rests on a bed of basil during the Liturgy. Basil may be blessed and distributed to the faithful on Holy Cross Day, and it would be appropriate to prepare and eat dishes that include basil, such as pesto, as part of the home celebration of the feast. Here is a Prayer for the blessing of basil.


Almighty and merciful God: Bless, we beseech thee, this royal herb of basil. As its aroma and taste delight our senses, may it recall for us the triumph of Christ, our Crucified King and the power of his blessed Passion and precious Death to purify and preserve us from evil; so that, planted beneath his Cross, we may flourish to thy glory and spread abroad the fragrance of his sacrifice; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

There are two different traditions about the origins of the wood of the Cross. The more familiar, Western, tradition relates that as Adam lay dying he instructed his son Seth to go the gate of Garden of Eden and to ask the cherubim guarding the entrance for a seed from the Tree of Life. This seed was placed in Adam's mouth after he died and was buried with Adam. The seed germinated and grew into a great tree which gave shelter to creatures of all kinds. In time, the origin of the tree and even the fact that it had grown over the grave of the first human being was forgotten. When the time came for Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem, wood was needed and he directed that this great, sturdy tree be cut down to be used in the construction. This was done. However, the wood from the tree was never suitable for the places it was needed. A board was either too short or too long, no matter how carefully it was measured. At last, the wood was discarded. A few years later, a bridge was being built for one of the approaches to Jerusalem and the discarded wood was incorporated into the project. When the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, it was necessary for her to cross this bridge. As she did, she heard a voice with a message which she reported to her host. She told Solomon that the wood of this bridge would be the means by which a new kingdom and a new order would be established in Jerusalem. Fearing that he would be overthrown and his kingdom taken from him, Solomon had the bridge torn down and the wood thrown into a cistern outside the wall of Jerusalem. There it lay for nearly a thousand years until it was once again put into service in the making of a cross for the execution of a man who claimed to be King of the Jews and became again what it had always been: the Tree of Life.

Lot watering the Holy Tree -- Monastery of the Cross, JerusalemThe Eastern tradition of the origins of the wood of the Cross is much simpler and rests on the interpretation of a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah: "The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious." (Isaiah 60:13) According to this tradition, after Lot fled from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, his uncle Abraham gave him a triple seedling, consisting of a cypress, a plane, and a pine. Lot took the seedling and planted it in the wilderness, where the three trees continued to grow together. Lot, badgered by the devil who wished to prevent the tree from growing, traveled back and forth to the Jordan River to get water for the tree. Many years later, when Solomon was building the Temple (here the legends converge for a brief moment), the tree was cut down and the wood was used in the construction. When Herod was rebuilding the Temple, this wood was taken out and discarded, and was later taken up again to be used for the Cross of Jesus. The first part of the verse from Isaiah refers to the three different woods being used in the building of the Temple. The interpretation of the final phrase, "I will make the place of my feet glorious," is that it is a reference to the footrest to which Jesus' feet were nailed on the Cross. Tradition says that the place where the tree grew was outside of the city of Jerusalem. A monastery has stood on that site since the 5th century. A series of icons, which can be seen on this website, depicts this version of the legend, though it omits the portion of the legend about the Temple.

As illustrated at the head of this page and at the right, the Cross has been depicted in different ways over the years. In the earliest years of the Church, the Cross was not depicted at all artistically. Through a combination of horror at the sheer brutality of crucifixion, which was still employed as a method of execution, and fear of persecution for openly professing Christianity by displaying obvious symbols associated with it, the Cross was rarely, if ever, used as a symbol of any sort by Christians in the first few centuries. Even when scenes from the life of Jesus were portrayed artistically, the Crucifixion was not. The vision at the Milvian Bridge, wherein Constantine saw a cross and heard the words, "In this sign conquer," began to change this attitude, for two reasons. First of all, the conversion of the emperor removed the threat of persecution. Secondly, out of reverence for the Savior, Constantine outlawed crucifixion as a method of execution. As a result, people began to lose their sense of the outrageousness of this form of punishment: they did not see people suffering in this way and had no experience of its personal impact. Crucifixion was known as an idea, not a reality, and was, to a certain degree, sanitized in the public mind. Even so, the first common representations of the Cross were of an empty cross, sometimes stylized and even decorated, which helped to remove the harsher aspects of it even more from the mind.

