The comedian Lenny Bruce shocked audiences by wondering how we might respond if Jesus were crucified in the twentieth century. Would Catholics, he mused, walk around with tiny silver electric chairs hung around their necks? It’s an unsettling image, but a helpful one.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Cross, and what we see as both grace-filled and beautiful — the cross — began its existence as a crude instrument of death. People in Jesus’ time would turn their gaze from a cross, hoping not to see the body of a convicted criminal hanging from its crossbeams.
By dying on the cross, Jesus became one with the lowliest of the earth. His death was shameful, as well as painful, and publicly so. How can we celebrate a murder weapon? We celebrate because what brought death, through Jesus, now bestows life.
This is what Theodore of Studios wrote in the ninth century, “How splendid the cross of Christ! It brings life, not death; light, not darkness; Paradise, not its loss. It is the wood on which the Lord, like a great warrior, was wounded in hands and feet and side, but healed thereby our wounds. A tree destroyed us, a tree now brings us life.” When Theodore writes, “A tree destroyed us,” he is referring to an ancient tradition that Adam and Eve carried a seed from the tree of life with them when they left the garden. Their children buried them with the seed, which sprouted and grew. A new tree rose. This was the tree cut down to make the cross of Christ. But this time, from this tree, life and not death springs forth, blessing and not a curse.
By dying on the cross, Jesus became one with the lowliest of the earth.
Today’s feast is an ancient one, dating from at least the early fourth century. It is observed in the eastern and the western Catholic churches. Let us join with our Eastern rite brothers and sisters in offering this praise from the Orthodox liturgy for the Exaltation of the Cross, In paradise of old the wood stripped me bare… Now the wood of the cross that clothes us with the garment Of life has been set up in the midst of the earth, And the whole world is filled with boundless joy. – Melissa Musick