|Devotion to Our Lady||
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated every year on September 14th, recalls three historical events: (1) the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine; (2) the dedication of churches built by Constantine on the site of the Holy Sepulcher and Mount Calvary; and (3) the restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem by the Emperor Heraclius II.
Changing Death to Life
However, in a deeper sense, the feast also celebrates the Holy Cross as the instrument of our salvation. This instrument of torture, designed to degrade the worst of criminals, became the life-giving tree that reversed Adam’s Original Sin when he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.
The Original Sin of Adam brought death into the world: “By one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). Yet Christ, by His Cross, would buy us back from the death of sin and give us a chance of life everlasting: “And you, when you were dead in your sins, and the uncircumcision of your flesh; He hath quickened together with Him, forgiving you all offences: blotting out the handwriting of the decree that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He hath taken the same out of the way, fastening it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). Which is why the Church’s liturgy sings out: “Ave Crux, spes unica!” (Hail O Cross, our only hope!) and “In Cruce salus!” (In the Cross is salvation”). The Cross—originally an instrument of torture and death—has become for the Church a “Tree of life”. For this reason we proclaim that life has triumphed over death: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? Now the sting of death is sin: and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
FIRST CENTURY: Bury the Cross and All Memories of Christ
After the death and resurrection of Christ, both the Jewish and Roman authorities in Jerusalem made efforts to obscure the anything connected with Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. At Christ’s tomb, in a garden near the site of His crucifixion, had earth mounded up over the site, and pagan temples had been built on top of it. According to ancient tradition, when the body of Jesus was removed from the Cross, to prevent His followers from finding it, the Cross on which Christ had died had been hidden by the Jewish authorities somewhere in the vicinity. The Cross was thrown in a ditch or well, and then covered with stones and earth. The pagan Roman emperors tried to completely eradicate from human memory the holy places where our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and was resurrected for mankind. The Emperor Hadrian (117-138) gave orders to cover over the ground of Golgotha and the Sepulcher of the Lord, and to build a temple of the pagan goddess Venus and a statue of Jupiter. Pagans gathered at this place and offered sacrifice to idols there.
FOURTH CENTURY: The Finding of the Cross
Eventually after 300 years, by Divine Providence, the great Christian sacred remains, the Sepulcher of the Lord and the Life-Creating Cross, were again discovered and opened for veneration. This took place under the Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) after his victory in the year 312 over Maxentius, ruler of the Western part of the Roman empire, and over Licinius, ruler of its Eastern part. In the year 323 Constantine became the sole ruler of the vast Roman Empire.
In 313 he had issued the Edict of Milan, by which the Christian religion was legalized and the persecutions against Christians in the Western half of the empire were stopped. The ruler of the Eastern half of the Empire, Licinius, although he had signed the Edict of Milan to oblige Constantine, still fanatically continued the persecutions against Christians. Only after his conclusive defeat did the 313 Edict of toleration of Christians extend also to the Eastern part of the empire.
The Emperor Constantine, having gained victory over his enemies in three wars with God’s assistance, had seen in the heavens the Sign of the Cross, and written beneath: “By this you shall conquer.” Enthusiastic about the promise and its realization, and ardently desiring to find the Cross on which our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified Constantine, sent his mother, the Empress St. Helen, to Jerusalem to find the Cross which had not been seen for three hundred years, providing her with a letter to Saint Macarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Although the holy empress, Helen, was already in her declining years, she set about completing the task with great enthusiasm. Searching for the Holy Cross, she made inquiries of Christians and Jews, but for a long time her search remained unsuccessful. Finally, they directed her to a certain elderly Hebrew man by the name of Judas, who stated that the Cross was buried where the temple of Venus stood. They demolished the pagan temple and, after praying, they began to excavate the ground. Soon the Tomb of the Lord was uncovered. Not far from it were three crosses, a board with the inscription ordered by Pilate, and four nails which had pierced the Lord’s Body (feast day March 6th).
In order to discern on which of the three crosses the Savior was crucified, Patriarch Macarius alternately touched the crosses to a corps of a boy or young man who had just died. When the True Cross of the Lord touched the dead one, he came back to life. Having beheld the raising of the dead man, everyone was convinced that the Holy Cross was found. During the discovery of the True Cross another miracle took place: a grievously sick woman, beneath the shadow of the Holy Cross, was healed instantly. These miraculous event was witnessed by many and caused many Jews, including Judas, to seek baptism. (Judas quickly changed his name to Kyriakus.) He would eventually be appointed bishop of Jerusalem and suffer a martyr's death under the tyrannical reign of Julian the Apostate in 363.
