For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing. But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God. (I Corinthians 1:18)
This coming Sunday will be the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: the start of the season of the Holy Cross, one of the five major divisions of the Armenian Church calendar.
The Feast of the Exaltation recalls a story about St. James, the brother of the Lord—one of Christ’s Apostles and the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was the first to exalt a cross in the likeness of the original cross of the Crucifixion, and venerate it as a symbol of the power of God, saying: “We bow down before your Cross, O Christ.” We still recite those words in Armenian: Khachi ko, Krisdos, yergirbakanemk.
From the perspective of that time, James’ act of exaltation could only be called unexpected. After all, to residents of the Roman-dominated world of the 1st century A.D., crosses were instruments of torture and humiliating death. Yet for James, its association with the miracle of Christ made the cross an object of reverence—eventually to become the Christian symbol of salvation and victory over death.
We today can only marvel at the eyes which first beheld the once-fearsome cross, and perceived it as a divine sign of Life. But perhaps we can gain an insight into the Exaltation through another story, about another cross. The story is not a part of our holy tradition (although perhaps one day it will be). For this cross was exalted, not in 1st-century Jerusalem, but in New York City, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
Today marks 16 years since that dreadful event. Most of us can still summon up the horror and outrage we felt as we confronted the incredible loss of life, and the prospect of an evil enemy who would willfully extinguish those lives. One couldn’t help wondering, at the time, whether anything could ever arise to redeem the despair of that day.
And yet, something did arise. Digging amid the ruins of Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers had collapsed only a month before, one of the rescue workers discovered something he felt to be a miracle. Two steel beams from the wreckage had fallen together, and landed in the form of a cross. The cross was set upright in the middle of the wreckage, to cast its shadow—literally and symbolically—over the scene. News spread quickly, and soon firefighters, police officers, and construction workers were making “pilgrimages” to the cross, to pray and reflect on the 9/11 attack. In that bleak landscape of despair, the “Hero’s Cross,” as it came to be called, became a source of spiritual strength. At a blessing service before that site, a Franciscan friar offered these words: “Behold the glory of the cross at Ground Zero,” he said. “This is our symbol of Hope. Our symbol of Faith. Our symbol of Healing.”
Perhaps that’s the divine message St. James intuited, when he first raised the cross some 2,000 years ago. It’s the message of many beloved Armenian sayings: Khachi ko, Krisdos, yergirbakanemk (“We bow down before your Cross, O Christ”), and Sourp Khachn yeghitsi eents oknagan (“Let the Holy Cross be my support”).
And it is certainly the message St. Paul wished to convey, in the words which began this essay: “To those of us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God.”
On this day of deep sorrow, as we pray for the souls of those who were cruelly taken from this world on September 11, 2001, and as we ask our Lord to grant peace to those who have suffered loss and hardship in the long aftermath of that day, let us also bow down before the Cross of Christ: the unexpected sign of God’s love for, and solidarity with, mankind—which exalts us, even in our pain and suffering.
Through the Cross, God has truly revealed His power to the entire world.
—Christopher H. Zakian