14th September – The Exaltation of the Holy Cross


It all began with a tree….

The Lord God planted a garden in Eden which is in the east, and there he put the man he had fashioned.  The Lord God caused to spring up from the soil every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden ….  The Lord God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it.  Then the Lord God gave the man this admonition.  ‘You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden.  Nevertheless of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die.’

Genesis 2:8-17

The context here is of the creation myth in Genesis in the account by the so-called Yahwist author, the writers who, by their language and imagery, make God the close and accessible creator of all.  And, of course, with God, Creator and Life-Giver, fashioning man from the dust of the earth and breathing into his nostrils the divine breath, man, the highest point of creation, is set in a very particular, unassailable, relationship to God.  Man, in all things, is the sharer in the divine life and the divine work.  In a sense, the writer makes us aware that he already has it all!  This paradise, Eden in the east, is already the perfect expression of a perfect relationship, lived out in a perfection of harmony, God with man, and man with woman.

The tree standing at the centre of the garden is, in some way, an expression of this perfect balance.  Man has no need for anything more to make him what he should be: the tree expresses both his own perfection as creature, sharing in the divine life, and yet the necessary difference between him and his Creator, God.  Man is not God – he is entirely himself.  And God’s invitation to him is clear: be yourself, enjoy the life of the garden, and grow in your cooperation in caring for, sustaining and making fruitful the creation which is handed to you.  

What could possibly go wrong?

The serpent was the most subtle of all the wild beasts that the Lord God had made.  It asked the woman, ‘Did God really say you were not to eat from the trees in the garden?’  The woman answered the serpent, ‘We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden.  But of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, “You must not eat it, nor touch it, under pain of death”.’  Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘No!  You will not die!  God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.’ 

Genesis 3:1-6

And most of us, no matter our deficient familiarity with Sacred Scripture, have a fair idea of the rest of the story.  

The powerful symbol of the tree which robs the human person, the sharer in the divine life and called by a divine vocation, of his essential being, to be himself, now chases us through the remainder of Scripture.  

A curse on the man who puts his trust in man, who relies on things of flesh, whose heart turns from the Lord.  He is like a dry scrub in the wastelands: if good comes, he has no eye for it, he settles in the parched places of the wilderness, a salt land, uninhabited.

A blessing on the man who puts his trust in the Lord, with the Lord for his hope.  He is like a tree by the waterside that thrusts its roots to the stream: when the heat comes it feels no alarm, its foliage stays green; it has no worries in a year of drought, and never ceases to bear fruit.

The heart is more devious than any other thing, perverse too: who can pierce its secrets?  I, the Lord, search to the heart, I probe the loins, to give each man what his conduct and his actions deserve.  

Jeremiah 17:5-10, echoing Psalm 1

It becomes the mark of the ebb and flow of the relationship between God and the one whom he has created in his image and likeness (to borrow the pivotal phrase from the first Genesis creation myth).  The tree, and its fruit, have become man’s downfall.  In his eagerness to become something which he is not, and in his desire to become god, and by his own effort and design which, notably, obscures the fundamental desire which God plants in the person from the beginning to be in communion with God alone, man refuses and rejects – the foundation of every moment of disruption in his relationship with God, in his relationships with his fellow human persons, and in his relationship with himself.  The balance, which was never fragile, is gone.

From the first things – Genesis – to the last things – Apocalypse.

Then the angel showed me the river of life, rising from the throne of God and of the Lamb and flowing crystal-clear down the middle of the city street.  On either side of the river were the trees of life, which bear twelve crops of fruit in a year, one in each month, and the leaves of which are the cure for the pagans.  The ban will be lifted.  The throne of God and of the Lamb will be put in place in the city; his servants will worship him, they will see him face to face and his name will be written on their foreheads.  It will never be night again and they will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will be shining on them.  They will reign for ever and ever. 

Apocalypse 22:1-5

The writer John, and his school, shows an incredible awareness of the reality of Christ Crucified and Risen as the recapitulation of all the creation story and the recreation which happens through him.  Both the Gospel, from its Prologue through to the post-resurrection encounter with Mary in the Garden, and the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, wish us to be overwhelmed by the Word made Flesh through whom creation is restored, and we with it.  The glorious climax of this Apocalypse vision is the heavenly city – it is the new Eden, the new paradise, the new balance, if you like, marked principally by God’s glory, the presence of his very nature, and all humankind, those who have died and been raised in the death of the Lamb and his victory, giving praise in his presence.  And at its heart, settled on the river which flows from the throne (here, John recalls the astonishing vision had by the prophet Ezekiel of the Temple and the water which arose from it: Ezekiel 47), the trees of life, always fruitful, always medicinal, always life giving.  The befouling of the first tree is taken away entirely in the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.

How is all this possible?

