History of the Feast
Early in the fourth century St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. She razed the Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior’s tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher over the tomb. During the excavation, workers found three crosses. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman.
The cross immediately became an object of veneration. At a Good Friday celebration in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century, according to an eyewitness, the wood was taken out of its silver container and placed on a table together with the inscription Pilate ordered placed above Jesus’ head. Then “all the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and after kissing the cross, they move on.”
To this day the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the September anniversary of the basilica’s dedication. The feast entered the Western calendar in the seventh century after Emperor Heraclius recovered it from the Persians, who had carried it off in 614, 15 years earlier. According to the story, the emperor intended to carry the cross back into Jerusalem himself, but was unable to move forward until he put off his imperial garb and became a barefoot pilgrim.
The cross is today the universal image of Christian belief. Countless generations of artists have turned it into a thing of beauty to be carried in procession or worn as jewelry. To the eyes of the first Christians, it had no beauty. It stood outside too many city walls, decorated only with decaying corpses, as a threat to anyone who defied Rome’s authority – including the heretic sect which refused sacrifice to Roman gods. Although believers spoke of the cross as the instrument of salvation, it seldom appeared in Christian art unless disguised as an anchor or the Chi-Rho until after Constantine’s edict of toleration.
Spirituality of the Cross: Passion of Christ, Passion of Humanity
Scripture is clear that Jesus, Son of the Father, came to this world to fulfil his mission on the cross. The Prophet Isaiah (chp.53) described mournfully the suffering servant – “Like a Lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers, he opened not his mouth. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities – upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed…”
The servant who is extolled by Isaiah lives in the heart of our modern world and challenges it. The myths of money, power, revolutions, violence, diverse forms of socialism, politics, become embedded in the minds of people of today and mislead us to the truth of the purpose of life. This gives rise to aggressive anxiety, the strong and clever (devious) ones win and everybody loses out.
The twentieth century has been described as the most violent of all time and in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, the violence continues unabated. Whether it be the travesty of warfare, conflict of ethnic cleansing, and barbarity of street crimes, the apparent disregard for human life, the cruelty continues unabated. The newly formed IS (Islamic State) brings terror and unimaginable cruelty to all humanity.
The Servant who foreshadows Christ on the cross actually lives and is present in the world challenges power, violence, and even greed and selfishness and all forms of egoism. But Jesus, who is betrayed, rejected and crucified, opened to us the power of resurrection and glory – “See my servant shall prosper. He shall be raised high and greatly exalted.”
In faith we know two things, as we celebrate the exultation of the cross. First, Jesus saves the world by the mystery of His humiliation and His Resurrection. Secondly, Jesus identifies himself with the humble and the lowly. What is important for us? Is it to let ourselves be captivated and impressed by worldly prestige, or to seek Jesus where he is actually to be found? Is it to wonder aimlessly following our own ways and inclinations or to be close to Him who because of His afflictions saw light and was filled.
The Servant Jesus Christ, by identifying himself with human suffering, gives meaning to our suffering. By dying on the cross, he gives meaning to human existence. He alone saves! The man on the cross leads us to the glorious heights of love, life, and eternal peace in God.
“How splendid the cross of Christ! It brings life, not death; light, not darkness; Paradise, not its loss. It is the wood on which the Lord, like a great warrior, was wounded in hands and feet and side, but healed thereby our wounds. A tree has destroyed us, a tree now brought us life.” (Theodore of Studios)