St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Exaltation of the Cross

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Mother Seton suffered much during her life, from poverty and social hostility, to the deaths of many loved ones. She persevered and carried on her work, thanks to her faith and courage. But through it all, she always accepted her own weakness, knowing that the true source of her strength was the Crucified Christ.

I walked down the aisle, the day of my wedding, to a hymn that got me a lot of raised eyebrows: “Lift High the Cross.”

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim,
Till all the world adore His sacred Name.

I was twenty-two. I didn’t have a clue what it meant to love the cross, let alone see it as a sign of victory. Even now, I can’t say that I truly love the cross, but I’m still glad that’s the song that laid the foundation for these years of marriage. All I knew at the time, and all I know now, is that there’s no peace, no joy, no reason to celebrate, no happy ending, apart from the cross.

So why not sing about the triumph of the cross to kick off the happiest day of your life? It seemed reasonable.

I liked the song, too, because the cross is awesome. In this song was the message that there’s more to the cross than pain and humiliation.

Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
The hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.
So shall our song of triumph ever be:
Praise to the Crucified for victory.

Victory comes through the crucifixion. Somehow. The feast day, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, is given to us so we’ll remember that all-important truth. When we lift the cross high, when we do what the Church does on this feast day and exalt the cross, the whole world gets a glimpse of Christ’s triumphant love.

It’s a day that calls us to courage and hope, in spite of our natural fear of the cross. Because the cross is truly frightening. My grandmother, who converted to Catholicism later in life, but was a non-practicing Jew at the time, always remembered how disturbing she found her Catholic friend’s crucifix. Hanging on the kitchen wall, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, there he would be — a tortured, dying man, almost naked, in horrible agony.

How could anyone be comfortable with that? How could anyone be drawn to that image? Because it’s that very symbol, that shocking, uncomfortable image, that comes with Christ’s most important promise: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)

Or, as we pray in the hymn,

O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree,
As Thou hast promised, draw the world to Thee.

How could the cross draw us in? Wouldn’t it be more natural to run from it? It depends how you see it, I guess. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who knew suffering so well in her life, somehow didn’t seem to fear the cross.

At the root of that courage was the simplest possible conviction — that we do not carry the cross alone. The cross wasn’t daunting to her, because it wasn’t just hers to carry. “We are never strong enough to bear our cross,” St. Elizabeth Ann said. How could we be? But that is no reason to despair, because “it is the cross which carries us, nor [are we] so weak to be unable to bear it, since the weakest become strong by its virtue.”

Our weakness is not going to prevent us from following Christ’s footsteps up the hill of Calvary, because the cross itself becomes the strength of even the weakest soul. Mother Seton didn’t see it as a burden; she saw it as a support — a support that no person could ever get to Heaven without.

A person who isn’t afraid of her own weakness, her own littleness — there is a person who will run towards the cross, not away from it. A person who has already seen and accepted her own fear, pain, and helplessness, will see those same qualities in the Crucified Christ’s holy face, and will run to him, knowing that if Christ was willing to surrender everything to the Father, then it is safe for her to do the same.

The cross isn’t attractive in the way a charismatic preacher, or a glittering prize, attracts us. And yet, Christ meant what he promised. The cross draws all people to Him. Because in the end, we are all forced to confront our own powerlessness, but the powerlessness of Christ on the cross is the reason for the most reassuring thing He ever said to us: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)

So yes, let us exalt the cross! If you are afraid, be afraid — Christ was afraid too, in the Garden of Gethsemane. But he didn’t let his fear keep him from the cross, and neither should we. After all, when we are with Christ, we are victorious.

ANNA O’NEIL likes cows, confession and the color yellow, not necessarily in that order. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, son, and daughter, and tries hard to remember that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Image: The Triumph Of Christianity Over Paganism, by Gustave Doré (1832–1883)