Reinvigorating Devotion

Behold the Wood of the Cross: Let Us Adore This Sign of Our Salvation

If you ever walk into a church between the end of Holy Thursday (Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper) and before the Easter Vigil, you might notice how empty the building feels. Statues and images might be covered. The altar is left entirely bare. Most candles are absent. Crosses have been removed or veiled. Most especially, though, the Blessed Sacrament has been transferred to a place of repose, and the main tabernacle is empty.

There is a certain barrenness to the place, one that I find matches the feeling in my own heart at the thought of Christ’s suffering and Death. Even the Church’s Sacraments are almost entirely halted: on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, “by a most ancient tradition, the Church does not celebrate the Sacraments at all, except for Penance and the Anointing of the Sick” (Roman Missal, “Friday of the Passion of the Lord,” no. 1). On Good Friday there are no Masses: in their place, we join in a celebration of the Lord’s Passion. This celebration consists of three main parts: the Liturgy of the Word, the Adoration of the Cross, and Holy Communion. Over time, the Adoration of the Cross has become one of my favorite moments in the Liturgy, and one that I am most excited to share with my children each year.

An empty tabernacle in a Catholic church on Good Friday

Why Venerate the Cross or Other Holy Objects?

My fondness of the Adoration of the Cross began with a penance given as part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation years ago. Though I have been assigned many different penances in my lifetime, this penance was given to my friend while we were on a pilgrimage for World Youth Day. His penance was to genuflect to any Crucifix he encountered during our pilgrimage. When he first shared this, I remember thinking “What an odd penance! Why would you genuflect to the Crucifix?” From a young age, I recall being taught to genuflect to the tabernacle before entering the pew. This, of course, is what the Church directs us to do in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 274. My friend’s penance confused me, though, since surely Christ is not present in his figure nailed upon the Cross in the way he is present in the Blessed Sacrament.

But if we continue reading the General Instruction, the rest of that same note includes a curious comment dedicated to Good Friday: “A genuflection, made by bending the right knee to the ground, signifies adoration, and therefore it is reserved for the Most Blessed Sacrament, as well as for the Holy Cross from the solemn adoration during the liturgical celebration on Good Friday until the beginning of the Easter Vigil.” That means that from the time of the Adoration of the Cross in the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion until Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil Mass, we offer the same reverence to the Holy Cross as we would to Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament! What a powerful teaching! Jesus died for us, and the Cross is now the mark of his victory over sin and death! I can only guess, but I imagine that this rubric was the inspiration for my friend’s penance. As my friend shared with us on that pilgrimage, this penance drew him to think of Christ’s sacrifice. It was also one of those not-so-subtle moments in his eventual discernment and ordination into the priesthood.

It wasn’t until much later that I came to understand the significance of this gesture toward the Holy Cross. St. John Damascene, one of the greatest proponents of venerating icons in our Church’s history, was a priest and monk near Jerusalem. One of his homilies was said to have been given in the Church of the Anastasis (i.e., the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), and he would have been very familiar with venerating the holy objects and places preserved in the church. John wrote three treatises in defense of sacred images, in which he explains why we offer veneration and what it is that we venerate. In the third treatise on holy images, he explains that veneration (Greek: proskynēsis) is a sign of submission, subordination, and humility, especially before God and in recognition of his great love for us. We venerate God (and objects) for different reasons: first, we venerate God because he is God, and we are his creation. This is called worship (Greek: latreia). We do this most fully when we look to him as a servant looks to his master. Veneration is also given: 1) out of a sense of wonder/desire (i.e., we venerate God for his glory), 2) in thanksgiving, 3) in want and hope for blessings, and 4) as penitence and confession.

Closeup of a wooden sculpture of someone adoring Christ on the Cross

Worshiping the One Whom Images Represent

While all of these forms of veneration are directed ultimately towards God, it’s important to note that we venerate him through creatures and objects as well. John provides a list of different creatures/objects that we ought to venerate: for Good Friday, the second and fourth forms in his list are most relevant. These are 1) objects through which God worked our salvation (e.g., the true Cross or the holy place of Golgotha) and 2) the images of those things that have come to pass and which are figures of things yet to come. Thus, John says, we worship the “precious figure of the Cross and the likeness of the bodily form of [our] God.” On Good Friday, Catholics throughout the world venerate the figure of the Cross and the likeness of the body of the Lord because of the salvation he has wrought for us.

