I love it when a Feast Day falls on a Sunday and we have the excuse of moving from the Temporale to the Sanctorale – from the day by day calendar, to the saints and holy days calendar. It means that the Sunday congregation, who may not be able to tun out on a weekday for a celebration, get to experience some of the richness of the tradition.
So this year the Feast of the Holy Cross falls on Sunday. It reminds me of the Feast of Corpus Christi in that on both of these days we are able to retread something of Holy Week – on Corpus Christi we can revisit the Upper Room, on the Holy Cross we go once more to Calvary.
Pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, if they have time, can descend the steps that lead down to the chapel where, tradition has it, the cross was discovered by St Helena and her workmen. It’s a mysterious place; you move first through the Armenian Chapel and then descend again into a space which shows the marks of it being a former quarry. Was it in such a wasteland that the cross would have been thrown? I don’t know but that not knowing doesn’t trouble me.
When I was training at the College of the Resurrection I remember seeing the relic of the Holy Cross that was kept in the mensa of the altar in the chapel of the Holy Cross in the Community Church. It had the appearance of a splinter, but then of course that is what it was, just a sliver of wood from something larger – the cross? Well maybe. But what was most important was that people venerated it as such, gave it a significance because in some sacramental way it brought them into an experience of the one true cross. And that was what was so important for me; the subterranean chapel in Jerusalem may have been the place of discovery of the cross, the sliver of wood in Mirfield may have come from it, but the faith of those who came to both and sought Jesus, the crucified God, was and is so much more important.
And any wood puts us in touch with the wood to which Jesus was nailed, just as any person puts us in touch with the humanity encompassed in divinity by Jesus’ incarnation. ‘Behold the wood of the cross’ we sing on Good Friday – not of the true wood that bore Jesus but the true wood which is presented to us for us to venerate, and in venerating to bring us closer to the one who though his death saved us.
Yesterday Southwark Cathedral hosted the first Anglican Catholic Future conference. In the keynote address Professor Alison Millbank asked the question ‘Is there an anglican catholic future?’ She then spoke of what we bring in terms of embodiment, holiness and sacramentality. There was some discussion in the fringes about whether there can be any future in looking back but I think that the answer has to be ‘yes’. The future begins in the present and has to be founded in the past. Anglicanism is always resting on Hooker’s three-legged stool of scripture, reason and tradition. Alison’s trio of embodiment, holiness and sacramentality, which she described as the deep principles of the catholic tradition, seem to me to be so apparent on the Feast of the Holy Cross – embodied in the material, holy in nature, sacramental in effect – wood that bears the Son of God, whose death leads us to glory.
As we say when we follow the Stations of the Cross
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.
For by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.