A celebration of the cross

By Linda Zahorik | September 11, 2014

The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross serves as a reminder that the cross is a glorious and basic symbol to our faith; so much so, that this year, the feast takes precedence over the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

The feast celebrates three historical events: the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, the dedication of churches built by Constantine on the site of the Holy Sepulcher and Mount Calvary and the returning of the True Cross to Jerusalem. In its spiritual form, the feast also celebrates the cross as the instrument of our salvation.

The cross is our universal image of Christian belief. Countless generations of artists have turned it into a thing of beauty to be carried in procession or worn as jewelry, but to the eyes of the first Christians, it had no beauty. Originally used as an instrument of torture and designed to degrade the worst of criminals, crosses stood outside many city walls, decorated only with decaying bodies, as a reminder of what would happen to anyone who defied Rome’s authority. After Jesus death and resurrection, the cross became for Christians, the life-giving tree that reversed original sin.

Although believers recognized the cross as the instrument of salvation, it seldom appeared in early Christian art unless it was disguised as something like an anchor. The actual symbol of the cross came into use during the time of Constantine.

While at Mass this weekend look for the two or three crosses that are in every church. The largest of course will be the main crucifix at the front of the church. Secondly, watch for the processional cross, it leads the ways for our processionals and recessionals during liturgy. Also, look to see if your church may have a smaller cross on the altar. Listen for hymns used in the liturgy such as “Lift High the Cross” or “Behold the Wood” that make reference to and tell the story of the cross. Pay attention to when you sign yourself with the cross during Mass, as well as the number of times the priest presider uses the sign of the cross during liturgy.

Are there other images of the cross or crucifix in your church? There are over 100 variations on the cross so perhaps you will be able to pick out more elusive forms, such as the Tau Cross which is ascribed to St. Francis and resembles the letter T, the St. Andrew Cross which looks like the letter X or the Greek Cross which has squared cross bars. Perhaps you can find a fancy cross that has the three-fold fleur de lis at the end of each bar or a cross made up of three crossbars.

One of my parish sites is St. Peter in Oshkosh. When Msgr. Francis McKeough designed the interior of the church in the 1950s he must have been very enamored by the symbol of the cross. On the stained glass windows, and back wall of that church, there are approximately a total of 1,700 imbedded crosses.

As you leave church to return home, survey the exterior of the church as well. Where are there crosses? Look up at the steeple or the bell tower. Is there one engraved into the cornerstone or in a prayer garden?

If you would like to take a “color” road trip this fall, consider seeing the Cross in the Woods in Indian River, Mich. It is the world’s largest crucifix. Completed in August 1959, it was declared a national shrine by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Sept. 15, 2006.

Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.

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