Exaltation of the Holy Cross: Sweet the wood! Sweet the nails! Save us, O Holy Cross!

Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and at church this morning (Maternal Heart of Mary in Sydney, Australia) I was fortunate enough to kiss a piece of the true cross. The same church, Maternal Heart of Mary in Lewisham, is also said to have a piece of the veil of Our Lady! What a fortunate congregation it is. The team at Catholic Culture tell me that the feast commemorates the recovery of the relic of the Cross from the Persians and its return to Jerusalem by Emperor Heralius in 629.

As a Protestant, I felt cautious about relics, of any kind. My worship experience is far more holistic as a Catholic: for it recognises the God-given dignity of matter, taking the stupendous reality of the incarnation as our precedent.

This said, there is an important separation to be made between the artefact itself, and the significance of its instrumentality. This kind of distinction is set out in the introduction to the litany of the Holy Cross,

This litany, which has come down to us from the Middle Ages and from many countries, should not be thought to be addressed to an inanimate object, great relic though it is, but rather, to Him who hung upon it and thereby redeemed us all.  By our salutation to the chief instrument of Our Lord’s Passion and death, we hope and we trust that He will show mercy to us.


Claudio Ridolfi, The Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross, 1638

The adoration of Eucharist, and the veneration of all relics may have miraculous power in the physical realm. Saint Teresa of Avila, in her “The Way of Perfection,” spoke of the likelihood that participation in Holy Communion may have healing effects for the body.

However, it’s our spiritual conformity to Christ that is best enacted by the Eucharist, sanctifying and saving us to him, uniting us with him. Even here, by spiritual, I don’t mean merely mystical or notional, spirituality is as much a reality as a sandwich or a crocodile or a wall. It’s our lenses which are broken, which prevent us from seeing reality: but this makes it no less real.

After all, if Catholic dogma isn’t true, “there’s no point pretending otherwise so we can yak about an emotionally and psychologically rewarding myth” (Shea, Volume 2, “First Guardian of the Faith,” p18)

C S Lewis, too, explains that what we are experience on earth, real as it seems, is only the echo of reality: a reflection of heaven.

All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it – tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.

But if it should really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself – you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ (C S Lewis, Problem of Pain)

The same Spiritual significance is true of today’s Feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The cross leads us to that tantalising prayerful communion with Christ. We have many useful devotions to this end. The way of the Cross leads us from His condemnation, to his crucifixion, to his being laid in the tomb. The Sorrowful Mysteries are a sure way to participate in his Passion. So too is the gorgeous Novena to the Holy Cross, and I’ll place it here in your entirety for your contemplation,


Crucifixion: Vouet

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
God the Father of Heaven,
Have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy on us.
God the Holy Ghost, our Advocate,
Have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, one God,
Have mercy on us.

Holy Cross whereon the Lamb of God was offered,
Save us, O Holy Cross. 
Hope of Christians,
Save us, O Holy Cross. 
Pledge of the resurrection of the dead, etc.
Shelter of persecuted innocence,
Guide of the blind,
Way of those who have gone astray,
Staff of the lame,
Consolation of the poor ,
Restraint of the powerful,
Destruction of the proud,
Refuge of sinners,
Trophy of victory over Hell,
Terror of demons,
Mistress of youth,
Succor of the distressed,
Hope of the hopeless,
Star of the mariner,
Harbor of the wrecked,
Rampart of the besieged,
Father of orphans,
Defense of widows,
Counsel of the just,
Judge of the wicked,
Rest of the afflicted,
Safeguard of childhood,
Strength of manhood,
Last hope of the aged,
Light of those who sit in darkness,
Splendor of kings,
Civilizer of the world,
Shield impenetrable,
Wisdom of the foolish,
Liberty of slaves,
Knowledge of the ignorant,
Sure rule of life,
Heralded by Prophets,
Preached by Apostles,
Glory of Martyrs,
Study of hermits,
Chastity of virgins,
Joy of priests,
Foundation of the Church,
Salvation of the world,
Destruction of idolatry,
Stumbling block to the Jews,
Condemnation of the ungodly,
Support of the weak,
Medicine of the sick,
Health of the leprous,
Strength of the paralytic,
Bread of the hungry,
Fountain of those who thirst,
Clothing of the naked,

Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us.

Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us. 
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. 
Lord, have mercy.

V. We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee,
R. Because by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.
[Together] Behold the Cross of the Lord! Begone ye evil powers!
The Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, has conquered! Alleluia!

Let Us Pray.

O God, Who for the redemption of the world, wast pleased to be born in a stable and to die upon a cross; O Lord Jesus Christ, by Thy holy sufferings, which we, Thy unworthy servants, call to mind: by Thy Holy Cross, and by Thy death, deliver us from the pains of Hell, and vouchsafe to conduct us whither Thou didst conduct the good thief who was crucified with Thee, Who livest and reignest eternally in Heaven. R. Amen.

Sweet the wood, sweet the nails,
sweet the Burden which thou bearest,
for thou alone, O Holy Cross,
wast worthy to bear the King and Lord of Heaven.
R. Amen.

Save us, O Holy Cross!


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