Each year, on the 14th of September, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Cross. Known as “Holy Cross Day” in much of the Anglican Communion, this major feast of the Church reminds us to boast in nothing “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). It is clearly an important symbol for the Church. After all, we regularly make the sign of the cross, and many of us bow to the cross in our liturgy.

The Centrality of the Cross of Christ

What makes it such a powerful symbol? And why is it so central to our faith? According to the Scriptures, all mankind has inherited sin and death through the transgression of the first man (Romans 5:12). We are all “dead in the trespasses and sins” and are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-3), having accrued a debt that we are unable to pay. But thanks be to God! For he “made [us] alive together in him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). God took that terrible symbol of death and subverted it, using it to “[disarm] the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame” (Colossians 2:15). To put it in the words of our catechism, the cross “showed the depth of the love of God for his fallen creation, satisfying the justice of God on our behalf and breaking the power of sin, Satan, and death” (To Be a Christian, Q64).

But that’s not all. The cross also serves as a reminder of the kind of lives we are to live as Christians. Christ commands each of his disciples to “take up his cross and follow [him]” (Matthew 16:24), putting our sin to death “in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6), freeing us to participate in God’s mission in the world, doing the good works he has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10).

The Holy Cross in Anglican History

Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, discovered what was believed to be the empty tomb and true cross of Christ during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  According to tradition, the discovery was made on September 14th, 330, and then, after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built on the site, it was dedicated on September 13th or 14th, 335.  From as early as the seventh century, the Church commemorated September 14th each year with a Feast of the Holy Cross.

The Celebration of the Holy Cross was important in early Anglicanism.  The Old English poet Cynewulf wrote an extended narrative poem called Elene, about Helena’s discovery of the true cross.  And one of the earliest poems in Old English is The Dream of the Rood, which features a personified cross telling the story of the crucifixion from its perspective.  Before the cross speaks, its visual appearance is described as alternating between dripping blood and brilliant gold and jewels.

I saw that lively beacon
Changing its clothes and hues; sometimes it was
Bedewed with blood and drenched with flowing gore,
At other times it was bedecked with treasure
(lines 22-25, tr. Richard Hamer, read the whole poem here)

The eye-catching variation in this poem’s imagery, what we might call a cruciform phantasmagoria, points to a central theological truth.  Though the cross was an instrument of torture and death, stained with the blood of Christ, it has become for us a great treasure as the instrument of our salvation.  Because it brings us into “the kingdom of heaven,” the cross is like the “pearl of great value,” for which the merchant “sold all that he had” (Matthew 13:45-46).

In the high middle ages after the Norman conquest, the cross became a central feature of English church architecture.  Both Cathedrals and parish churches were frequently laid out with a floor plan in the shape of a cross.  And many churches featured an elevated cross or crucifix at the entrance to the chancel, which was called the Rood Screen

At the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer pruned the commemoration of the cross.  On the one hand, he removed the Feast of the Holy Cross from the church’s official calendar, probably because it had become associated with doubtful relics and the sale of indulgences.  On the other hand, Cranmer’s communion service emphasized the significance of the cross as the site of our Lord’s once-for-all sacrifice:

Almighty God our heavenly father, which of thy tender mercy didst give thine only son Jesus Christ, to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…

Commemoration of the Holy Cross Today

The Feast of the Holy Cross returned to Anglicanism in the 19th and 20th Centuries, through the Oxford and Liturgical Movements.  Sept 14th was designated for the feast on the calendars of the 1979 and the 2019 Prayer Books. Today, the commemoration of the Holy Cross is common throughout Anglicanism.  Not only is the feast celebrated far and wide, but many parishes even take their name from the Cross. Parishes named after the “Holy Cross” or the “Cross” are located in Baton Rouge, LA, Tuscon, AZ, Abbotsford, BC, Sanger, CA, Vista, CA, Loganville, GA, Boston, MA, Hopkins, MN, Raleigh, NC, Winterville, NC, Kent, OH, Blufton, SC, Sullivans Island, SC, Sumter, SC, Abilene, TX, Alpine, TX, Austin, TX, Dallas, TX, Crozet, VA, Moseley, VA, Virginia Beach, VA, and Wauwatosa, WI.

There is also the Daughters of the Holy Cross, a national order for women.  Inaugurated on the Feast of the Holy Cross in 2009, the order intentionally selected the cross as its symbol and made the wearing of the cross a part of its Rule of Life.  Deacon Shelly Sorem, who serves as the President of the Daughters of the Holy Cross, explained: “As we put on our crosses each day, they remind us of the work that Jesus did for us and for the world on the cross.”  Like many organizations, the Daughters created their own stylized version of the cross, with its own symbolic meaning.  “The sides of our cross are lilies,” Deacon Shelly said, “to remind us of Jesus’ resurrection.”  And the Daughters link the four points of the cross to their four practices of Prayer, Service, Study, and Evangelism.

As we conclude our reflection on the Feast of the Holy Cross, let us pray the collect appointed for the day:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the Cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.