The Feast of Holy Cross Day (14 September) is a relatively recent addition to the church calendar for most Lutherans. It was introduced to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod with Lutheran Worship in 1982. Perhaps it remains unfamiliar to many Lutherans in our day. Nevertheless, Holy Cross Day is actually a rather ancient observance in the history of the Christian Church, and there were some Lutherans who retained its observance in the centuries following the Reformation.
The origins of this festival are found in the early decades of the fourth century, when St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, undertook an archeological search for the cradle of Christianity within the city of Jerusalem. That holy city had been rebuilt under the Roman Empire following its destruction in the first century (as our Lord Jesus had prophesied). While some of the details, including the precise nature and extent of St. Helena’s involvement, cannot be established with absolute certainty, there are various reliable witnesses to the basic facts of the case. The presumed sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial were uncovered, dug out from under the rubble of Jerusalem’s destruction and rebuilding. Tradition says that three crosses were discovered in this process, and one of these three was presumed to be the cross on which Christ Jesus Himself had been crucified. This was in September of a.d. 320. When basilicas had been erected on these holy sites and were dedicated fifteen years later, in mid-September, a.d. 335, the remnants of that “true cross” were housed within the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. In subsequent years those remnants of the cross were used ceremonially in annual commemoration of these several events, that is, the uncovering of the sacred sites of our Lord’s death and burial, the discovery of the cross, and the dedication of the churches.
A few hundred years later, after the cross had been stolen away to Persia and later recovered under Emperor Heraclius, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the 14th of September celebrated its restoration as well as all of the above historical events. This was an Eastern festival, to begin with, but one that was adopted in the West in due time. In western practice, Holy Cross Day determined the autumn “ember days,” the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the feast, when prayers were offered for the fruits of the earth. Thus, the Cross of Christ, by which He redeemed His creation from the curse of sin and death, was raised against the approach of winter.
The Feast of the Holy Cross has similarities to Good Friday in its focus on the Passion of Christ and His death by crucifixion. Celebrated, though, outside the penitential solemnity of Holy Week, the focus of this festival day is more exuberant in its exaltation of the Cross as the instrument by which our Lord has achieved His victory over all the enemies of God and His people. Here He is raised as the ensign of the nations, by which He draws all people to Himself (as He declares in the Holy Gospel of the day). One of the chief hymns appointed for this feast, “Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle” (LSB 454), is also used on Good Friday, but there it is restrained by the reverent sobriety with which we deeply mourn and bewail our sins and iniquities, for which the Lord of Glory was crucified. Here on Holy Cross Day, the same hymn enables us to sing the keynote of the feast: We hail the “faithful cross” as a “true sign of triumph.” It is “the noblest tree,” excelling all others in foliage, blossom and the abundant fruit of Christ (stanza 4). Thus do we exhort ourselves and others: “Now above the cross, the trophy, sound the loud triumphant lay; tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer, as a victim won the day” (stanza 1).
Although there will always be some question concerning the origins of Holy Cross Day, this festival invites an appropriate and salutary focus on the Cross as the means by which our Lord Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the world, defeated death and the devil, reconciled the world to God, obtained our salvation and glorified the Father’s name. Though His Cross is a foolish scandal to the world, to us who are being saved it is the power and wisdom of God, unto salvation. Thus, with St. Paul, we know nothing but the Cross, preach nothing but the Cross, and boast in nothing but the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. For it is by His Cross that we are crucified, dead and buried with Him in Holy Baptism and in daily repentance, and from the same Cross that we receive the absolution or forgiveness of all our sins, by which we also rise with Christ unto newness of life. This Cross is lifted up and exalted in our lives by self-sacrificing love for our neighbor, as it is first of all lifted up for us by the preaching of the Gospel, by which we are drawn to Christ in faith and through Him, our great High Priest, brought into the holy of holies made without hands, to our Father in heaven.
Holy Cross Day is another opportunity for the Cross of Christ to be portrayed before our very eyes, preached into our ears, planted in our hearts, and proclaimed with the very lips that have received His Body and His Blood, sacrificed for us upon the Cross, given and poured out for us in the Feast by which His holy and life-giving Cross is commemorated, and by which this holy day is celebrated.
The Rev. Dr. D. Richard Stuckwisch is Pastor of Emmaus Lutheran Church in South Bend, Indiana. He and his bride, LaRena, have nine children. Pastor Stuckwisch has frequently written and spoken for Higher Things.
“The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
and from his statutes I did not turn aside.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from guilt.
