Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Holy Cross

The exultation of the Holy Cross has been one of the great feasts of the Church ever since St Helena went to Jerusalem and, according to the legend, rediscovered the actual wood of the Cross on which Christ had been crucified. She was the mother of Emperor Constantine, who founded the second Rome, Constantinople, which became Byzantium. For the Orthodox Church it is almost a family feast, for it was Constantine who was the first Roman Emperor to accept the truth of Christianity. What makes this icon so striking is its understanding of means and ends. Jesus is the end, always and only the end, and we honour the Cross solely because of the use He made of it. In itself, the Cross is an instrument of torture. Taken up in love, it becomes the instrument of salvation.

The tall, elongated figure of Jesus dominates the icon. He is seen within the context of His Church, that other means to the same end, a fuller union with Jesus. On either side of Him stand His mother and St John the Baptist, which is another reference to the Church. All Orthodox Churches have as their visual centre what is called the Deisis, that is Jesus with Mary and John on either side, and beyond them, at least six Bishops or Prophets or Doctors. Only Jesus looks out at His congregation. All the holy figures, who represent us as we would wish to be, turn towards Him, to be blessed and strengthened. Jesus stands upon jagged rocks which slope down to a riverbed. The rocks, however, are lit as if from within, perhaps recalling Mount Tabor. At the foot of the little mountain rises a small and almost insignificant cross. Three angels cluster around it and we can see that it stands within a river, thereby consecrating its waters. The reference is to the Pool of Siloam that we read of in the Gospel. The sick came there to be blessed, and here, on either side, we see the mass of the sick and needy. The Gospel story showed Jesus healing the sick by His presence. Now it is the spiritually sick whom He heals, and the wood of the Cross is not merely material but infused with His own redemptive grace.

In becoming man, Jesus has transformed the very nature of matter. He has made everything that exists a potential means of grace. In venerating the wood of the Cross, we are specially honouring the meaning of His death. Suffering, in itself, is no more sanctifying than the dull materiality of wood. But Jesus made wood ‘honourable’, he used it to redeem us. The Cross is a symbol of all that causes us to suffer, in itself a dead end, through grace, blessedly redemptive.

The angels, those heavenly figures of light, clustering around the font (surely the baptismal font?) are eclipsed by the thin frailty of the Cross that rises above them, and that, in itself is only important because of the figure of Jesus. The exultation of the Cross is really the exultation of the Saviour, the redemptive Jesus, who stands within the context of His Church and draws us to Himself.

Picture: Exaltation of the Honourable Wood of the Cross 15th century © Suzdal Museum, Russia.
Text © ST PAULS Publishing. Taken from Sister Wendy Contemplates The Iconic Jesus