By Larry Peterson
The wooden cross was used as an instrument of torture for the vilest of criminals, fastening them to it and allowing them to hang there until they died. So why do we honor and revere the Cross that Jesus died on? Because Jesus Himself said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23) The cross for us is an instrument not only our own self-sacrifice but honoring it unites us to Christ on His Cross. We cannot get to the Resurrection without going first to the Cross.
Historically, (and according to Tradition) we know that after the Resurrection of Our Lord, the Jewish and Roman authorities did all that they could to hide Jesus’ tomb. The tomb and Calvary were very close to each other, and the Romans buried the sites under mounds of dirt so no one could find them. Underneath the tons of earth was also the True Cross. Over the next two centuries, pagan temples were built on the spot, and the site was more or less hidden and ignored.
Things changed dramatically in the year 306 A.D. That was when Constantine the Great became Emperor of Rome. In 313 A.D. he issued the Edict of Milan. This document approved of religious tolerance for Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, dreamed that she must go to Jerusalem to find the True Cross. She followed this inspiration, and in 326 she made a pilgrimage to the city to visit the Holy Sepulchre and to locate the True Cross.
History tells us that a Jewish man by the name of Judas, aware of the tradition of the “Hidden Cross” knew where to find it. It was quite close to the spot Helena, and the workers were excavating to uncover the Holy Sepulchre. He approached Helena and her workers to tell them he knew where it was. Helena, believing God had sent this man to her, gladly followed him.
The ruins, rubble, and dirt that had been accumulated on the spot over the years were painstakingly removed. In due time, three crosses were found on the site. Tradition says that the sign with the inscription “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) was still attached to the True Cross. (The more common tradition says that the sign was not there but was found close by). So what did they do to determine which was the True Cross?
Saint Helena and the Bishop of Jerusalem, Saint Macarius, decided to take a piece from each cross and take it to a dying woman. They assumed the wood from the True Cross would cure her. They were right, and the piece from the one cross did heal her. Then they brought the body of a dead man to the site and laid it on each of the crosses. The same cross that had cured the dying woman restored life to the dead man. Helena then knew in her heart that she had found the True Cross.
She journeyed back to Rome to inform her son, Constantine. He ordered two churches built; one at the site of the Holy Sepulchre and one at the site of Mount Calvary. The churches were dedicated on September 13 and 14 in the year 335. The feast began to take root and spread out from Jerusalem to other provinces and by the year 720 A.D. the celebration was universal.
Today the Feast Day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is celebrated all through Christendom. Most Catholic Rites such as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic, commemorate the day on September 14. The Syriac Church of the East celebrates it on September 13 while the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholics celebrate it on August 1. It does not really matter because all the various Catholic rites celebrate and honor the True Cross as founded by St. Helena in 326 A.D.
The Entrance Antiphon for the Mass on the Feast of the Exaltation (September 14) of the Holy Cross reads as follows:
“We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ
In Whom is our salvation, life, and Resurrection
Through Whom we are saved and delivered.”
Never forget that every time we make the Sign of the Cross we honor it and the Man-God that died on it.
copyright©Larry Peterson 2019