A pious tradition holds that St. Helena discovered relics of the original cross of Christ during a fourth century pilgrimage to Jerusalem that Christians would commemorate later with the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. After her monumental find, the emperor’s mother granted the Church her Sessorian Palace so that relics of the Passion might be housed in a basilica devoted to the Holy Cross. While it is difficult to confirm the authenticity of the various artifacts stored in basilica’s side chapel, all the objects remind visitors of the concrete reality of the Passion.
A neglected treasure rests in the less frequently visited room next to the popular chapel of the relics. Protected by metal bars opposite a full-size reproduction of the Shroud of Turin is a graphic crucifix sculpted by a priest steeped in Shroud studies. He used his knowledge of what is said to be the very burial cloth of Christ to craft a joltingly realistic rendition of Jesus’s final moment. A spurned and rejected criminal hangs on a brutal instrument of ignominy. It is a sober reminder of the gruesome penalty the Romans reserved for the most dangerous offenders in their empire and one from which they spared their own citizens. With no commemorative plaque and no line of tourists, it is easy enough to pass by this masterful meditation on the realism of redemption.
In his 1984 Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, Pope St. John Paul II emphasized that “In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed.” God’s answer to the mystery of suffering was not its removal, but its transformation. He may not have given a syllogistic solution to the ultimate enigma, but he did mystically unite himself with our common lot. The September 14 liturgical feast of the Triumph of the Cross thus celebrates a radical revolution in our approach to human debility. The lame, the disfigured, the abandoned are no longer burdens upon society’s limited resources, doomed to a frustrated existence. Instead, they can clutch the cross that recalls the one who knows their woes and gives meaning to their anguish. They need not turn to the Euthanasia Movement’s push for “death with dignity,” for the Cross ensures that no life lacks purpose.
The September 15 liturgical memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows fittingly follows the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Mary’s steadfast devotion to her suffering son stands in profound contrast to the cowardly performance of Christ’s Apostles. The world’s most iconic depiction of the Sorrowful Mother is also found in the Eternal City. The luminously smooth marble of Michelangelo’s Pietà has nothing of the stark realism that startles the visitor to the crucifix at the Basilica of the Holy Cross. Given the well-established tendency toward graphic visuals in pietà statues that preceded it, Michelangelo's elegant portrayal represents a calculated shift in perspective. The viewer detects the sorrow of Mary’s loss, but there is no sign of the boisterous wailing that would overtake other bereaved mothers clinging to the corpse of their only begotten. The artist captured the hope that enabled the first of all disciples to look beyond the sullen reality of Good Friday toward the victory of Easter Sunday. She is sad for her loss, but confident that death will not have the final word. Christ’s beautiful body—free of the gashes and blood that would have marred him—anticipates the glorious body he will enjoy in three days. Thus, Michelangelo invites the visitor to contemplate the unity of the Paschal Mystery. With Mary, our personal cross is penultimate to the Resurrection that lets us speak of the Cross’s triumph.
The position of Michelangelo’s Pietà statue is not accidental. Perched above the first side altar after the entry into St. Peter’s Basilica, it retains its nature as an altar piece. It is therefore easy enough to imagine the priest elevating a white host before the pristine marble of Christ’s corpus. As a Third Order Franciscan, Michelangelo would have enjoyed sufficient theological formation and spiritual sensitivity to perceive in the celebration of the Mass the mystical representation of the once defeated and now triumphant Christ. The pair of mid-September memorials do not simply recall ancient historic happenings. Instead, the Eucharistic celebration takes up the faithful’s daily sorrows into a triumphant reality of the Cross that transcends time’s limits.
For Christian readers, September 14 and 15 should provide more than a few brief pious distractions from the real world of electoral politics. Political victories are worthy of toasts, but discouragement should never overwhelm us in our temporary setbacks. Christ too experienced temporal failure at the hands of political authority. Laudable fights for religious liberty must not degenerate into whining over the mistreatment we receive. The Gospels are not bashful in predicting persecutions, but ultimately hopeful in their promise of triumph.
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a former summer intern at First Things.