Holy Cross Day, anciently known in the West as Exaltatio Sanctae Crucis, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, marks the anniversary of a two-day festival when the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was consecrated at Jerusalem. On that day, Sept. 14, 335, St. Maximus, Bishop of Jerusalem, brought a relic of the Cross out of the newly dedicated church and held it aloft (thus “exaltation”) for the gathered faithful to venerate.
Holy Cross Day is thus inextricably linked to the particularities of the Lord’s suffering: to the physical wood of the Cross and to the site of the Passion. Hence it is inextricably linked to the mystery of Good Friday, the day on which, as Romano Guardini said, we come to the “highest, thinnest pinnacle of creation,” to the “axis mundi,” the spiritual (and therefore the most real) center of the universe, where the most important and unthinkable unfolds. We come to the place where what Jacques Derrida called “the most impossible possible” becomes the horizon-filling actual.
There is a special place in my heart for infidel philosophers. Sometimes it takes such an unbelieving outsider as Derrida or Friedrich Nietzsche to illuminate for us the faith we proclaim. Sometimes their rejection of our faith is more carefully considered than is our affirmation of it. The following is from Nietzsche’s “parable of the madman”:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? [Are we moving] Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.
Mark’s Gospel says, “They all condemned him as deserving death” (14:64). “And they crucified him” (15:24). “And those who passed by derided him,” (15:29). “And Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?’ which means, ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’” (15:34). “And [he] uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last” (15:37).
This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.
The fact of the matter remains: “We have killed God — you and I. All of us are his murderers.” The Gospels make clear that the Jews and the Gentiles were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Another way of putting it: the whole world unanimously condemns Jesus and crucifies him. The great contemporary thinker René Girard points out that even the world’s downtrodden, those condemned together with Jesus, the thieves crucified with him, even they join with the unanimous multitude in the condemnation of Jesus.
[T]hey too imitate the crowd; like [the crowd] they shout insults at Jesus. The most humiliated persons, the most crushed, behave in the same fashion as the princes of this world. They howl with the wolves. The more one is crucified, the more one burns to participate in the crucifixion of someone more crucified than oneself.
But “this tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering…. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.”
One dimension of this requirement of time is personal and individual, because each of us has to be transformed by the power of the Cross, the dynamism of Jesus, which must enter into us, and transform us from the inside. Recall the riddle Samson posed to his Philistine antagonist-in-laws: “Out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet” (Jdg. 14:14). And the next sentence says: “And [the Philistines] could not in three days tell what the riddle was.”
This passage from the Old Testament was written many centuries before Jesus was born. But perhaps its truest sense is in reference to his disciples, in reference to us: “They could not in three days tell what the riddle was,” because he had not yet risen from the dead. “Deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.”
“What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” (Judges 14:18).
“Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder?” How then do we handle this thing we have done? What do we do now? Do we need, as Nietzsche’s madman insinuated, to invent new rites of atonement to wipe this blood off our hands? I think not. Luke says:
Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things. (Luke 23.47ff)
Jesus, in addition to being conspicuously murdered, is conspicuously innocent. And this event, the collective murder of this innocent man, is God’s most eloquent and tender word to us — which he speaks, in the end, in silence. And the centurion saw what had taken place. And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight saw what had taken place. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things.
Here is the key to understanding the Cross of Jesus — this thing that we have done, this most eloquent of God’s utterances — the key to understanding it is to shut up, and look, supine, at the foot of the Cross, in a mode of humble, agenda-free reception, to plead guilty before this thing’s exaltation, to look at this convergence of our most egregious sin and God’s most extravagant mercy, in the transfixed body of our Lord on the wood of the Cross.
Ecce lignum crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit. Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung the world’s salvation. Come, let us adore.