Tag: Feasts and seasons

September 14 marks an interesting and ancient feast in the Church, “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” or “Holy Cross Day.” The day is observed in some fashion by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Red vestments are traditionally worn on Holy Cross Day.

The history behind this is fascinating, as it marks a time when Christianity was becoming ascendant within the Roman Empire. The story displays also something of the shift toward what we might identify as a medieval mindset within the faith. After all, this is a tale of magic, of a questing empress, and the veneration of relics that are thought to provide divine protection.

The empress in question is Helena (also known as Saint Helena in some circles), a woman of obscure birth who became the wife of Constantius, one of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire; Though he divorced her, their only son was Constantine I, destined to become the supreme ruler in 306. She never remarried, but remained close with her son. She was a devout Christian, and did much to promote Christianity within a Roman Empire that had previously tried to squash it.

The emperor Constantine appointed his mother Helena as “Augusta Imperatrix” and authorized her to go on a quest to the Holy Land to investigate Christian sites. She tore down pagan shrines which had been deliberately placed at Christian sites by an earlier emperor, and she began the building of magnificent churches at the sites of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, she is said to have found the “true cross” upon which Jesus was executed. According to legend the cross of Jesus had been buried in a cistern, along with crosses of the other two prisoners executed with him. She supposedly also recovered the nails and a part of the sign that had hung above his head (a wooden plaque inscribed with Jesus Nazaranus Rex Iudaeorum). The “true Cross” was identified among the three based on observation of its healing powers.

The subsequent tale of the cross could fill a large book. Much of it was carried to Constantinople, and part of it went to Rome, where it is kept to this day at the Basilica Santa Croce. The portion left in Jerusalem was stolen in 614 by the Persian emperor Khosrau II, and returned after his defeat by Byzantine emperor Heraclitus. In the 12th century, when the Crusaders reconquered Jerusalem, it came into the possession of Arnulf Malecorne, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who carried it aloft during battles. It was later captured by Saladin and lost to history.

Tiny fragments of the “true cross” were prized among the faithful; they became popular as amulets for kings and nobles to wear as a sign of faith and for personal protection, and for churches to keep as relics. The proliferation of relics accelerated at sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1124. Bits of the “true cross” can be found across the globe, from Greece’s Mount Athos to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, to Shaftesbury, England to Galveston, Texas. By the 16th century, Protestant reformer John Calvin remarked, “…if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”

Saint Ambrose, in his funeral oration for Theodosius, recounted the legend surrounding the discovery of the true cross, and said this of Helena: “she worshiped not the wood, but the King, him who hung upon the cross.”

May we do the same.

For more information:
As of the time of this writing, Wikipedia has a long and interesting article about the True Cross. More details about these stories are also available online at Catholic Education Resource Center, and at New Advent.

Alfred Nobel was startled in 1888 to see his own obituary in the papers. His brother’s death had been mistakenly attributed to him. A French paper boldly proclaimed “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). It is thought that a sense of shame about his role in inventing dynamite led Nobel to establish the famous prizes that bear his name.

Originally called “Nobel’s Blasting Powder”, the inventor had reached back into the Greek language for a word that would forever after be associated with the immense power of his explosive: “δύναμις” or “dynamis”. It is the root behind the words “dynamo” and “dynamic”.

This same word is used in the Bible to describe the amazing power from on high that became available to the disciples of Jesus after his departure. Jesus had told them, “But you will receive power [dynamis] when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

About ten days later, the disciples were in an upper room in Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost, when suddenly that dynamism exploded upon them. As described in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
(Acts 2:2-12).

From that moment in a Jerusalem street, two thousand years ago, the church was suddenly born in a cataclysm–an explosion–of spiritual power that has propelled the “Good News” of Jesus through space and time, right down to us. The temporal powers that had tried to crush Jesus just weeks before this moment, were unsuccessful in stopping the new movement. They were no match for the “dynamis” of the Holy Spirit.

(Photo credit: “Boom goes the dynamite” by Aaron Merrell, at FLICKR, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons 2.0).

(Quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version).

The Ascension of Jesus, celebrated today as a major feast day in many churches, remains a deep mystery that both amazes and confounds us to this day.

According to the last verses of book of Luke: And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

I remember a movie portrayal of Jesus beaming down at his disciples as he rises into a clear blue sky. Though I otherwise liked the movie, I thought this bit of celluloid really looked kind of cheesy.

