Adoration of the Cross

Author: Apostleship of Prayer


THE priest who celebrates the divine office, unveils the symbol of salvation portion by portion, intoning the verse: The assistant clergy sing aloud: ; and choir and people kneel, responding, Come let us adore. After repeating this three times, the priest places the Cross on a cushion before the altar; the clergy remove their shoes to worship the Cross, each kneeling three times before kissing it. During the Adoration the choir sings the repeating after every stanza:

Faithful Cross above all others, One and only noble Tree, None in foliage, none in blossom,

None in fruit thy peer may be; Sweetest wood and sweetest iron, Sweetest weight is hung on thee.

The laity follow the clergy in this solemn act of worship, and all day long the Cross rests upon the altar, the sole object of our worship, crowds flocking to the sanctuary rail to kiss it with deepest reverence. This ceremony is called the Adoration of the Cross and it has been part of the public worship of the Church since, early in the fourth century, the Empress Helena discovered the true Cross. This relic of the Passion was at first solemnly venerated in this way each year in Jerusalem only, and vast numbers of pilgrims went thither to take part in the service. Later, portions of the sacred relic were sent to various churches in other parts of the world, so that the same ceremony might be repeated, and now it is universal, even where there is no relic of the true cross, since the homage paid to the Cross is really intended for Christ who, by dying on the Cross, has wrought our salvation.

From the very beginning of Christianity the Cross has been an object of special veneration. The Apostles esteemed it above everything in the world. "O precious Cross!" cried St. Andrew in his martyrdom, "which the members of my Lord have made so goodly. how long have I desired thee! how warmly have I loved thee! how constantly have I sought thee! . . . How wonderful art thou, O Cross!

O Cross, how lovable art thou! O Cross, thy bright beams enlighten the darkness of the whole world." St. Paul gloried in nothing save in the Cross of Christ, and in Him crucified, deemed himself to know nothing but Christ on the Cross. Although the faithful whom they formed after Christ, did not consider it prudent to worship publicly a symbol which would exasperate the Jews, and even seem to justify the contempt of pagans for their faith, they cherished it in their private devotions and appealed to it as the distinctive emblem of a Christian. Long before Constantine had it graven on the , they had represented it in forms disguised to the uninitiated, by an anchor, by the mast and yard of a vessel, or the apparently chance arrangement of the branches of a tree, by the Greek letters gamma or chi, the first in the name of Christ. Before they could paint or carve it for public veneration, they signed themselves with it "at every act, at every step," as St. Jerome remarks and, in imitation of our Lord in His Passion, according to Tertullian, they stretched out their arms in the form of a Cross. The longer they were forced to venerate it secretly, the more rapidly they multiplied its images when prudence permitted, so much so that the worship of it soon became the dominant note of Christian piety everywhere. "Nothing so much adorns an imperial crown," St. Chrysostom observed, "as the Cross, the most precious thing in the world. What all one time feared is now in images sought by all and it is also found everywhere, with prince and peasant, men and women, spouse and virgin, slave and freeman. They all make this sign frequently on the forehead as if stamping it on the head of the column. It shines from our altars, at the ordination of our priests, at the consecration of the body of Christ offered at the mystic supper. It is visible everywhere, in the home and in the forum, in unfrequented places, by the roadside, in the mountains, in the valley and on the hill, at sea, on our ships and on our islands, on our tables, on our clothes, and on our armor, over the marriage couch, at our banquets, on vases of gold and silver and pearl, on our walls, on our distempered animals, on the bodies of the obsessed, in war, in peace, day and night, even among our bands of dancers and troops of jugglers-so universally have all come to seek this great gift and its ineffable grace."

It was natural that men who had lived in daily expectation of martyrdom should, on witnessing the triumph of the Church over paganism, have used the chief Christian symbol as a sign of triumph. "It behooved Christ to suffer and so enter into His glory," meant for them glory among men as well as in heaven. Gradually, the more they penetrated into the mystery of the Cross and the more they came to feel the need of it as a memorial of Christ's Passion against the seductions of the world, they added to the emblem the figure of Him Who had consecrated it by His Death. Not that crucifixes were unknown among Christians before they used and venerated them publicly; on the contrary, although archaeologists have as yet found no trace of them, they presume that they were used in the Catacombs, and the presumption is sustained by the discovery of a caricature of the crucifix on the walls of the palace of the Caesars dated by De Rossi about the time of Severus, A. D. 197-215. The crucifix has been venerated publicly since early in the sixth century, and its worship is identified with that of the Cross.

Instinctively Christian piety endeavors to reproduce the image of Christ on the Cross, which is, to quote the words of St. Augustine, His pulpit as teacher, His altar as victim, His throne as king. "If I be lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men after me." He is our complete model only when mounted upon the cross. Under this image we venerate Him in our homes, schools and churches, in our wayside shrines and woodland oratories, in our cemeteries. Every where, in distant missions and in Catholic countries, in the public squares and buildings, Christ is represented in painting or sculpture dying on the Cross for our salvation; and everywhere, save in places in Italy and France, in which a diabolical hatred for Christianity seems to possess its enemies, the Crucifix is in honor even among those who are not of our faith. The chivalry it inspired into the hearts of the: Crusaders and their services to Christendom make all generous hearts cherish it with affection; art and the masterpieces of the greatest artists, Perugino, Durer, Raphael, Angelo, recommend it to all in whom aesthetic tastes beget respect for true religious sentiment. The eloquence of masters like Chrysostom, Augustine, Leo the Great, Bossuet and Bourdaloue, fills even carnal minds with awe for this sign; ritualism and the craving of the human heart for vivid memorials of its belief and highest aspirations have restored the image of the Crucified to honor where once it was held in execration.

