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The exaltation of the self

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Be honest. What does this churchy bunch of words — "Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross” (Sept. 14) — mean to you? Deep down, how do you relate to the cross, your cross, or the crosses of others? 

For most of us, the day slips by on the fall calendar, into obscurity, another liturgical victim to our overwhelming schedules, our self-justification project, the daily exaltation of our own agenda. 

Yet, the origin of this feast merits our attention. While on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 320, Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, learned that the temple to Aphrodite allegedly was built over the site of the crucifixion. She ordered it razed, and beneath the rubble, on Sept. 14, she found the cross.

That same day 15 years later, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was completed and consecrated on the very site of the crucifixion. 

The history seems quaint and distant. Yet like the secular Romans, you and I are actually very skilled at erecting pagan temples over our crosses, our places of shame and woundedness. Atop the cross of an absent or unloving father, we may erect a soaring edifice of anger, anxiety or addiction. Over the cross of physical or emotional abuse, we may construct a skyscraper of accomplishment. Over a poor self-image, we might devote ourselves to the lifelong pursuit of the perfect physique.

Or perhaps, buried in painful years gone by, we lost someone dear to us. Over their memory — a cross we cannot seem to face — we may spend our lives painting and repainting a self-constructed facade. Or perhaps we are just hard at work covering the cross of our boredom with a churn of activity, our next promotion, purchase, vacation, drink, game, the next series to binge-watch.

Having become solitude-deprived and arrived at the point where we cannot bear to be still with our own thoughts, alone without a smartphone, we reach again into what novelist Edward St. Aubyn called the “dense glitter” of alternatives and disguises, including: “the alcoholic solution, the mask of eccentricity, the search for salvation in perfect taste, the defeated, the idle and the frivolous and their opponents, the standard bearers.” 

You might say that Sept. 14 is a personalized invitation to us to raze our temples, remove our masks, and surrender our solutions. It is a day to reach our fingers into the hard soil beneath our temples, and to touch the cross.

Last year, several months before my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer, he and my mom visited us for Easter. He had lost weight, and we all complimented him for looking so trim. I don’t remember why, but I proposed we all attend the Good Friday service.

I’ve probably been to about two dozen Easter services with my parents over the years, and I can’t remember the details of a single one. But I will never forget my 74-year-old dad stooping to kiss the cross while the spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” was sung — just months before he would accept a new cross with such dignity, with tenderness, even. 

Life is so short. Each day is such a gift. Our crosses are so complicated and heavy, in one sense. It is no wonder that we desire to bury them and build impressive structures over them. In another sense, however, our crosses are so easy and light. They become even lighter — easier to lift, to exalt — when we choose not to bury them but rather leave them exposed, transparent and receptive to the daily grace given to us.

My dad’s brief final months were exalted unexpectedly by a cross of cancer, a cross that he allowed, in turn, to be transformed by the holy cross. A lifelong follower of Christ, he claimed wisdom, courage, patience and grace as his fourfold rallying cry, and referred to them almost daily. He gave his three boys and many others a parting lesson on how to accept a cross. 

On the Exaltation of the Cross, we can do so much better than exalt ourselves. We can turn from the dense glitter and choose to reckon with actual wood. We can stoop to kiss it, even. Sometimes it causes me to tremble.

Johnson is co-founder, with his wife, Ever, of Trinity House Cafe in Leesburg. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019