“May I never boast of anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (Gal 6:14)
Catholics celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross each year on September 14th.1 At first glance, this feast might appear somewhat puzzling – akin to presenting the electric chair as something we ought to praise, aspire to, and embrace. How is it possible for Christians to glorify the Cross, you might wonder? Wasn’t it simply a barbarous instrument of torture and death, designed to bring about the complete and utter degradation of those who hung from its beams?
It’s true that, in the eyes of the world, the death of Jesus on the Cross made it look like His life and mission had been a complete failure. But what St. Paul described as “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23) is, for Christians, the power and wisdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 1:24). For, in Christ, the Cross has been transformed. It is no longer a shameful and humiliating symbol of defeat, but a Divine expression of salvific love and a glorious manifestation of Christ’s victory over evil and death.
We glorify the Cross not as an instrument of death, but as a sign of life. For it is in the Cross that the depth of God’s love has been revealed to us; it is the means which He chose to reconcile us to Himself. Had it not been for the Cross, we could not hope in the promise of new life in Christ and an eternity spent with Him in heaven. Without the Cross, there would have been no Resurrection; had Our Lord not been nailed to its wood, there could have been no redemption. It is for these reasons that we exalt and venerate the Holy Cross.
“The ‘stumbling block’ and ‘folly’ of the Cross lie in the very fact that where there seems to be nothing but failure, sorrow and defeat, there is all the full power of God’s boundless love, for the Cross is an expression of love and love is the true power that is revealed precisely in this apparent weakness.”2 – Pope Benedict XVI
History of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was first celebrated in Rome sometime before the end of the seventh century. It recalls three important events: the discovery of the True Cross (c. 327) by Empress St. Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine), the dedication of churches (on September 13, 335) built on the site of the Holy Sepulchre and Mount Calvary by Emperor Constantine,3 and the return of the True Cross to Jerusalem by Emperor Heraclius in 629. To better understand these events, we need to go back in history – to the days that followed the crucifixion of Our Lord.
After Christ’s Death and Resurrection, the sites where Jesus had been crucified and buried became sacred places of Christian devotion. To discourage such veneration (and in an attempt to quash the Christian faith), the Romans began to erect pagan shrines over these holy sites. In AD 146, Emperor Hadrian leveled the top of Mount Calvary and erected a temple to the goddess Venus. He also cut away and leveled the hillside that contained Jesus’ tomb, building a temple there to the Roman god, Jupiter Capitolinus.
According to legend, sometime around 326, St. Helena had a dream about the Holy Cross that convinced her that it was her mission to find it. She set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and after arriving there, she had the pagan temples torn down. During the subsequent excavations, workers discovered three crosses in a rock-cistern, together with nails and a wood plaque (the titulus) inscribed with the words, Jesus Nazaranus Rex ludaeorum. But how could they determine which cross was the True Cross on which Jesus had died? The relics were removed from the site and a woman who was dying from a terminal disease was brought to the spot. She touched the crosses, one at a time, and after touching the third one she was instantaneously cured. It was in this way that the Cross of Christ was identified.
The Sassanian Siege
After the discovery of the tomb and Mount Calvary, Emperor Constantine built churches over the holy sites. A portion of the True Cross was enshrined in a reliquary within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and it was exhibited periodically to the faithful.4 However, in 614, the Sassanian Empire laid siege to Jerusalem and conquered the holy city. The True Cross fell into the hands of Chosroas, the King of the Persians.
It would be thirteen years later, after many prayers, fasts, and a fierce battle, that the Cross would finally be recovered by Emperor Heraclius. The story is told of how, in 629, he “carried the Cross back to Jerusalem on his shoulders. He was clothed with costly garments and with ornaments of precious stones. But at the entrance to Mt. Calvary a strange incident occurred. Try as hard as he would, he could not go forward. Zacharias, the Bishop of Jerusalem, then said to the astonished monarch: ‘Consider, O Emperor, that with these triumphal ornaments you are far from resembling Jesus carrying His Cross.’ The Emperor then put on a penitential garb and continued the journey.”5
The Cross: Sign of Suffering, Trophy of Victory
In this life, it is not possible for us to fully comprehend the mystery of the Cross. Yet, it will always be present in our lives; there is no escaping it. For as long as we continue this earthly journey, we will always be subject to suffering and sorrow. The Cross is a necessary condition of following Christ and the way to unite ourselves to Him. Jesus himself taught that, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
Yet the Cross is not a reason to despair; it is a sign of hope and a reason for joy. When we embrace the Cross out of faith and love for God, it “becomes a genuine sign that we have a living hope in our salvation and in our future eternal glory.”6 Jesus did not turn away from the chalice of suffering when it was offered to Him, but instead transformed it and made it redemptive. When we unite our sufferings to those of Jesus, we, too, can become co-redeemers with Him. Because of the Cross, we do not fear the future but eagerly look forward to the day of our own resurrection, when God himself “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). For, as St. Paul taught, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom 6:8). Thank you, Jesus, for taking up Your Cross so that we might find new life in You. We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You, because by your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world!
