Happy Holy Cross Day! Is that what we’re supposed to say? I mean, yeah, the Cross is where Jesus died a horrible painful death, that’s not super-happy is it… wait a minute, how is Holy Cross Day any different from Good Friday? Why do we have an extra Good Friday in September?
Perhaps we need a little history to make sense of this. To borrow from Wikipedia,
According to Christian tradition, the True Cross was discovered in 326 by Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was then built at the site of the discovery, by order of Helena and Constantine. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the cross.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Cross
September 14th, then, is the day that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated. Although, in the West, this day also commemorates St. Helena’s discovery of the Cross beforehand, as well as the restoration of the relics to Jerusalem in the 7th century after a brief Sasanid Persian invasion.
For Anglicans and Lutherans, however, who generally prefer their liturgy reformed around the primacy of Scripture, this feast has been focused less on the tradition of the True Cross (which may or may not be entirely historically accurate) and more on the significance of the Cross itself. There is, after all, quite a history of devotion (or veneration veneratio, which is of a lesser degree than worship latria) to the Cross and its relics; the Cross is the instrument by which Christ redeemed the world. He didn’t “just die”, he was nailed to a real physical piece of wood. Some have found this an opportunity to meditate upon the inclusion of nature itself in the Gospel, such as in the great Old English poem Dream of the Rood. Similarly, when the author of the Wisdom of Solomon was reflecting back on Noah’s ark, he also foreshadowed the Cross when he wrote:
It is your will that works of your wisdom should not be without effect;Wisdom 14:5-7
therefore men trust their lives even to the smallest piece of wood,
and passing through the billows on a raft they come safely to land.
For even in the beginning, when arrogant giants were perishing,
the hope of the world took refuge on a raft,
and guided by your hand left to the world the seed of a new generation.
For blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes.
And so, in harmony both with this ancient spirituality and a renewed focus on the Scriptures, we have Holy Cross Day in our calendar. It is like a repeat of Good Friday, but instead of looking at the pain and suffering of Christ, as such, we are looking at the glorious work of God in the world. Instead of a day of fasting, mourning, and penitence, this is a feast day. We celebrate with awe the wonder of the Gospel, and the tactile reality of the Cross, a “tree” as St. Peter once described it, literally grounds this remarkable theological event in natural reality.
With that in mind, let’s conclude with a brief comparison of the Scripture readings for Good Friday and Holy Cross Day.
Good Friday, in the Holy Day lectionary, gives us:
- Genesis 22:1-18 or Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which are a typology and prophecy, respectively, of Jesus’ death
- Psalm 22:1-11(12-21) or 40:1-16 or 69:1-22, which are songs of suffering and lament
- Hebrews 10:1-25, which deals with the high priestly sacrifice of Jesus
- John 19:1-37, which is the Passion of the Christ
Holy Cross Day, however, gives us these readings at the Communion service:
- Isaiah 45:21-25, which is a universal call to turn to Christ for salvation
- Psalm 98, one of the joyful celebrations of God’s salvation and praiseworthiness
- Philippians 2:5-11, an exhortation to imitate Christ in his humility even unto death on the Cross
- John 12:31-36a, where Christ speaks of his glorification and drawing all men unto himself when he is lifted up on the Cross
So you can see that Holy Cross Day has a focus on glory and celebration that Good Friday lacks. They share a call to “behold”, to gaze upon the crucified one, and the Cross itself as his instrument, and they also share a call to follow Christ – Philippians 2:5-11 in particular is also the Epistle for Palm Sunday, which falls into the same pattern as these. But ultimately this is not a day to mourn the death of Christ but a day to celebrate the victory of Christ. The crucifixion, after all, is a deeply rich event, worthy of observance in many different ways from many different angles. Good Friday is particularly concerned with his suffering and our sins that drove him there; Holy Cross Day is particularly concerned with the triumphal glory and power of God displayed in that same death.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the Cross
that he might draw the whole world to himself:
Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption,
may have grace to take up our cross and follow him;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting Amen.