Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Exaltatio Sanctae Crucis:The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  So, it is appropriate to return to the theme  of the cross today. 

I blogged some time ago about the ‘Exalted Cross’ in the icon.  In that blog (HERE)  I focused on what we find in the Divine Milieu . The cross is an important part of the traditional image of the Sacred Heart, and so it is in the icon.   The cross plays a key role in Teilhard’s approach to the Sacred Heart as the symbol of  God’s  evolutionary design for His creation.    In the previous blog I talked about following the great curve of evolution and understanding the complex organic nature of the universe.  For me – perhaps just for cultural reasons – I have long seen the curves and spirals of Celtic art as some-how conveying the idea of the ‘organic’ and inter-connected structure of  creation.   I admit I did not come to it by myself.  

Christ in all things: Nevern Cross
When I was in my second year at University I gave a talk to a Christian discussion group about Teilhard.   A few evangelical types walked out I seem to recall in protest about me saying  Jesus and evolution in the same sentence!  But afterwards, one person came up to me as  I was walking back to my hall of residence, and said that  what  I had talked about reminded him of the carvings on a cross in Pembrokeshire.  Since that moment  I began to see the Cross in a different way.  ‘Is that how this Tayer saw the Cross?’ he asked.   I looked up at the night sky and just breathed in the beauty of the cold night air.  I was not sure what to say, but then it dawned on me that that is exactly how Teilhard saw the Cross.  ‘Yes’, I said. I think he saw it exactly like a Celtic cross! Christ in all things...The universe is organic not mechanical.  Its evolving...All things connect...Getting more complex.... **But then again, I’m no expert. But I think that is a good way of thinking about the complexity he talks about..’   ‘ Wow !’, he exclaimed. ‘Sorry I missed the start of your talk : was this Tayer  bloke Welsh or something?’ ‘No, he was French’ I replied. ‘ O well’,  he shrugged as he lit a cigarette, ‘never mind..’   

Sadly, I was unable to go to mass today, but  I think that it should be  a far more important feast in the Church’s year.   After all, the Cross is the central symbol of our faith.  In the Orthodox tradition it is considered as one of the ‘Great Feasts’ – I am not sure of its status in other Christian denominations.   One of the consequences of having an icon of the Sacred Heart which features the raising high  of the Precious and Holy Cross is that  I now reflect more on the relationship between the cross and the Sacred Heart.  Hence, although I was aware of the feast of the Exaltation of the  Holy Cross,  I  have never knowingly been to mass to celebrate this feast – or taken time on this day to reflect upon it.  But the fact that I was not able to get to mass has rather annoyed me!   The same could be said for other aspects of the icon – it now serves as a kind of calendar  to remind me of important days that   I tended to forget about.   Today, I think,   has a special resonance / relevance for our reading of an icon of the Sacred Heart.

Teilhard wants us to  see the Sacred Heart in a new way.  He wants us to look deep into the image and get beyond what we see.   We have to get into the Sacred Heart ‘within’ the image.  And furthermore, he believed  that by doing this  - seeing differently and more intensively - the Sacred Heart could serve to become a symbol which could embody a more forward looking vision of Christianity which would take account of  what we now know about the world and the cosmos.   It could serve as a way of promoting  a Christianity which is open to what science  and research can tell us about God’s creation and the place of Christianity in the modern world.  

As  Robert Speaight observed regarding his love of the Sacred Heart:  Teilhard could ‘penetrate appearances’ more easily than most people ( even in the case of what Speaight terms the ‘repellent’ image of the Sacred Heart.) (Robert Speaight,Teilhard de Chardin p 74.

Teilhard also wants us to penetrate the appearance of THE most important image in the Christian faith : the Cross.  It is, of course, primarily, as he admitted,  a symbol  of atonement and expiation.  But the cross means so much more than this, and if Christianity was to be relevant to the modern world it had to explore the deeper meaning of the Cross we see being exalted in the icon.  Teilhard wants us raise the cross high and aloft in the modern world, but:

If the Cross is to reign over an earth that has suddenly awaken to consciousness of a biological movement drawing it ahead, then at all costs and as soon as possible it must (if it is to be able to coexist  with human nature which it claims to save) present  itself as a sign, not merely of ‘escape’, , but of progress.  It must have for us not merely a purifying but a driving brilliance. ( in Christianity and Evolution, p217)

What this means is that when we look at the cross we see ‘suffering, dying, freeing’.  But we should look again. Look deeper.  Look at the cross from a cosmic  perspective.  We now see Christ as not just bearing  the weight of our sin: he is bearing the weight of the pain and suffering that is the consequence of a universe that is evolving.  When we see the cross in this way we see the enormity of the truth of the redemptive Cross but it now becomes ‘much more true’. (219)   When we see the Cross  as a symbol of God who has humbly become flesh to progress and advance OUR evolution and the evolution of the universe itself we better understand  the scale and immensity of what the Cross represents.   So just as we have to EXPAND our understanding of the Sacred Heart, we have to expand our understanding of the cross.  We must ‘expand’ our way of seeing the Cross: 

to the dimension of a new age, and cease to present itself to us as primarily (or even exclusively ) the sign of a victory over sin – and so finally attain its fullness, which is to become the dynamic and complete symbol of a universe in a state of personalizing evolution. (Christianity and Evolution p,220)

We now see the Cross as raised to new and  awesome heights: a dynamic and complete symbol of a God who has entered fully and completely into the pain of being a conscious and reflective member of the species homo sapiens.  On the cross we see the Word of God made flesh who out of love has penetrated fully and completely human history and evolution.

And thus we can say:

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, have mercy on us for not opening our hearts to a fuller understanding of the mystery of the Cross.  


** I  think I  actually quoted Teilhard about seeing  the universe as 'as one great whole, welded together and evolving organically..’ Or something like..  

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