The Christian tradition of celebrating the Holy Cross goes back to the fourth century Emperor Constantine, who saw the Cross in a dream, heard the words “In hoc signo vinces,” and won a great battle. Countless churches, institutions, organizations, schools, and geographic locations bear the name “Holy Cross” in many languages (e.g. “Santa Cruz”). One is among the oldest of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. Founded in 1843, the College of the Holy Cross is in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Let me digress with a little story about that College and this Feast: My Jesuit uncle was President of the College of the Holy Cross for a few years, and after serving in other administrative posts in Japan and in Connecticut, he returned to Holy Cross as a faculty member around the time that my brother Bill did his undergraduate degree there. My other brother, Chris, went to a rather different institution, Northeastern University. Some years later Chris had the good fortune to marry a wonderful woman. When they sat down to plan the wedding Mass, the celebrant, our uncle Fr. Bill, and the best man, our brother Bill, realized that the date Chris and Martha had picked was September 14, the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. Celebrant and best man enjoyed the coincidence – even triumphantly! – until the groom, Chris, asked plaintively, “Can we get Northeastern into this somewhere?”
Today’s Feast is so important that we have a second Scriptural Reading before the Gospel. From Numbers we hear the tale of a bronze serpent Raised up (Exalted), obviously pre-figuring the Crucifixion of Jesus. The Psalm sings of human sin and God’s mercy. The Epistle to the Philippians emphasizes the enormous irony that the Word of God took on “the form of a slave” and was “obedient to death, even death on a cross.” The most painful and humiliating form of torture and punishment becomes the Instrument of our salvation and, for us, the Sign of both our faith and God’s love. Finally, the Gospel from John puts these images together: Moses and the serpent, the Son of Man coming from and returning to the Father, God’s love and our salvation.
I’m recalling a hymn: “Lift high the Cross / the Love of Christ proclaim.”* Aside from all the theological, historical, philosophical, psychological, social, even political and economic meanings of the Cross – let me celebrate today what the Sign means to me. When I “make the sign of the cross,” I physically affirm my faith. The Cross symbolizes the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection, but more: to me it signifies the down-to-earth reality of these events. In a particular time and place God became Man and lived a real life and really died and really rose from the dead. This is our faith: that Christ is Risen (Exalted!) after death—not an illusion or myth or fantasy, but a reality with real consequences for us.
We celebrate: “Dying you destroyed our death. Rising you restored our life.” Today I pray that the Cross will Triumph, be Exalted in my heart and in the whole world. In Hoc Signo Vinces.
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