When we reflect upon the fascination with which the Crucifix attracts all religious souls, we are not surprised at the marvellous stories of the bending and speaking crucifixes narrated in the lives of St. John Gualbert, St. Camillus of Lellis, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catharine of Ricci, St. Collette and many others. When we recall the intense devotion to this sacred image of St. Francis and his first followers among the Franciscans, we do not wonder that rays darting from the wounds of the figure thereon, should impress on him the stigmata or marks of the wounds our Lord received in His passion. St. Vincent Ferrer called it his bible; St. Thomas Aquinas, the book from which he derived all his wisdom; St. Thomas of Villanova, the inspiration of his eloquence; St. Canute cast his kingly crown at the feet of Christ crucified, fain that he and his people might together be the subjects of Him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

A proper spirit of veneration for the Crucifix would enable us to find in it a clue to the mysteries of our faith. From it Christ proclaims as from His pulpit the power, the wisdom, the justice, the mercy of God the Father; the weakness, the folly, the malice and the indifference of men. The true nature of sin, the false standards of this world, the only true alleviation of its miseries, the solid hope for the future, all appear in their true light as we gaze upon the figure of Christ crucified.

He is raised aloft on this altar of propitiation, the one mediator between heaven and earth, a victim whose sacrifice is of infinite value, more than sufficient to atone for our sins, a priest whose dignity enhances his offering and imparts merit even to our imperfect services. He reigns from the tree, as was prophesied of Him, from the tree of life, the life of hope; which he imparts to everyone who gazes on Him reverently, the life of love, by which He draws all things to Himself. His reign is one of power, power to inspire the wicked with fear, to animate the just with a holy courage.

"Dearly beloved brethren," said the eloquent Pope Leo I, "when we gaze upon Christ lifted up upon the Cross, the eyes of our mind see more than that which appeared before the wicked, unto whom it was said through Moses: 'And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee, and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life.' (Deut. xxviii, 66.). They saw in the crucified Lord nothing but the work of their own wickedness, and 'they feared greatly,' (Matt. xxvii, 54), not with that faith which giveth earnest of life by justification, but with that whereby the evil conscience is tortured. But our understanding is enlightened by the spirit of truth, and with pure and open hearts we see the glory of the Cross shining over heaven and earth, and discern by inward glance what the Lord meant when his passion was nigh at hand and He said: 'Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things unto Me.'

"O how wonderful is the power of the Cross! O how unutterable the glory of the Passion, wherein standeth the Lord's judgment seat, and the judgment of this world, and the might of the Crucified!

Lord! Thou hast drawn all things unto Thee! 'Thou didst spread out Thine Hands all the day unto an unbelieving and gainsaying people' (Isa. Ixv, 2), but the world hath felt and owned Thy Majesty! Lord! Thou hast drawn all things unto Thee! All the elements gave one wild cry of horror at the iniquity of the Jews; the lights of the firmament were darkened, day turned into night, earth quaked with strange tremblings, and all God's work refused to serve the guilty. Lord! Thou hast drawn all things unto Thee! The veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, the Holy of Holies denied itself as a sanctuary for the ministration of unworthy priests, that the shadow might be changed for the substance, prophecy for realization, and the Law for the Gospel.

"Lord! Thou hast drawn all things unto Thee! That which was veiled under types and shadows in the one Jewish Temple, is hailed by the love of all peoples in full and open worship. There is now a higher order of Levites, a more honorable rank of elders, a priesthood; with an holier anointing. Thy Cross is a well of blessing for all, and a cause for thanksgiving for all. Thereby for them that believe in Thee, weakness is turned into strength, shame into glory, and death into life. The changing ordinance of divers carnal sacrifices is gone; the one oblation of Thy Body and Blood filleth them all. For thou art the Very Paschal Lamb, which takest away the sins of the world, and art in Thyself all offerings finished. And even as thou art the One Sacrifice which taketh the place of all sacrifices, so may Thy Kingdom be one Kingdom established over all peoples."

It is this power, this kingdom which some of the rulers of this world are vainly striving to destroy by banishing the Crucifix from strongholds which have been consecrated to it by the piety of ages, from the school, the asylum, the hospital and even from the cemetery. Fancy the impiety which but a few months ago prompted the civil hospital committee of Toulon, in France, to remove the Crucifixes from the sick rooms because they collected dust which might retain germs of disease! A pagan spirit is endeavoring to encroach on the domain of the Crucifix. If it cannot be buried out of sight, other models and solutions must be recommended for the misery and discontent of the poor and of those who bear the burden of labor. Poverty is a disgrace, labor an injustice, suffering a wrong and an indignity: the Cross is a superstition, a delusion, a folly; it is in the way; it has served its time; men can mend, just as they mar, their own fortunes in this life.

In contrast with this impious spirit is the spirit of reverence with which the Church summons us to worship the sign of our Redemption. What can equal the tenderness, the elevation, the exuberance, the triumph, the confidence of her tributes of veneration to the Crucifix! "Hail, O Cross! Brighter than all the stars! Thy name is honorable on earth! To the eyes of men thou art exceeding lovely! Holy thou art among all things that are earthly! Thy ransom made the one worthy balance whereon the price of the world was weighed." Confidently she asks "that by the ransom which Thou didst pay upon that tree of life we may finally attain unto life eternal." Triumphantly she sings:

The Royal Banners forward go; The Cross shines forth in mystic glow, Where Life for sinners death endured, And life by death for man procured.

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O Tree of Beauty! Tree of Light! O Tree with Royal Purple dight! Elect on whose triumphal breast Those holy limbs should find their rest.

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O Cross, our one reliance, hail! This holy Passiontide, avail To give fresh merit to the Saint And pardon to the penitent.

Taken from "The Messenger", Volume I, Fifth Series, 1902, published by the Apostleship of Prayer.

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