Liturgy for Sundays and Main Feasts
May 3: The Finding of the Holy Cross.
Reflections on the Liturgy of the Day – from L’Année Liturgique, by Dom Prosper Guéranger
It was most just that our Divine King should show Himself to us with the scepter of His power, to the end that nothing might be wanting to the majesty of His empire. This scepter is the Cross; and Paschal Time was to be the Season for its being offered to Him in glad homage. A few weeks back, and the Cross was shown to us as the instrument of our Emmanuel’s humiliation, and as the bed of suffering whereon He died; but, has He not, since then, conquered Death? And what is His Cross now, but a trophy of His victory? Let it then be brought forth to our gaze; and let every knee bend before this sacred Wood, whereby our Jesus won the honour and praise we now give Him!
On the day of his Birth at Bethlehem, we sang these words of the Prophet Isaiah: A Child is born unto us, and a Son is given unto us, and His government is upon His shoulder. We have seen Him carrying this Cross upon His shoulder, as Isaac carried the wood for his own immolation; but now, it is no longer a heavy burden. It is shining with a brightness that ravishes the eyes of the Angels; and, after having received the veneration of man, as long as the world lasts, it will suddenly appear in the clouds of Heaven, near the Judge of the living and the dead, a consolation to them that have loved it, but a reproach to such as have treated it with contempt or forgetfulness.
Our Saviour did not think the time between His Resurrection and Ascension a fitting one for glorifying the Instrument of His victory. The Cross was not to be brought into notice, until it had subjected the world to Him whose glory it so eloquently proclaimed. Jesus was three days in the tomb; His Cross is to lie buried unknown to men, for three centuries: but it is to have its Resurrection, and the Church celebrates this Resurrection today. Jesus would, in His own good time, add to the joy of Easter by miraculously revealing to us this sacred monument of His love for mankind. He entrusts it to our keeping, –it is to be our consolation,– as long as this world last: is it not just, that we should love and venerate it?
Never had Satan’s pride met with a humiliation like that of his seeing the instrument of our perdition made the instrument of our salvation. As the Church expresses it in her Preface for Passiontide: “He that overcame mankind by a tree, was overcome by a Tree.” Thus foiled, he vented his fury upon this saving Wood, which so bitterly reminded him, both of the irresistible power of his Conqueror, and of the dignity of man who had been redeemed at so great a price. He would fain have annihilated the Cross; but knowing that this was beyond his power, he endeavoured to profane it, and hide it from view. He therefore instigated the Jews to bury it. At the foot of Calvary, not far from the Sepulchre, was a deep hole. Into this was the Cross thrown, together with those of the two Thieves, the Nails, the Crown of Thorns, and the Inscription, or Title, written by Pilate. The hole was then filled up with rubbish and earth, and the Sanhedrin exulted in the thought of its having effaced the memory of the Nazarene, who could not save Himself from the ignominious death of the Cross.
Forty years after this, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, the instruments of God’s vengeance. The Holy Places were desecrated by the idolaters. A small temple to Venus was erected on Calvary, and another to Jupiter over the Holy Sepulchre. By this, the pagans intended derision; whereas, they were perpetuating the knowledge of two spots of most sacred interest. When peace was restored under Constantine, the Christians had but to remove these pagan monuments, and their eyes beheld the holy ground that had been bedewed with the Blood of Jesus, and the glorious Sepulchre. As to the Cross, it was not so easily found.
The scepter of our Divine King was to be raised up from its tomb by a royal hand. The saintly Empress Helen, Constantine’s Mother, was chosen by Heaven to pay to Jesus, and that, too, on the very spot where He had received His greatest humiliations, the honours which are due to Him as the King of the world. Before laying the foundations of the Basilica of the Resurrection, this worthy follower of Magdalene and the other holy women of the Sepulchre was anxious to discover the Instrument of our Salvation. The Jews had kept up the tradition of the site where it had been buried: the Empress had the excavations made accordingly. With what holy impatience must she not have watched the works! and with what ecstasy of joy did she not behold the Redeeming Wood, which, though not, at first, distinguishable, was certainly one of the three Crosses that were found! She addressed a fervent prayer to the Saviour, Who alone could reveal to her which was the trophy of His victory; the Bishop, Macarius, united his prayers with hers; and their faith was rewarded by a miracle, that left them no doubt as to which was the true Cross.
The glorious work was accomplished, and the Church was put in possession of the instrument of the world’s Redemption. Both East and West were filled with joy at the news of this precious discovery, which Heaven had set on foot, and which gave the last finish to the triumph of Christianity. Christ completed His victory over the Pagan world, by raising thus His Standard, not a figurative one, but His own real Standard, His Cross, which, up to that time, had been a stumbling-block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles; but before which every Christian is, henceforth, to bend his knee.