We are left to wonder, what really happened? Was this just a final flourish as Jesus left our plane of existence? Did Jesus really fly up like Superman? Did he perhaps disapparate in a puff of smoke like those “death eater” wizards in Harry Potter movies? Did he shimmer and fade out like a Star Trek character in a transporter beam? Did he go into orbit around earth and then zip on out into space?

The world’s first human in space, Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, is reported to have announced in 1961 that when he went into space, he looked around, and didn’t see God up there. (More on this in a minute).

I happened to run across a blog post on Patheos, by Butler University’s Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, James McGrath, which showed some hilarious (if irreverent) pictures of Jesus in a space suit. I take his photos and his accompanying article–somewhat derisive in tone– to be a warning against too simplistic and literal a reading of this (or any) passage. The author states:

Ascension day is a perfect day to draw attention to the fact that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible. Even if someone insists on maintaining the literal truth of the claim in Acts that Jesus literally went up into heaven, they cannot maintain the worldview of the first century Christians which provided the context for the affirmation. They knew nothing of light-years, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen. And it is not possible, through some act of either will or faith, to forget absolutely everything that has been learned since then and believe as they did. Even those who willingly choose to disbelieve modern science are making a choice that the first Christians did not have, and thus accept dogmatically what early Christians naively assumed because they knew no better.”

Now, I would presume that most Christians, including those early ones who witnessed this event, understood this occasion to be something different than space travel, or moving from one spot inside the universe to another. It was not translation through space but the exaltation of Christ that was the main point emphasized in the earliest Christian writings. As St. Paul gushed:

Therefore also God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

Famed author C. S. Lewis wittily rebutted the comment attributed to Gagarin:

Looking for God — or Heaven — by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters or Stratford as one of the places. Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth, nor is he diffused through the play like a gas.
If there were an idiot who thought plays exist on their own, without an author, our belief in Shakespeare would not be much affected by his saying, quite truly, that he had studied all the plays and never found Shakespeare in them.
(“The Seeing Eye”, in C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

Tim Keller, the famed pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has further commented on this:

“C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play.
“In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. … God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.”
(Tim Keller, online at monergism.com).

Jesus isn’t any longer on the set (this world), nor is he in the rafters of the theater, nor is he next door quaffing a pint in the pub with the other actors. Nor is he anywhere floating around in outer space. He is outside the script, outside the story–outside the universe. He conquered death, took a bow, and exited. He is not a cosmonaut but the very author of the cosmos.

Epilogue:
Back to Yuri Gagarin. His friend Valentin Petrov has been interviewed as saying that Gagarin was in fact a devoted Christian at a time when it was dangerous to be such. The quote referenced above is from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev:

It was most certainly not Gagarin who said this, but Khrushchev! This was connected with a plenary session of the Central Committee addressing the question of anti-religious propaganda. Khrushchev then set the task for all Party and Komsomol [Young Communists] organizations to boost such propaganda. He said: “Why are you clinging to God? Here Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” However, some time later these words began to be portrayed in a different light. They were cited in reference not to Khrushchev, but to Gagarin, who was beloved by the people. Such a phrase spoken by him would be of great significance. Khrushchev wasn’t especially trusted, they said, but Gagarin would certainly be. But nothing was ever said by Gagarin about this, nor could he have uttered such things.

(photo credit: Fabrice de Nola, 1996. Yuri Gagarin, oil on canvas, cm 40 x 40).

God our Father
You sent Saint Patrick
to preach your glory to the people of Ireland.
By the help of his prayers,
may all Christians proclaim your love to all men.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.

(Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours, from the website www.churchyear.net)

(Image credit: Saint Patrick stained glass window from Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA. Posted to FLICKR by user SICARR, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Our warmest greetings to you as we begin the season of preparation for Christmas. From the Advent page of our parent website:

This is the season of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child. As St. Paul said in Galatians 4:4 “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son”. In his book, Time, Science, and Society in China and the West, Nathaniel Morris Lawrence suggests a metaphor in which “fullness of time” can be thought of as the moment before delivery in a pregnancy. During advent, the universe is pregnant. All of history has led up to this moment, when the God of time and creation takes upon himself our nature, becomes enfleshed, and steps into our timeline, into the specific time and place of Bethlehem circa 4 BC. The universe is pregnant, awaiting this moment. Mary, the future mother of Jesus, is pregnant, awaiting the delivery of her child. The people of Israel are expecting a messiah. The moment is almost upon us.

(Image credit: “Adventskranz” by Liesel, available at Wikimedia Commons)