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In our days of widespread inarticulateness, the word "awesome" is so overused that it loses its power. It's rooted in the Old English word egefull, which means "causing profound reverence." So to call a good dinner or a new dress "awesome" is overkill. Only in the 19th century did its equivalent, "awful," come to mean something bad. It is said that when Queen Anne first saw the completed St. Paul's Cathedral and told Sir Christopher Wren that it was awful, the architect was moved by the compliment.
After the patriarch Jacob saw in a dream a ladder reaching to Heaven, he cried out, "How awful is this place!" and he called it Bethel — the house of God. He had seen angels ascending and descending on the ladder.
It is fitting that the magnificent crucifix suspended from the ceiling in our church should hang over our altar, for in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the angels and saints unite Heaven and earth in worship, and Christ makes the Cross a ladder of heavenly access.
By it, He is able to descend to the altar, true Body and Blood, without diminishing His eternal glory. "No one has ascended into Heaven except He who descended from Heaven, the Son of Man" (John 3:13).
Having celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross this past week, the Church remembers that, as Cdl. Gibbons wrote, the veneration of the Cross "is referred to Him who died upon it."
In 787, the Second Council of Nicaea distinguished veneration of the Cross from the worship — latria — that belongs to the divine nature alone.
The Cross, as St. Bonaventure hymned, is the medicine of the world (Crux est mundi medicina) because of the healing power of the crucified Good Physician.
At a prize fight, when one of the boxers made the Sign of the Cross upon entering the ring, a man seated next to me asked sardonically if that meant he was going to win.
As a Doctor of Sacred Theology, I felt qualified to reply that it depended on how good a boxer he was. But the awful crucifix does have power when human intellect and will are consecrated to the Crucified.
Around A.D. 325, St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine (and, before her successful marriage, what we might call a "barista"), and Bp. Macarius found what they believed to be the True Cross buried under the rubble of a temple of Venus that had been built by the emperor Hadrian as a profanation of the Holy City.
A generation later, St. Cyril, the second successor to Macarius, wrote: "Let us not be ashamed of the Cross of Christ. ... Make this sign as you eat and drink, when you sit down, when you go to bed, when you get up again, while you are talking, while you are walking: In brief, at your every undertaking."