How dear, then, to us should not this day be, which blends together the recollection of the Holy Cross and the joys of the Resurrection of that Jesus, Who, by the Cross, has won the throne to which we shall soon see Him ascend! Let us thank our Heavenly Father for His having restored to mankind a treasure so immensely precious as is the Cross. Until the day comes for its appearing, with Himself, in the clouds of Heaven, Jesus has entrusted it to His Spouse, as a pledge of His second Coming. On that day, He, by His divine power, will collect together all the fragments; and the Tree of Life will, then, gladden the Elect with its dazzling beauty, and invite them to eternal rest beneath its refreshing shade.
Vexilla Regis – Hymn composed by Venance Fortunat, poet and bishop of Poitiers (+ v. 605)
The Standard of our King comes forth: the mystery of the Cross shines upon us, that Cross on which Life suffered death, and by His death gave life.
He was pierced with the cruel Spear, that, by the Water and the Blood, which flowed from the wound, He might cleanse us from sin.
Here, on the Cross was fulfilled the prophecy foretold in David’s truthful words: “God hath reigned from the Tree.”
O fair and shining Tree! beautified by the scarlet of the King, and chosen as the noble trunk that was to touch such sacred limbs.
O blessed Tree! on whose arms hung the ransom of the world! It was the balance, wherein was placed the Body of Jesus, and thereby hell lost its prey.
Hail, O Cross! our only hope, that bringest us the Paschal joy. Increase to the good their grace, and cleanse sinners from their guilt.
May every spirit praise thee, O Holy Trinity, Thou Fount of salvation! and by the Cross, whereby Thou gavest us victory, give us, too, our recompense. Amen.
Let us proclaim the praises of the Cross, we who have so special a reason to exult in it; for it is in the Cross that we triumph, and gain the victory of life over our fierce enemy.
“Christ Crucified is the power and wisdom of God.” Thus spoke Your Apostle, O Jesus! and we are witnesses of the truth of his words. The Synagogue thought to dishonour You by nailing You to a Cross, for it was written in the Law: “Cursed is he, that hangs on a tree.” But, lo! this gibbet, this Tree of infamy, is become the trophy of Your grandest glory! Far from dimming the splendour of Your Resurrection, the Cross enhances the brilliancy of Your magnificent triumph. You were attached to the Wood, You took on Yourself the curse that was due to us; You were crucified between two thieves; You were reputed as an impostor, and Your enemies insulted You in Your agony on this bed of suffering. Had You been but man, O Son of David! all this would have disgraced Your name and memory; the Cross would have been the ruin of Your past glory. But You are the Son of God, and it is the Cross that proves it. The whole world venerates Your Cross. It was the Cross that brought the world into submission to You. The honours that are now paid it, more than make amends for the insults that were once offered it. Men are not wont to venerate a Cross; but if they do, it is the Cross on which their God died. Oh! blessed be He that hung upon the Tree! And do You, dearest Crucified Jesus! in return for the homage we pay to Your Cross, fulfill the promise You made us: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things unto Myself.”
That You might the more effectually draw us, You this day permitted us to find the very Wood, whereon You stretched forth Your divine arms to embrace us. You deigned to give us this holy instrument of Your victory, and which is to shine near You in the heavens on the day of judgment; You mercifully confided it to our keeping, in order that we might thence derive a salutary fear of Divine Justice, which demanded Your death on this Wood, so to atone for our sins. You also gave us this most precious relic, that it might excite us to a devoted love for You, O Divine Victim! Who, that we might be blessed, did take upon Yourself the maledictions due to our sins. The whole world is offering You, today, its fervent thanks for so inestimable a gift. Your Cross, by being divided into countless fragments, is in all places, consecrating and protecting, by its presence, every country of the Christian world.
Oh! that we had St. Helen’s spirit, dear Jesus, and knew, as she did, the breadth, and length, and height, and depth of the mystery of Your Cross! Her love of the mystery made her so earnest in her search for the Cross. And how sublime is the spectacle offered to us by this holy Empress! She adorns Your glorious Sepulchre; she unburies Your Cross from its grave. Who was there, that ever proclaimed with such solemnity as this, the Paschal Mystery? The Sepulchre cries out to us: “He is risen: He is not here!” The Cross exclaims: “I held Him captive but for a few passing hours. He is not here! He is resplendent in the glory of His Resurrection!” O Cross! O Sepulchre! how brief was the period of His humiliation, and how grand the kingdom He won by you!
We will adore, in you where His feet stood, making you the instruments of our Redemption, and thereby endearing you ever to our respectful love. Glory, then, be to thee, O Cross! dear object of this day’s festival! Continue to protect this world, where our Jesus has left you. Be its shield against Satan. Keep up within us the twofold remembrance, which will support us in all our crosses, the remembrance of Sacrifice united with Triumph; for it is by you, O Cross! that Christ conquers, and reigns, and commands.
Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat.