That cheers the solemn passion-tide:
Give to the just increase of grace,
Give to each contrite sinner peace.
So runs the Church's hymn for the final days of the Lenten season, the Vexilla Regis.
Traditionally, this hymn was used throughout the season of Passion-tide, which extended through the final two weeks of Lent. Now it is used only during Holy Week, calling to mind the Passion and death of our Savior.
As the season of Lent comes to a close, we are invited to meditate more intensely on the centrality of the Cross in the mystery of salvation. This is expressed most dramatically when, on Good Friday, the faithful come before an image of the Cross and, genuflecting before it, venerate the image with a kiss--a most intimate sign of devotion and love.
St. Thomas Aquinas offers a most profound and insightful commentary on the devotion we ought to have for the Cross when, in the tertia pars of the Summa Theologica, he asks "Whether Christ's Cross should be worshiped with the Adoration of Latria?" (ST III, q.25, a.4) Here, the Universal Doctor invokes the above strophe of the Vexilla Regis and comments: "We show the worship of latria to that in which we place our hope of salvation. But we place our hope in Christ's Cross, for so the Church sings: O Crux, ave, spes unica...Therefore, Christ's Cross should be worshiped with the adoration of latria."
Indeed, we do worship the Cross and, on Good Friday, we show the same honor to the image of the Cross as we do to the most holy Eucharist--going so far as to genuflect and then to reverence the image with a holy kiss.
Of course, we admit that God alone is properly "worshiped" but other things receive reverence and even adoration in two ways: 1) Inasmuch as the thing is an image of God (for example, an icon of Christ) and 2) Inasmuch as the thing is united to God (for example, the humanity of Christ).
Now the true Cross is worshiped on both accounts:
1) The Cross is an image of Christ, who is properly called the Crucified. Moreover, the Cross represents Christ as our Salvation.
2) Though the Cross is not united to God in a personal union (as Christ's humanity is united to his divinity), the Cross is united to Christ both through a most intimate contact and in the plan of salvation.
If however we speak of an image of the Cross and not of a relic of the true Cross (as in the veneration of the image of the Cross on Good Friday), it is worshiped only in the first way: as an image of Christ and as an image of the true Cross upon which Christ shed his blood.
We must keep in mind, however, that this act of adoration for the Cross of Christ does not stop with the image, but continues on, passing through the image to the person--from the Cross, to Christ himself. Thus, in venerating the Cross, we venerate Christ; in kissing the Cross, we kiss Christ; in looking to the Cross, we unite ourselves with Christ.
Through these final days of Lent and especially on Good Friday, may we be ever more united to our Crucified Lord and his saving Cross!