From Liber Hymnarius
Reflections on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Fr. Kurt Belsole, OSB
September 14, 2008
Today’s feast, which we share with Orthodox Christians, commemorates the finding of the true Cross by St. Helena on September 14, 320, and the consecration of the church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem.
Just as Holy Thursday is so great a feast with so much to celebrate that it gives rise to the additional solemnity of Corpus Christi, the same is true of Good Friday, there is too much to celebrate for the mystery of redemption wrought through Christ and his Cross to be confined to a single day. So, in a sense, today is a little Good Friday, the day when Christ’s sacrifice on the cross triumphs over the powers of hell, and the devil who had conquered by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is himself conquered by the tree of the cross.
Orthodox Christians in Greece even celebrate this feast by observing the Good Friday fast. A few years ago, when asked about how they could celebrate a feast by fasting, the Orthodox Archbishop of Volos replied and said that it is a matter of the heart. They could not celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross without entering into the mystery of the cross by the Good Friday fast.
In terms of natural sacredness and Christian liturgy, it is worth noting that we are entering now into a period of autumn, and the days are already becoming noticeably shorter. Good Friday is a feast of springtime when the light clearly triumphs over darkness. Now as we approach the beginning of autumn, the Cross of Christ is raised against the encroaching darkness so that in the radiance of Christ and his Cross even night becomes as day.
For those of us privileged to live in Rome, it is helpful also to note that first antiphon for today’s Office of Readings: “Ecce crucem Domini; fugite, partes adversae; vicit leo de tribu Iuda, radix David, alleluia” (Behold the cross of the Lord! Flee, ye, hostile powers! The Lion of the tribe of Juda, the root of David has conquered. Alleluia) is engraved on the base of the obelisk in the center of Saint Peter’s Square; and what was once a sign of pagan worship is now surmounted by the cross.
In fact, the obelisk in the center of Saint Peter’s Square, after it had been exorcized, was erected on that site on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14, 1586.
The Hymn at Evening Prayer
The Roman Breviary as revised after the Second Vatican Council assigns the Vexilla Regis (The Royal Banners Forward Go) to Evening Prayer I and Evening Prayer II for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Various authors have termed it one of the finest jewels of Christian Latin hymnody, and the Breviary assigns it as the hymn for Evening Prayer from Passion (Palm) Sunday to Wednesday of Holy Week as well.
More information on this hymn can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912, which is dated but still valuable. I would only update it by noting that the reform of Vatican II restored the hymn, more or less, to its original form by abandoning the revisions done in the renaissance.
O crux, ave, spes unica!
The Royal Banners
The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where He in flesh, our flesh Who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.
Where deep for us the spear was dyed,
Life’s torrent rushing from His side,
To wash us in that precious flood,
Where mingled water flowed, and blood. ￼￼￼ O tree of beauty, tree of light!
O tree with royal purple bright!
Elect on whose triumphal breast
Those holy limbs should find their rest.
Blest tree, whose chosen branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore,
The price of humankind to pay,
And spoil the spoiler of his prey.
Upon its arms, like balance true,
He weighed the price for sinners due,
The price which none but He could pay,
And spoiled the spoiler of his prey.
O cross, our one reliance, hail!
Still may thy power with us avail
To give new virtue to the saint,
And pardon to the penitent.
To Thee, eternal Three in One,
Let homage meet by all be done:
As by the cross Thou dost restore,
So rule and guide us evermore. Amen.