Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which celebrates the discovery of the True Cross by Saint Helena (mother of Constantine the Great) in 326 – a discovery which, nine years later, led to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre being built on the site where the Cross was found, and part of it being placed within. The feast in fact began as a two-day festival celebrating the dedication of the church on September 13th and the veneration of the Cross on the following day, but now the feast takes place solely on the 14th and is focused on the Cross and its exaltation. However, there was also a feast day of great note yesterday – that of Saint John Chrysostom – so I thought I would bring the two together with a homily of Saint John’s on the Cross.
Saint John Chrysostom (347 – 407) is known in the West as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church (along with Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and Saint Athanasius), and in the East as one of the three Holy Hierarchs (the same list minus Athanasius, who was included in the Western list to provide a more perfect counterpoint to the four Western Doctors). Born in Antioch, he was made Archbishop of Constantinople in 397, and was well known for his preaching (hence Chrysostom, which means ‘golden mouthed’). Though not remembered for any great works of speculative theology, his preaching and teaching was consistently clear, interspersed with real-life examples that people could identify with, and full of practical advice for living a Christian life, much of which has abiding relevance for all eras.
Frequent in his homilies is the call to follow Christ, and a directing us back to the Way of the Cross. Saint John, who knew great suffering in his own life, was confident that God’s love for us was greater than we could ever know, and that it was in giving ourselves to following Him by living a life of love that we are able to know His peace. In the homily that follows, He discusses the perceived ‘folly’ of the Cross – that in its display of weakness, seeds of love were planted in the hearts of many, and greater good was wrought than the words of the wise could ever hope to achieve:
‘This is how the folly of God is wiser than man, and His weakness stronger. How is it stronger? It is stronger in that it spread over the whole earth and seized men by force, and whereas thousands and thousands did their utmost to stamp out the name of the Crucified One, just the contrary came to pass. For this name took root and was propagated all the more, whereas they were destroyed and consumed, and living men fighting a dead One, gained not a stroke. Consequently when a heathen tells me that I am a fool, he proves that he himself is doubly one; inasmuch as considered by him to be a fool, I appear wiser than the wise; and when he calls me weak, he shows himself to be weaker. For publicans and fishermen set up those very things by the goodness of God which philosophers, and orators, and despots, and the whole world vainly striving with all its might could not even devise…
…for the martyrs endured, not in spite of themselves, but willingly, and having it in their power not to suffer, showed forth a fortitude beyond all proof. Therefore it is not surprising if Socrates drank hemlock, both because he could not do otherwise, and because he had reached extreme old age, for he said that he was seventy years old when he despised life, if this be indeed despising it; I should not say so, nor would anyone else. But show me a man rejoicing in his torments for his belief, as I can show you thousands all over the world…
…And if certain men have endured torments, they have forfeited the praise due to them by dying for criminal causes: some for betraying secret things, others for aiming at domination, others for being taken in the most shameful deeds; others, again, either vainly or foolishly, without any cause, have destroyed themselves. But it is not so with us. And this is why their deeds have been hushed in silence, whilst ours are flowering and increasing day by day.’
from Homilies on First Epistle to the Corinthians, XIV, Volume II, in Leaves From St. John Chrysostom (1889), pp.144-146, Burns & Oates.
The Cross seems, at first glance, to be simply a sign of weakness and folly, but when one looks at the change it has made in the lives of people, one finds instead that it has an astonishing power that is in marked contrast to our initial assessment. We live in a world where power triumphs, where the way to get ahead is displaying or accruing more power than others; we live also in a world where wisdom is (rightly) prized, where we rely on reason and prudence to help us to our goals. The idea that the Cross – a symbol of defeat, of limitation and vulnerability – could be anything other than a footnote of history amongst other failures, seems madness to the natural man. And yet, on the Cross Our Lord drew (and continues to draw) all men to Himself.
For the Cross is not just a symbol of defeat, it is a symbol of willing defeat, of a life offered up for others, of sacrifice and love. It is this that, delivered through the mouths of the Apostles, awoke the hearts of so many, and gave them the kind of hope which would spur them on to be salt and light to the known world at large. Looking to the Cross, and seeing Christ die for us out of love, many even ‘showed forth a fortitude beyond all proof’ and gave their lives for the treasure they had received, imitating the life of their Lord and spreading the leaven of the Gospel anew – as His defeat was our salvation, so their defeats became victories, and spread the Church, the earthly means of His salvation, abroad far and wide.
And what is it that was awoken in their hearts, which enabled them to live such changed lives and not fear even death? They saw in the Cross of Christ that love is stronger than death – that our hope does not depend on earthly victories but has its foundation in heavenly places, and that when the depth of the Love of God is known, we can be confident before whatever our fellow men may throw at us, able to convert their blows into blessings. The Cross, showing to all the Heart of God that pours forth eternally His steadfast, self-giving Love, gave them a peace in their hearts that the world could not touch, and still does this today for all who look to it and the Lord who reigned upon it.
This is why, as Saint John writes, the folly of the Cross confounds the wise and does what they cannot – they can influence minds, but the Cross can humble and heal minds, rectify wills and change hearts. This is why it remains a stumbling block to the powerful, as it gives to us a treasure that does not rust and which thieves cannot take by force. This is why we exalt the Holy Cross – because it is the means by which Our Lord accomplished our salvation and showed us the depth of His Love – something which no one can take from us, and which will outlast the world that it created.