Sharon van der Sloot
Some words for reflection by St. Andrew of Crete (c. 650 – 740 or 720):
“We are celebrating the feast of the cross which drove away darkness and brought in the light. As we keep this feast, we are lifted up with the crucified Christ, leaving behind us earth and sin so that we may gain the things above. So great and outstanding a possession is the cross that he who wins it has won a treasure. Rightly could I call this treasure the fairest of all fair things and the costliest, in fact as well as in name, for on it and through it and for its sake the riches of salvation that had been lost were restored to us.
“Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be canceled, we should not have obtained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open. Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.
“Therefore, the cross is something wonderfully great and honorable. It is great because through the cross the many noble acts of Christ found their consummation – very many indeed, for both his miracles and his sufferings were fully rewarded with victory. The cross is honorable because it is both the sign of God’s suffering and the trophy of his victory. It stands for his suffering because on it he freely suffered unto death. But it is also his trophy because it was the means by which the devil was wounded and death conquered; the barred gates of hell were smashed, and the cross became the one common salvation of the whole world.”7
“Remember that each of us has his own cross. The Golgotha of this cross is our heart: it is being lifted or implanted through a zealous determination to live according to the Spirit of God. Just as salvation of the world is by the Cross of God, so our salvation is by our crucifixion on our own cross.” – St. Theophan the Recluse
Prayer of Caryll Houselander from The Way of the Cross8
let me receive the cross gladly;
let me recognize Your cross in mine,
and that of the whole world in Yours.
Do not let me shut my eyes
to the magnitude of the world’s sorrow
or to the suffering of those nearest to me.
Do not let me shrink from accepting my share
in that which is too big for me,
and do not let me fail in sympathy
for that which seems trivial.
Let me realize
that because You have made my suffering Yours
and given it the power of Your love,
it can reach everyone, everywhere –
those in my own home,
those who seem to be out of my reach –
it can reach them all
with Your healing and Your love.
Let me always remember
that those sufferings
known only to myself,
which seem to be without purpose
and without meaning,
are part of Your plan
to redeem the world.
Make me patient to bear the burdens
of those nearest at hand,
to welcome inconvenience for them,
frustration because of them.
Let me accept their temperaments as they are,
nurse them in sickness,
share with them in poverty,
enter into their sorrows with them.
Teach me to accept myself –
my own temperament,
the humiliation of being myself, as I am.
Allow me, Lord,
All my life long
to accept both small suffering
and great suffering,
certain that both,
through Your love,
are redeeming the world.
And in communion with all men,
and above all with You,
let me accept joyfully,
death and the fear of death –
and the deaths of those whom I love –
not with my will but with Yours,
knowing that you
have changed sorrow to joy,
and that You have changed
death to life. Amen.
1 This feast day was originally referred to as The Triumph of the Cross. Lutherans and some members of the Anglican Communion refer to this feast as Holy Cross Day; it is also sometimes called the Elevation of the Cross, Holy Rood Day, or Roodmas. In the (Western) Orthodox Rite, the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in the week following September 14th are designated as Ember Days – a time set aside for fasting and prayer. The purpose of Ember Days, which occur at the beginning of each of the four seasons, is “to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy.” (From Mershman, Francis, “Ember Days,” The Catholic Encyclopedia vol. 5; New York: Robert Appleton Company. Available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05399b.htm; Internet; accessed 1 September 2017.)
2 Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience, 29 October 2008,” available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20081029.html; Internet; accessed 1 September 2017.
3 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was originally built as two connected churches over the sites of the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb of Jesus) and Mount Calvary.
4 Although part of the Cross remained in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a large part of it was brought to the Church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem in Rome. (However, in 1629, Pope Urban VIII had the largest piece moved to St. Peter’s Basilica.) Other fragments of the Cross were broken up and widely distributed, allowing the Cross to be venerated in many different places in the world.
5 “Exultation of the Holy Cross,” Catholic Culture.org; available from http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/calendar/day.cfm?date=2012-09-14; Internet; accessed 1 September 2017.
6 Fr. Roy Cimagala, “Loving the Cross is Genuine Sign of Hope,” Mindanao Gold Star Daily [online newspaper], March 7, 2016; available from http://mindanaogoldstardaily.com/loving-the-cross-is-genuine-sign-of-hope/; Internet; accessed 7 September 2017.
7 St. Andrew of Crete, “Oratio 10” in Exaltatione sanctae crucis: PG97, 1018-1019, 1022-23; quoted from The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. iv (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1975), 1390.
8 Caryll Houselander, The Way of the Cross (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 2002), 14-15.
*The Finding of the True Cross – by Agnolo Gaddi – WGA, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1581764.
** By adriatikus en:commons:talk – self-made using a Canon PowerShot A530 camera, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3482504.
*** By Miguel Ximénez – , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5070348.