Upon the excavation site, Constantine ordered that a Christian church be built to house the venerable relics. The temple was construction for almost ten years and finally finished in 335. Saint Helen would not survive until the dedication of the temple, she died in the year 327. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was consecrated on September 13th, 335. On the following day, September 14th, the festal celebration of the Exaltation of the Venerable and Life-Giving and Soul-Saving Cross was established. Christians came in a huge throng to venerate the Holy Cross, beseeching the Patriarch, Macarius, to elevate the Cross, so that even those far off might reverently contemplate it. Then the Patriarch and other spiritual leaders raised up the Holy Cross, and the people, saying “Lord have mercy,” reverently prostrated before the Venerable Wood. This solemn event occurred in the year 326.
St. Helen took part of the Life-Giving and Soul-Saving Wood of the Holy Cross, and the four nails of the crucifixion of Christ, with her to Constantinople. The holy empress Helen journeyed to the holy places connected with the earthly life of the Savior, building more than 80 churches, at Bethlehem the birthplace of Christ, and on the Mount of Olives where the Lord ascended to Heaven, and at Gethsemane where the Savior prayed before His sufferings and where the Mother of God was buried after her death.
SEVENTH CENTURY: The Loss of the Cross
During the reign of the Byzantine emperor Phocas (602-610) the Persian emperor, Chosroes II, in a war against the Greeks, defeated the Greek army, conquered and plundered Jerusalem and captured both the Holy Cross of the Lord and the Holy Patriarch of Jerusalem, Zacharias (609-633) taking them back to Persia. The Cross would remain in Persia for fourteen years.
The Byzantine Christian emperor Heraclius, the successor of Phocas, moved by the thought of the hardships and horrid outrages of war, sought for peace, but Chosroes, drunken with conquest, would not allow of it even upon unfair terms. Heraclius therefore, being set in this uttermost strait, earnestly sought help from God by constant fasting and prayer, and through His good inspiration gathered an army, joined battle with the enemy, and prevailed against three of Chosroes' chief captains, and three armies.
SEVENTH CENTURY: The True Cross Comes Home
Another event connected to the Cross of the Lord is remembered also on this day―its return to Jerusalem from Persia after a fourteen year captivity. At the Battle of Ninevah, 627, the Emperor Heraclius defeated Chosroes. Chosroes was broken by these defeats, and, when in his flight, in 628, he was about to cross the river Tigris, he proclaimed his son Medarses as partner in his kingdom. Chosroes' eldest son Siroes (also known as Kavadh II) took this slight to heart, and formed a plot to murder his father and brother, which plot he brought into effect soon after they had come home.
Then, in order to gain recognition and endorsement from the victorious emperor Heraclius, the Persian emperor, Siroes, made peace with Emperor Heraclius and returned all the territories that his father, Chosroes, had captured from the Byzantine Empire, but part of the terms of peace and being recognized as the Persian emperor, were that Siroes would have to give back the Cross of the Lord Christ and the other relics that had been stolen from Jerusalem. The Cross therefore was to be taken back to Jerusalem after fourteen years of captivity in the power of the Persians, and to be placed in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, built over Calvary where Jesus was crucified.
Thus, with great solemnity the Life-Giving and Soul-Saving Cross was transferred to Jerusalem. Emperor Heraclius came to Jerusalem in 629, and in imperial crown and royal purple carried the Cross of Christ into the temple of the Resurrection. The emperor was accompanied by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Zacharios. At the gates by which they ascended Golgotha, the Emperor suddenly stopped and was not able to proceed farther. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Zacharias, rebuked him, saying: “How can an Emperor proudly carry the cross into Jerusalem dressed in fine clothes, when Jesus carried the Cross in shame and humiliation?” So the Emperor took off his fine clothes, put on sackcloth and walked barefoot, and was thus, without further hindrance, able to carry the Cross into the Basilica. On September 14th, the Sacred Cross was restored to its place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. To commemorate this victory and restoration of the True Cross in the seventh century, the Church of Rome adopted the “Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross” on September 14th.