|Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine!|
September 14th, Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
We worship your cross, O Lord, and we praise and glorify your holy resurrection, for the wood of the cross has brought joy to the world. (Antiphon from Morning Prayer)
The True Cross of our Savior Jesus Christ is the greatest and most precious of all relics. It is only to the True Cross, from among all other relics, that the Christian faithful are instructed to genuflect. Every other image and relic (whether of our Lord or of any of the saints) is venerated by a bow, but the relic of the True Cross is adored and worshiped with a genuflection!
The theologians debate as to whether we truly worship and adore the Cross with the adoration of latria – the Thomists, following the best of both reason and faith, maintain that we do in fact worship the Cross with latria; but others (tending toward a literalist reading of certain texts from the early Church) hold that we do not worship the Cross but only give it veneration.
The Church herself speaks quite boldly when she declares in the Sacred Liturgy that the Cross of Christ is our only hope (O Crux, ave, Spes unica!) and directs us to worship the Cross (Ecce lignum Crucis … Venite, adoremus). Finally, in the Benedictus antiphon for today’s feast in the Novus Ordo breviary, the Church proclaims: “We worship your cross, O Lord” (Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine).
Why, then, is the True Cross venerated and even worshiped as the greatest of all relics?
The Cross as united with Christ
St. Thomas Aquinas affirms that the Church does indeed worship the True Cross since we put our hope of salvation in the wood of the Cross. This the Church does as she sings in the Vexilla Regis: “Dear Cross, best hope over all beside.” Now, since we worship with latria that in which we put our hope of salvation, it follows that Christians do indeed worship the relics of the True Cross. [UPDATE: For a further discussion of the relation between the Thomistic doctrine and the teaching of the Second Council of Nicaea, see our earlier article.]
However, St. Thomas affirms that worship is due, in the first place, to God alone – i.e. we worship only the Divine Essence (The Most Blessed Trinity) for its own sake. However, the Common Doctor rightly asserts that we worship also the flesh of Christ our Savior, not because the flesh is itself divine, but because this sacred flesh has been hypostatically united to the Divine Essence through the Person of the Word. In this respect it is clear that we worship with latria what is joined and united to the divinity in the work of our salvation.
But the Cross was most highly and perfectly united to the Person of Jesus in the plan of salvation – for it was through the wood of the Cross that our Savior redeemed us. Moreover, this wood has been saturated with the most precious and holy Blood of our Lord. This same wood has borne the limbs of Christ and was sanctified by contact with his Body.
Therefore, from among all relics – and even those other relics which are connected with Christ himself (e.g. the Shroud of Turin) [and, even though these relics may perhaps also be worshiped with latria] – the Cross deserves special veneration and worship as having been uniquely united to Christ Jesus in bringing about the salvation of the world. This special and unique role of the Cross is proclaimed by the Church when she says: “We worship you O Christ and we bless you, for by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world” – Holy Mother Church does not speak about any other relic in this manner.
The Cross as the image of Christ
Additionally, the Cross deserves special veneration and worship on account of the fact that it is uniquely an image of Christ. Indeed, even more than images made after the proper proportions of his natural body – i.e. paintings, icons, and sculptures made after the physical likeness of Christ – the Cross is THE image of our Savior. More even than the image of The Divine Mercy, the True Cross represents Christ as his perfect icon.
The Scriptures themselves testify, according to the interpretation of the Church Fathers and Doctors, that the Cross is the “Sign of the Son of Man” (cf. Matthew 24:30). Moreover, Christ is identified as “the one who was crucified” – though many events occurred throughout our Savior’s life, it is the crucifixion which really defines who he is for us. Therefore, more than any other image, it is the Cross which represents the Person of our Savior.
The True Cross holds a particular place among all icons, since the Cross is identified with Jesus in a most particular way. Therefore, it is worthy of a higher veneration and even of worship, over and above every other relic or icon. The True Cross is the only relic which is given a special feast in the calendar of the Roman Liturgy.
Ave Crux, spes unica nostra! – Hail, O Cross, our only hope!