Today’s feast – the exaltation of the Holy Cross – captures the imagery of the tree which runs through much of Sacred Scripture, and is transformed in the reality of the Cross.  In this sense our focus is very much upon the Cross, and not simply upon Christ’s crucifixion on the Cross, although, of course, one cannot separate the two – there is no crucifixion without the Cross!  But the feast asks us to consider and reflect upon the instrument of the redemption achieved by Christ.  The very wood of the Cross is the instrument of our redemption! St Paul leads us in this reflection:

The language of the cross may be illogical to those who are not on the way to salvation, but those of us who are on the way see it as God’s power to save… here are we preaching a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and wisdom of God

I Corinthians 1:18, 23-25

I have been crucified with Christ, and I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me

Galatians 2:19-20

You cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless you crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires

Galatians 5:24

As for me, the only thing I can boast about is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world

Galatians 6:14

Christ has overridden the Law, and cancelled every record of the debt that we had to pay; he has done away with it by nailing it to the cross

Colossians 2:14

In all of these words, Paul wishes to emphasize for his hearers and readers that the cross and Christ’s redeeming sacrifice are inextricably bound together – the cross, the principal instrument of Christ’s Passion, really has become the tree of life for those who accept it.

Drawing together and commenting upon this Pauline teaching on the Cross of Jesus Christ, Hans Urs von Balthasar has this to say:

That Cross is the mid-point of saving history, all the promises are realised in it, every aspect of the Law, with its quality as curse, is dashed to pieces on the Cross.  The Cross is the centre of the world’s history, for it transcends the categories of ‘elect’ and ‘non-elect’ by reconciling all human beings in the crucified body which hangs there.  It is the mid-point, too, of all creation and predestination, inasmuch as we were predestined, in Christ’s blood, to be the children of God before the foundation of the world.  Paul himself simply intends to carry out the ministry of preaching, by way of service to the reconciliation of the world to God in the Cross of Jesus. 

von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale

And into this great complex and swirl of all history, cosmically salvific, my own tiny history, an insignificance were it not for the fact that its origin is God and its goal is oneness with God, is caught up!

For Cistercians, one of the most exquisite passages meditating on the reality of the Cross in our lives is given us by St Aelred of Rievaulx, as he speaks to his community on one Palm Sunday.  It’s an opportunity for Aelred to fire his brothers earst, to focus their gaze lest it be wandering, to brighten their eyes by commending them in their vocation.  For all of us who wish to come to know better the wisdom of Christ’s Cross and so be caught up in the mystery of Cross and Resurrection, it speaks.  And for those who are listening we might wonder, especially in Aelred’s opening thoughts, although these words were offered in the 12th century they might as well be spoken to the world of the 21st:

Does a wondrous joy not arise in your hearts, my brothers, when you perceive before you the sign of the Cross, still glorious with that inscription (This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews)?  All to no avail was the rejection of the godless.  This rejection on the part of the Jews was followed by rejection on the part of the pagans.  Even emperors take up arms against the cross of Christ, philosophers debate, orators inveigh, even the dregs of the populace howl.  What shall I say?  Against one wooden gibbet the whole world was fighting.  But now, brothers, reflect on the omnipotence of our Lord Jesus Christ, reflect on Wisdom.  By means of that gibbet – and nothing was more despicable, nothing more vile, nothing more hateful, nothing more horrible, for what is more vile than a cross on which robbers were hung, men guilty of sacrilege executed, parricides put to death? – by means of that, I tell you, the Lord subjugated emperors, made fools of the wise, instructed the simple and unlearned, glorified the poor, and of all of them together worshippers of the gibbet.

Would that what is true of the voice was also true of the behaviour.  Yet many and, – what is more to be regretted – even those who profess the cross of Christ, reject that cross.  Not indeed by what they say but by what they do.  Who are they who reject the cross of Christ if not those who are the enemies of the cross of Christ?

My sons, I address you as brothers, as men who not only adore the cross of Christ but have also made profession on it.  You have not only made profession, but are lovers of it.  You I will address.  Let anyone feel as he will, judge as he will, flatter himself as much as he will.  In the cross of Christ there is nothing weak, nothing soft, nothing delicate, nothing that coddles the flesh and blood.  Let the cross of Christ be, as it were, the mirror of the Christian.  In the light of the cross of Christ let each person examine his life, whether the way he lives conforms to the cross of Christ.  And to the extent to which anyone shares Christ’s cross, let him count on sharing Christ’s glory.  But anyone who spurns the bitterness of Christ’s cross should stand in fear of not being admitted to the sight of the Crucified.  Realise, my brothers, how greatly you should rejoice, you who have crucified yourselves with Christ.  It is the truth I am telling you, brothers, I do not lie.  Our order is Christ’s cross.  Therefore, brothers, hold fast to these two things: that you do not depart from the cross of Christ; that when you are placed on the cross, you do nothing against the cross.  To speak more plainly: persevere in your order and, persevering in the order, do not knowingly do anything contrary to that order.  In this way you will beyond any doubt follow Christ to the place where he went from his cross. 

Aelred of Rievaulx, Sermon 10

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