A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Fr Kevin Head sm

Fr Kevin Head sm

The Cross is a war memorial erected against the demons, a sword against sin, the sword with which Christ slew the serpent. The Cross is the Father’s will, the glory of the Only-begotten, the Spirit’s exultation, the beauty of the angels, the guardian of the Church. Paul glories in the Cross; it is the rampart of the saints, it is the light of the whole world.

From a homily of St John Chrysostom

The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is celebrated on the September anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Legend has it that in 326 St Helena discovered the cross on which Jesus died. By order of the Emperor Constantine, St Helena’s son, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over the site of the discovery. Part of the cross was placed inside the church when it was dedicated.

This legend is supported by a number of ancient historians, such as Socrates Scholasticus and Rufinus. They say that St Helena found three crosses on which Jesus and the two thieves, Gestas and St Dismas, died. The true cross was revealed when a dying woman touched it and was healed.

The Western Church began to celebrate the feast in 629. It was in that year that the Emperor Heraclius rescued the cross from the Persians, who had taken it fifteen years earlier. The story goes that Heraclius intended to carry the cross back into Jerusalem himself. He could not move forward, though, until he got rid of his fine robes and wore the garments of a barefoot pilgrim.

Whether or not the legends and stories associated with the feast are true does not matter a great deal. What matters, I think, is what this feast reminds us of, namely, that God is found in the crushed and broken parts of our lives. It reminds us that when dreams die, when sin weighs us down and when our hearts are broken, God is present. That is something of what we mean when we speak of the mystery of the cross.

In order to become one of us, the Son of God emptied himself. This self-emptying led to his gift of himself on the cross. God gave himself over to evil, sin, injustice and corruption. And that God stands with all who suffer. And because of this, ‘God raised him on high,’ in the resurrection. John’s gospel assures us that whoever believes in and looks at Jesus raised up on the cross, and victorious over death, will have eternal life (John 3:14-16).

It is through our sufferings, by way of the cross, that we are transformed into a deeper union with Jesus. In the worst moments of our lives, when we face failure, disappointment and death, God is there, offering new life. The only way we can enter into the glory of the resurrection is by way of the cross.

In war, various countries give crosses to their heroes. New Zealand, in the British tradition, awards the Military Cross, the Victoria Cross, the DFC and so on; France awards the Croix de Guerre; Germany, the Iron Cross.

God’s heroes receive, simply, a cross. It is a sign of God’s being with us, especially in the darkest and most difficult moments in our lives, and it flowers inevitably into the resurrection. That is part of what we celebrate on 14 September.

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