“We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”
The meaning of the celebration
Early in the fourth century, Saint Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. She razed the second-century Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior’s tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher on that spot. 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 the cross 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 took 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 Christians who 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.
For prayer and reflection
“Are we able to understand that in the Crucified One of Golgotha, our dignity as children of God, tarnished by sin, is restored to us? Let us turn our gaze towards Christ. It is he who will make us free to love as he loves us, and to build a reconciled world. For on this Cross, Jesus took upon himself the weight of all the sufferings and injustices of our humanity. He bore the humiliation and the discrimination, the torture suffered in many parts of the world by so many of our brothers and sisters for love of Christ.”—Pope Benedict XVI
Through the centuries, a handful of religious communities have taken their names from the Cross of Christ. To learn about some of these communities, visit the links below:
The priests and brothers of the Congregation of Holy Cross: www.holycrosscongregation.org
The Brothers of Holy Cross: https://www.holycrossbrothers.org/
The Benedictine Monks of Holy Cross Monastery (Chicago): http://chicagomonk.org
The Trappist Monks of Holy Cross Abbey (Berryville, VA): www.virginiatrappists.org
The Crosier Fathers and Brothers: www.crosier.org
The Sisters of the Holy Cross: https://www.cscsisters.org/
The Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross: http://www.holycrosssisters.org/
The Daughters of the Cross: http://www.daughtersofthecross.org.uk/
The Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Monastery of the Holy Cross (Iron Mountain, MI): www.holycrosscarmel.com
O God, who willed that your Only Begotten Son
should undergo the Cross to save the human race,
grant, we pray,
that we, who have known his mystery on earth,
may merit the grace of his redemption in heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal
Saint profiles prepared by Brother Silas Henderson, S.D.S.