Thursday, September 17th, 2020

‘Illuminet vultum suum’: a Sermon for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

[Originally delivered at Mass in a chapel of a religious house on September fourteenth.]

May he shine the light of his own face upon us and have mercy(Ps 66, 2).

Today’s Mass carries us back to the liturgy of Great Week. The introit, for instance, is that of Maundy Thursday: Nos autem gloriari oportet autem in Cruce. Then there is the gradual: Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem. Here is a text repeated throughout the Sacred Triduum, and most fittingly: because the obedience of the God-man heals every act of disobedience from Adam to the Last Day. In that connection, we might even say that today’s gradual is salvation history two sentences: Christ’s obedient descent into death becomes the means for his eternal glorification—the glorification which is the pinnacle and climax of history.    

But today’s Mass is also interesting for two other reasons. First, because the Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion antiphons are non-scriptural texts. Surely this is not a problem, but it is interesting: for it happens infrequently in the Mass of the Roman Rite. The Alleluia alludes to the breviary hymn Crux fidelis: ‘Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the burden which they bore!’ The Offertory is, in its form, a collect. An unusual occurrence, to be sure. The Communion is a brief prayer—beautiful in its brevity—and very reminiscent of the baptismal exorcisms.    

A second point of interest is that there is only one text from the Old Testament. Usually, there are at least several. To find this little text, we have to return to the introit: the versicle is taken from Psalm 66, 1-2:

May God have mercy on us and bless us; may he shine the light of his own face upon us and have mercy upon us.

One thinks of the face of Moses coming down from Sinai after being face-to-face with God.[1]

But it was Our Lord himself who said that no one lights a lamp and places it under a bushel; but rather, that it must be set on a stand to give light to the house.[2] He was speaking of himself. The light of the Holy Face can come with shining mercy only because it has first gone up to the lamp-stand of the Cross.

Which is why for the Christian the Cross is not a morbid reminder of torture and death. Because when we look to the Cross we see there the face of a man—and not simply any face of any man. We see the shining, saving Face of the God-man. Illuminet vultum suum super nos.      

And if Catholics remembered this, they would never forget themselves and go after the cheap things of the world. For the Cross makes sense of everything—at least to those who are willing to linger by it. And that is why we will honor the Immaculate One tomorrow: because she never lets us forget the Cross. It’s just where she became our Mother, after all.


[1] Exodus 34, 29.

[2] Matthew 5, 15 and Luke 11,  33.

{Art Credit: detail, Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787), The Crucifixion (1762); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.}

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