St. Thomas Aquinas, who writes of venerating the Cross in his Summa theologiae, is indebted to St. John Damascene’s explanation of veneration (though he receives an abbreviated definition from another of John’s texts). Thomas explains that we owe worship, (Latin: latria) to the Cross: “If we speak of the effigy of Christ's Cross in any other material whatever—for instance, in stone or wood, silver or gold—thus we venerate the Cross merely as Christ's image, which we worship with the adoration of latria(Summa Theologiae IIIa, q. 25, a. 3).

Elsewhere, St. Thomas gives a distinctively western take on adoration, writing, “Adoration consists chiefly in an interior reverence of God, but secondarily in certain bodily signs of humility; thus when we genuflect we signify our weakness in comparison with God, and when we prostrate ourselves we profess that we are nothing of ourselves” (ST IIa-IIæ, q. 84, a. 2, ad. 2). It is important to remember that veneration, of any form, is offered to the image for the sake of the One that the image signals.

Catholic priest prostrating himself before the altar during the Good Friday liturgy

The Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday includes several gestures of adoration. When the priest enters, he will lie prostrate before the altar (as will a deacon if he is present). The congregation will kneel in silence. At other times in this solemn liturgy, we are invited to kneel (e.g., during the Passion Narrative, the Solemn Intercessions, and during Adoration of the Cross). The primary form of Adoration of the Cross includes an invitation for all to come forward to adore the Cross individually. The main gesture listed is a genuflection, but we can also show reverence with a sign appropriate to the region (in my experience, this has often been by kissing the Cross). It is notable that the General Instruction invites us to genuflect since, as a sign of adoration, genuflection is normally reserved for the Blessed Sacrament. We adore the Cross because of the salvation Christ has won for us: as an Antiphon from the Liturgy says, “We adore your Cross, O Lord, we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection, for behold, because of the wood of a tree joy has come to the whole world.”

The Connection between the Eucharist and the Cross

The Eucharist is intimately connected with the Cross. As Pope Francis instructs us, “The content of the bread broken is the Cross of Jesus, his sacrifice of obedience out of love for the Father. If we had not had the Last Supper, that is to say, if we had not had the ritual anticipation of his death, we would have never been able to grasp how the carrying out of his being condemned to death could have been in fact the act of perfect worship, pleasing to the Father, the only true act of worship, the only true liturgy. Only a few hours after the Supper, the apostles could have seen in the Cross of Jesus, if they could have borne the weight of it, what it meant for Jesus to say, ‘body offered,’ ‘blood poured out’ (Desiderio Desideravi, no. 7).

After the Easter Vigil, genuflections will once again be reserved for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Yet, for these few hours, we are called to do something unique. Our actions, of course, mirror the liturgical calendar. Though Good Friday is a day of silence and stillness, we know that it is not the end of the story. Christ triumphed over sin and death, offering a new day of creation. At the Vigil the Church prays, “O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth and divine to the human” (Exsultet). We wait in hope to celebrate the Resurrection, but until then, we recall that Christ also needed to die for our sins.

Closeup of a wooden crucifix against a dark background

Just as the Eucharist made Christ’s Paschal Mystery—including his sacrifice on the Cross—present to his disciples, so too does it make present the whole Mystery for us. In the Eucharist, explains Pope Benedict, Jesus “reveals that he himself is the true sacrificial lamb, destined in the Father’s plan from the foundation of the world, as we read in The First Letter of Peter (cf. 1:18-20). By placing his gift in this context, Jesus shows the salvific meaning of his death and resurrection, a mystery which renews history and the whole cosmos. The institution of the Eucharist demonstrates how Jesus’ death, for all its violence and absurdity, became in him a supreme act of love and mankind’s definitive deliverance from evil” (Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 10). This is the mystery we celebrate by adoring the Cross on Good Friday and by adoring Christ in the Blessed Sacrament throughout the rest of the year.

On Good Friday, I invite you to join me and come before the Cross, adoring the symbol of our salvation. Recognize the emptiness that we feel that day and, by this sign, adore the Savior who loved us so much that he died for us. When you genuflect, recall that this particular act is a sign of your weakness and total dependence on God’s grace, made available to us through Christ’s Paschal Mystery. By genuflecting, we offer to God the greatest form of veneration that we can, that of adoration. We recognize his wondrous love, so great that he laid down his life for us. But most of all, we come to him as servants before their great Master and we place ourselves entirely in his hands.

May the Adoration of the Holy Cross, as we anticipate the Resurrection, further renew our devotion to Our Lord, made present for us in a true and substantial way in the Most Blessed Sacrament.