It is 312 AD. Constantine, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, is about to do battle with Maxentius, Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. Before the battle begins he has a vision of a flaming cross and hears the words, “In this symbol you shall triumph.” He did triumph and became Constantine the Great. His triumph was indeed also the triumph of the Holy Cross and a change in world history—thanks to Constantine’s mother.
A Mother Who Changed History
Helena, Constantine’s mother, was a Christian. Constantine’s father, Constantius, was emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. In his youth he had joined with Helena—history is divided as to whether Helena was his wife or concubine. They had one child, Constantine. As Constantius’ political career developed, he divorced Helena to marry a woman more politically correct. Helena and Constantine were quietly sent away.
Nonetheless, when Constantius died, Constantine became emperor. He had always remained close to his mother. Constantine brought her back to court life. In 326 he sent her on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with unlimited access to his treasury in order to discover and recover the holy places. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, Helena built or expanded churches at Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and on the Mount of Olives, where he ascended.
Recovery of the True Holy Cross
Jerusalem had never quite recovered from its destruction by the Roman Emperor Titus in 70 AD. The Roman Emperor Hadrian had built a temple to Roman gods over the site of Golgotha where Jesus died. Helena ordered it be torn down to construct a church there. As the excavation began, three crosses were discovered. When a man who had died was touched to one of them, he came back to life. A woman who was very ill also was healed when she touched this cross. Helena and others therefore concluded this was the true cross.
Part of the cross was sent to Rome, part to Constantinople, and part became the basis for the Church of the Holy Sepulcure in Jerusalem. The cross and church in Jerusalem were dedicated on September 13-14 in 335. The cross was placed in the church on September 14. Thus we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross today.
Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in History
The “True Cross” and this feast day have figured large in church history. This feast in many religious communities through the centuries is the dividing time that begins regular fasting or penance through the winter. You hear of miracles around the “true cross” in the lives of many medieval saints and stories.
I observe that the Holy Cross triumphed in St. Helena’s life. Divorced, exiled, she remained Christian. Her Christian witness, through her son, ended the age of martyrs. Her experience of suffering combined with her fidelity to faith triumphed for her—and for the whole church.
It triumphed in Constantine’s life. He gained a military victory that enabled Rome to stand against barbarian invaders for another hundred and fifty years. He ended the persecution of Christians and participated in the Council of Nicea, which proclaimed Christ as True God AND True Man. This Council gave the Church our Nicene Creed and a solid foundation with which to fight Arianism. What he began led to Christianity becoming the official religion of Rome in 380.
As the fall of Rome ended and the Dark Ages began, the image and the vision of the Holy Cross became a symbol of Christianity under siege. I’m reading G.K. Chesterton’s life of Francis of Assisi. He makes the point that Christians survived the Dark Ages by living a life based on the image of the cross. They were ascetical beyond what us moderns can imagine. Except for cloistered religious, they knew little of Christianity. But they believed it. Their lives centered around it. In a time when death was all around all the time, the symbol of Christ’s death on the cross meant that life and death here on earth were NOT all there is to existence. The Holy Cross became the symbol of hope through the darkness.
I look at today’s readings. The reading from Numbers is a short version of the story of when the Israelites grumbled and doubted God’s care in the desert. God told Moses to make a bronze symbol of the snakes that bit the people and raise it up. When someone who had been bitten looked at the seraph (nice word for snake), they were healed.
This was, of course, a prefiguration of the Holy Cross of Christ.
The Gospel is a part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who questioned and “came to Jesus by night.” In this part Jesus gives the WHY of the cross:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but hat the world might be saved through him.”
The WHY of the Holy Cross
God’s nature is Love. Love is to choose to serve the good of the other. God loves the world (ALL of us, everybody and all that is in nature) so much that God came into our world to be part of it. That meant God chose to be subject to evil. He did that because He loves us THAT MUCH.
This evil is inevitable because love requires freedom to choose love or not. If we humans did not have freedom, we could not truly love. Love must be free. God is free to love us. He gives us the option to love Him—and others—or not. As we live, in our choices, we must choose the way of God which is the way of love—or not. To the point that people (or angels, such as Satan) do NOT choose love—they bring evil into the world and make crosses for others.
God, through Jesus, was still God. He could only be who He was and is: goodness. He did not come to condemn the world or us. He came to save—how? It is symbolized in the Holy Cross. The cross represents EVERYTHING that evil could do to Jesus, who is the Christ—humiliation, injustice, suffering, abandonment, and death. In the cross, Jesus took all that evil upon Himself. He accepted it, endured it in obedience, and offered it back to the Father. As Jesus did that, He saved ALL of us who will believe that God is God, is Love. Because God is God, Jesus is God, evil could not last. It could not win. God cannot die. But, just as he carried the sins and all the evil of the world onto Himself by choice on the cross, He ALSO carried all who believe in Him into a new life as he rose from the dead. Through the cross, love won.
That made his cross the Holy Cross. It makes our crosses potential Holy Crosses, too. For by them we can let love win over the evil in our world today.
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross
The instrument and symbol of torture therefore became the instrument and symbol of triumph. We must exalt it!
It is interesting that traditionally this feast was called the “Exaltation of the Holy Cross.” It was changed to Triumph of the Holy Cross in 1973. Yet the official readings again call it the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Perhaps sometime since 1973 it was changed back?
Both words seem deep with meaning as many people suffer and recover from the hurricanes which have done so much devastation in the Caribbean and US. As Pope Francis visits Columbia. As rulers make noises of war. As injustice rules in so many places across the world.
We suffer. We suffer from the evils that God died on the Holy Cross to save us from. We die. Too many die in sin or from sin.
Yet to me, that image of the Holy Cross outlines the way out in our post Christian world: The vertical beam says to me: Trust God and remain faithful, while living in the here and now with other Christians. The horizontal beam says: Reach out to those outside the Faith or who are barely within it. Reach out in Truth to tell the wondrous stories of God. Reach out in Compassion to show mercy and give healing.
By exalting the Holy Cross, it can triumph–in my life, at least maybe for today.
Jesus, keep me near the cross. Help me carry and die to self on the crosses life sends me today. Help me hang in there, choosing, like Christ, to remain good—even if evil pummels me. Help me live on the crosses of my life until You, Lord, say “it is finished” at the end of today. Help me see the path of choosing good, not evil, is the path of living in Beatitude. The path of Beatitude chooses to let evil pass when it comes and not pass it on. It is the path of the triumph and exaltation of your Holy Cross. Help me live it today, Lord. Amen.