The next stage in the development of the Cross in art, with Jesus actually shown on a cross continued to avoid portraying him suffering. He was on the Cross, but he was alert, eyes open, and body relatively relaxed; alive, not dead, and not suffering. While the Church recognized that he suffered on the Cross, the emphasis was on his triumph. Indeed, the theology of the Church, enacted in its weekly Liturgy, saw the Cross and Resurrection as one event, not two. And that event entailed the victory of Christ and the redemption of his people. There was no irony in the fact that the imperial legions were led by standards with the Cross emblazoned on them. The cross to which the same soldiers, only a few years before, would have fastened criminals for their execution, was now a proud banner of victory in war. Suffering and death had nothing to do with it. It was left for a later age, and a culture to the West, to put emphasis on the suffering of the Cross. Even today, Orthodox icons of the Cross mute the suffering. Unlike medieval Western crucifixes on which a twisted body writhes in pain, Jesus in Orthodox icons appears almost peaceful.

Oddly enough, it was in the West that two almost diametrically opposed portrayals of the Crucifixion developed. Crucifixes depicting Jesus in great agony went hand in hand with the developing Western theologies of the Atonement. A more legalistic notion of substitutionary atonement--perhaps to oversimplify somewhat: an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth concept of divine justice--almost seemed to require a sacrifice involving pain and suffering, something not really necessary in the Eastern concept of a cosmic victory where only the loser pays. And yet, at the same time that one aspect of Western theology was moving to an almost excessive emphasis on the suffering of the Cross, there arose the opposite extreme of a Christ on the Cross who is not only free of pain but is robed and crowned and clearly triumphant to a far more obvious degree than earlier portrayals where he is not suffering, but is still stripped and humiliated. This version of the crucifix, known as Christus Rex, has much in common with another Byzantine icon--not the Crucifixion, but Christ Pantocrator, Ruler of All Things, robed as a Byzantine emperor and seated on a throne. In each case, the outward theology expresses an significant truth about the identity of Jesus: he is indeed King of kings and Lord of lords. At the same time, it expresses what we might call a subversive truth about the relationship between Church and State in those times. Dressing Jesus in the robes of an emperor or king makes a connection between the temporal ruler and God that underlines in an emphatic way the authority and power of the secular ruler.

However it is depicted, and not just on Holy Cross Day, the centrality of the was more vividly portrayed in the architecture of medieval churches than at perhaps any other time in Christian history. A vestige of medieval liturgical architecture survives in churches that display a rood beam at the point at which the nave and quire intersect. The beam spans the line of intersection, and is sometimes supported by a screen, known as either the choir screen or, more appropriately, the rood screen. On top of this beam, serving more or less literally as the axis of the entire church, is a rood--a crucifix together with statues of Mary and John, and sometimes other saints. These modern rood beams or rood screens were only a part of the original medieval structure. Then, there was not merely a beam large enough to support a cross and some statues. Rather, there was an entire loft, accessed by stairs and able to support at least one person, and sometimes many. Some surviving 15th century rood lofts are pictured below. They were not merely decorative, they were functional. For from them the Word of God, and particularly the Gospel was proclaimed. To be sure, this was an ideal place to ensure that these readings were heard by all (assuming they could understand the Latin in which they were read!) But that was not the point. Standing at the Cross, the center of the world, the deacon or priest read the prophecies, lessons, and gospels that correctly orient the world, that point the world in the right direction. And that direction is always towards the Cross, the axis and center of the world made new by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Photo of Hubberholme Church, Yorkshire, UK  Copyright Alexander P Kapp and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

All Angels Church, Hubberholme, Yorkshire, with 15th century rood loft. A plain cross now stands in place of the original rood figures. (Photo copyright Alexander P Kapp and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License.)

Church of St Mellanus, Mullion, England, public domain photo by Mattana

St Mellanus Church, Mullion, Cornwall, with 15th century rood screen, restored by F.C. Eden in 1925 with new rood figures. (Public domain photo by Mattana).


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