And the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to my cleanness in his sight.
“With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you deal purely,
and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.
You save a humble people,
but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down.
For you are my lamp, O Lord,
and my God lightens my darkness.
For by you I can run against a troop,
and by my God I can leap over a wall.
This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the Lord proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him."
You are righteous. Holy. Undefiled. Blameless. Jesus has won and given you His righteousness by faith. Do not doubt this. David didn’t. This is why he can say, “The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness.” David the sinner, who murdered Uriah the Hittite and took his wife, can say that the Lord has accounted him blameless. His righteousness is not his own. So it is that David loves the precepts of God, doing justice, and showing mercy, for God has had mercy on him. So it is with all Christians. They love because God first loved them (1 John 4:19). In Christ, we sinners can even dare to assert our righteousness to God, not because of what we do, but because of what He has done for us!
Devotion by Pastor Brandon Ross
Produced by Around the Word Devotion
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family[c] in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the character of the Christian in terms which are repulsive to the unbelieving world. Those who in Christ are “blessed” are the poor in spirit, the mourner, the persecuted, the meek, the merciful – hardly virtues in our world. And so you see, you cannot follow after the Christ as a proud peacock, strutting about in delusions of self-importance, desiring God and others to take notice of you. Rather you know your place as a creature of your Creator, and a sinful one at that. This is the posture of faith, a “believing humility” which knows who the merciful God is, and who we are as the objects of His mercy.
Today's Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:1-10
"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me."
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you…” Paul had founded the churches in Corinth a few years earlier. It was certainly a labor of love, as he spent a year and six months there preaching and teaching (Acts 18:11). And yet, for all his teaching, exhortation, and catechesis, he reminds them once again of the substance of the gospel (reminiscent of the Apostles Creed), “Christ died for our sins…he was buried…raised…appeared to many.” We Christians never get beyond the Gospel, the reality of our justification for the sake of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We need those reminders. If your pastor tells you of that reality once again this Sunday, he does just what Jesus would have him do.
Luke 14:1-6 - One Sabbath, when He (Jesus) went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching Him carefully. And behold, there was a man before Him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?" But they remained silent. Then He took him and healed him and sent him away. And He said to them, "Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?" And they could not reply to these things.
It's easy for me to get all riled up reading this story. Jesus is invited to dinner at the house of a Pharisee—why? Not just for the pleasure of His company, oh no. It says "they were watching Him carefully"—why? Because they'd set up a test and they were hoping he'd fail it. They wanted to see if He'd heal somebody on the Sabbath day. In their twisted little minds, that would make Him a commandment-breaker, and they could treat Him as a sinner.
But it gets worse. Because they actually brought in a man whose only qualification for being there seems to be that he was visibly, obviously sick. He had dropsy—which is the old-fashioned word for a really severe case of swelling and water retention, probably with heart failure or kidney disease thrown in. It was so bad they expected Jesus to spot it right away, even across the table—and be unable to resist healing him immediately.
Who does that? Who drags a sick man out of his bed just to set a trap for Jesus? That's just plain indecent.
Jesus is no fool. He spots the trap. And of course He's going to walk right into it, because that's the kind of Man He is. That's the kind of God He is—One who saves people, One who has compassion.
But He takes just a moment to tackle the sin-sickness of the other guests first. Can He bring them to their senses? He tries. He asks them straight out for a ruling from the law of Moses about healing. They don't answer—of course.
So Jesus turns back to His primary patient, heals him, and immediately sends him home—because the poor man didn't need any further drama in his day. Then He turns to His secondary patients, the ones who don't even realize they need His help. He says, "If your son fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn't you pull him out? Or even an ox?"
Ouch! In a single question, all their indecent behavior was exposed.
At this point, I'd expect Jesus to get up in a huff and leave. But He doesn't do that. In fact, He stays for the whole dinner, and continues to teach them! Why? Why waste His words on such hardhearted people? Why waste His words on me?
Jesus sees them as people who need Him just as much as the first man. They are not physically sick, but they are spiritually sick—and that's much, much worse. Without Jesus, they are apt to die of it. And so He stays with them, teaching them, loving them, having compassion on them. He does for them what He does for you and for me, indecent, sin-sick people that we are. He makes Himself our Savior. Now that He has risen from the dead and lives forever, His intent is to give us new hearts and minds, to make us a single, united family of God—people who love Him and one another.
THE PRAYER: Lord Jesus, give me a heart like Yours. Amen.
This Daily Devotion was written by Dr. Kari Vo.