As the Church observes the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14, we invite you to read Monsignor Walter R. Rossi’s reflection on the history and significance of this centuries-old celebration.
The Origin of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, (or the Triumph of the Cross, as it was formally called), has its origins in the fourth century. Tradition holds that on September 14, around the year 320, Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, discovered three crosses on Calvary as they were excavating for a new basilica in Jerusalem. Saint Helena assumed that the crosses were those on which Jesus and the two thieves were crucified. In order to prove this theory, the Bishop of Jerusalem brought a dying woman forward to touch each of the crosses. When she touched the third cross, she was healed, and that cross was proclaimed to be the cross of Jesus.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross also commemorates the dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on September 13, 335. On that day, the cross that Saint Helena had discovered was brought to the basilica and solemnly exposed for veneration by the faithful. Since that time, the discovery of the cross of Jesus and the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have been celebrated on the same date.
Recognizing the Role of the Cross in the Redemption Story
In addition to observing historical events, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross reminds us of a fundamental component of our faith: the cross of Jesus was the instrument of our redemption. In the words we proclaim before each of the Stations of the Cross: “By your holy cross, you have redeemed the world!”
In the time of Jesus, however, the cross was not seen as a sign of redemption, but one of punishment. The cross was an instrument of torture and death, meant to bring shame, fear and hopelessness to the person being crucified, as well as to serve as a warning to onlookers.
For us as Christians, this symbol of death and disgrace became of sign of forgiveness and life. What was intended to destroy life, transformed life. What was meant to lead to despair, became a beacon of hope. For this reason, our churches are adorned with crosses as well as a crucifix. We begin our prayers with the sign of the cross; the cross is traced on our foreheads on the day of our Baptism as a sign of our being “claimed” for Jesus; and on the day of our burial, the cross is placed on our casket as the priest prays that the deceased who received the sign of the cross in baptism will “now share in Christ’s victory over sin and death.”
Resting in Jesus’ Power Over the Cross
As we observe the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we are reminded that the crosses we bear in life do not have the final say over us. Because of the cross of Jesus, we are given power over the crosses we carry: they cannot defeat us. No matter how heavy the cross we carry may seem, if we unite our cross with the cross of Jesus, the burden will be lighter, new life will emerge, and we will be triumphant, just as Jesus is hailed in his triumph. As we pray in the Entrance Antiphon for Mass on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection!”