The Crucifixion (1577-1579), El Greco
“You are to fast every day, except Sunday, from the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross until Easter Day, unless bodily sickness or feebleness, or some other good reason, demand a dispensation from the fast; for necessity overrides every law” (Rule of St. Albert).
In the writings of the Carmelite saints, we read of the great fast, which has been kept in Carmelite monasteries for centuries. It always begins today, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and ends with the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord on Easter. However, beyond merely the beginning of a period of penance, or a curbing of eating for winter, this holy feast has held special significance for our saints. Two of them, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, chose the Holy Cross as their devotional title and would have understood this feast to hold special significance for their own religious life. According to the constitutions of the Discalced Carmelite nuns, vows are renewed yearly on this day. However, throughout the Church, this feast is relatively unknown or lightly observed.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, World War II formally began with the declaration of war on Germany by France and the United Kingdom. In her monastic cell in Cologne, Germany, St. Teresa Benedicta wrote in preparation for her renewal of vows for the feast on September 14:
The world is in flames, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist has broken into the open. If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life. Carefully consider what you promise. Taking and renewing vows is serious business. You make a promise to the Lord of heaven and earth. . . . The world is in flames. The conflagration can also reach our house. But high above all flames towers the cross. They cannot consume it. It is the path from earth to heaven. It will lift one who embraces it in faith, love, and hope into the bosom of the Trinity. The world is in flames. Are you impelled to put them out? Look at the cross. From the open heart gushes the blood of the Savior. This extinguishes the flames of hell. Make your heart free by the faithful fulfillment of your vows; then the flood of divine love will be poured into your heart until it overflows and becomes fruitful to all the ends of the earth (“Elevation of the Cross, September 14, 1939” in The Hidden Life: Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2014), 94–96.).
The conflagration of flames would ultimately reach the house of Echt Carmel less than three years later in August 1942. But the hope that Teresa Benedicta held in the cross strengthened her to live her vows in faith and love, even as she was arrested and transported to her death.
Like St. Teresa Benedicta, we must learn to exalt the cross and hold it before our eyes as a symbol of victory. However, when we look at a crucifix, by simple appearance, it still seems to signify a lifeless Christ, either dead or suffering in anguish. When we read the passion narratives of the gospels, the bystanders walk away beating the breasts, not shouting in exaltation. Behind simple appearances, the theme of victory quietly swells. We are reminded, like the disciples at Emmaus: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?“ (Luke 24:25–26) Before and immediately after Jesus’s death on the cross, the cross as a symbol meant death and torture. But Jesus, through His death and resurrection glorified the cross, exalted it and gave it new meaning. Now when we gaze upon the cross, we see the symbol of victory, triumph, and glory.
The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross honors the power of the Holy Cross. It is the festival recognition of what the crucifixion and death of Jesus has effected for us and continues to effect for us. It is an invitation to unite ourselves with Jesus on the Cross for the salvation of the world today—here and now—through our daily crucifixion of our sins, inordinate desires and affections, and imperfections. The season it inaugurates every year is an opportunity to intentionally take the mission of being united with Jesus on the Cross seriously, and for seven months to live daily with Jesus particularly in his saving action. This uniting enables us to pour the Blood of Jesus on our ailing world, and to put out the conflagration of the world in flames through the death of ourselves, as St. Teresa Benedicta observed. Through our acts of selfless mercy and love, we are enabled to heal the broken relationships, hopeless situations, and endless poverty that we ourselves have created by our sins.
To save the world in flames, we must ourselves be wounded by the winning side and won over from our sinful cooperation with the enemy. Christ wins us over by the powerful weapons of His Cross and Precious Blood. Father Garrigou-Lagrange, a French Dominican who also lived during the events of World War II, writes this:
Intense love, becoming violent “wounds” him who loves and “makes him die to self” by making him live for another, by leading him to “go out of himself” and give himself generously to the beloved. Intense love is, therefore, not without a certain destruction of the lover, not without that interior immolation represented by exterior sacrifice and spoken by the Scriptures. It implies a martyrdom of heart known to all the saints and a mystical death symbolized in the Gospel by the death of the grain of wheat that becomes the seed of new life. Happily, love causes this death, destroying all that is contrary to it (The Love of God and the Cross of Jesus, vol. 1, 71–72.).
To be wounded by love is the great grace that we are all seeking in this supernatural war between good and evil. By placing ourselves willingly before the foot of the cross, we are in effect throwing ourselves into the line of fire. Instead of fighting for the enemy, we are captured by the love of Jesus. When we engage in daily mortifications, we are wounding ourselves for love, surrendering our cooperation with Satan for our salvation in Jesus Christ. We die with Christ and so live with Him in eternity. On this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let us throw ourselves before the Cross and be washed clean by the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ.