14 Sep Exhaltation of the Holy Cross
Today is the feast day of the Exhaltation of the Holy Cross.
Today’s feast is a triumphant liturgy— a day in which red is worn to symbolize the glorious and saving sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The Church sings of the triumph of the Cross—no longer an instrument of death and torture—but the powerful and glorious instrument of our redemption. To follow Christ we must take up His cross, follow Him and become obedient until death, even if it means death on the cross. We identify with Christ on the Cross and become co-redeemers, sharing in His cross.
The Cross could not be decently mentioned amongst Romans, who looked upon it as an unlucky omen, and as Cicero says, not to be named by a freeman. However, the Emperor Constantine attributed his victory in the Quintian fields, near the bridge Milvius, to the Cross of the Christians, the inscription of which he caused to be put under his statue with which the senate honoured him in Rome, as Eusebius testifies. The same historian mentions that in his triumph, he did not mount the capitol, to offer sacrifices and gifts to the false gods, according to the custom of his predecessors, but “by illustrious inscriptions promulgated the power of Christ’s saving sign.”
Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger
“Through Thee the precious Cross is honored and worshiped throughout the world.” Thus did Saint Cyril of Alexandria praise Our Lady on the morrow of that great day, which saw Her Divine Maternity vindicated at Ephesus. Eternal Wisdom has willed that the Octave of Mary's Birth should be honored by the celebration of this Feast of the triumph of the Holy Cross. The Cross indeed is the standard of God's armies, whereof Mary is the Queen; it is by the Cross that She crushes the serpent's head, and wins so many victories over error, and over the enemies of the Christian name.
“By this sign thou shalt conquer.” Satan had been suffered to try his strength against the Church by persecution and tortures; but his time was drawing to an end. By the edict of Sardica, which emancipated the Christians, Galerius, when about to die, acknowledged the powerlessness of Hell. Now was the time for Christ to take the offensive, and for His Cross to prevail. Towards the close of the year 311, a Roman army lay at the foot of the Alps, preparing to pass from Gaul into Italy. Constantine, its commander, together with his soldiers, already belonged henceforward to the Lord of hosts. The Son of the Most High, having become the Son of Mary, King of this world, was about to reveal Himself to His first lieutenant, and, at the same time, to discover to His first army the standard that was to go before it. Above the legions, in a cloudless sky, the Cross, proscribed for three long centuries, suddenly shone forth; all eyes beheld it, making the western sun, as it were, its footstool, and surrounded with these words in characters of fire: IN HOC VINCE: By this sign conquer! A few months later, October 27, 312, all the idols of Rome stood aghast to behold, approaching along the Flaminian Way, beyond the bridge Milvius, the Labarum with its sacred monogram, now become the standard of the imperial armies. On the morrow was fought the decisive battle, which opened the gates of the eternal City to Christ, the only God, the everlasting King.
“O great and admirable mystery!” cries out Saint Augustine. “He must increase, but I must decrease, said John, said the voice which personified all the voices that had gone before announcing the Father's Word Incarnate in His Christ. Every word, in that it signifies something, in that it is an idea, an internal word, is independent of the number of syllables, of the various letters and sounds; it remains unchangeable in the heart that conceives it, however numerous may be the words that give it outward existence, the voices that utter it, the languages, Greek, Latin and the rest, into which it may be translated. To him who knows the word, expressions and voices are useless. The prophets were voices, the Apostles were voices; voices are in the psalms, voices in the Gospel. But let the Word come, the Word Who was in the beginning, the Word Who was with God, the Word Who was God; when we shall see Him as He is, shall we hear the Gospel repeated? Shall we listen to the prophets? Shall we read the Epistles of the Apostles? The voice fails where the Word increases… Not that in Himself the Word can either diminish or increase. But He is said to grow in us, when we grow in Him. To him, then, who draws near to Christ, to him who makes progress in the contemplation of wisdom, words are of little use; of necessity they tend to fail altogether. Thus the ministry of the voice falls short in proportion as the soul progresses towards the Word; it is thus that Christ must increase and John decrease. The same is indicated by the beheading of John, and the exaltation of Christ upon the Cross; as it had already been shown by their birthdays: for, from the birth of John the days begin to shorten, and from the birth of Our Lord they begin to grow longer.”
“Hail, O Cross, formidable to all enemies, bulwark of the Church, strength of princes; hail in thy triumph! The sacred Wood still lay hidden in the earth, yet it appeared in the heavens announcing victory; and an emperor, become Christian, raised it up from the bowels of the earth.” Thus sang the Greek Church yesterday, in preparation for the joys of today; for the East, which has not our Feast of May 3, celebrates on this one solemnity both the overthrow of idolatry by the sign of salvation revealed to Constantine and his army, and the discovery of the Holy Cross a few years later in the cistern of Golgotha.
But another celebration, the memory of which is fixed by the Menology on September 13, was added in the year 335 to the happy recollections of this day; namely the Dedication of the Basilicas raised by Constantine on Mount Calvary and over the Holy Sepulcher, after the precious discoveries made by his mother, Saint Helena. In the very same century that witnessed all these events, a pious pilgrim, thought to be Saint Silva, sister of Rufinus the minister of Theodosius and Arcadius, attested that the anniversary of this Dedication was celebrated with the same solemnity as Easter and the Epiphany. There was an immense concourse of bishops, clerics, monks, and laity of both sexes, from every province; and the reason, she says, is that the “Cross was found on this day”; which motive had led to the choice of the same day for the first consecration, so that the two joys might be united into one.
Saint Sophronius, the holy Patriarch of Jerusalem, proclaimed: “It is the Feast of the Cross; who would not exult? It is the triumph of the Resurrection; who would not be full of joy? Formerly, the Cross led to the Resurrection; now it is the Resurrection that introduces us to the Cross. Resurrection and Cross: trophies of our salvation!” And the Pontiff then developed the instructions resulting from this connection.
It appears to have been about the same time that the West also began to unite in a certain manner these two great mysteries; leaving to September 14 the other memories of the Holy Cross, the Latin churches introduced into Paschal Time a special Feast of the Finding of the Wood of Redemption. In compensation, the present solemnity acquired a new luster to its character of triumph by the contemporaneous events which form the principal subject of the historical lessons in the Roman liturgy.
A century earlier, Saint Benedict had appointed this day for the commencement of the period of penance knows as the monastic Lent, which continues till the opening of Lent proper, when the whole Christian army joins the ranks of the cloister in the campaign of fasting and abstinence. “The Cross,” says Saint Sophronius, “is brought before our minds; who will not crucify himself? The true worshiper of the sacred Wood is he who carries out his worship in his deeds.”
The following are the lessons we have already alluded to:
About the end of the reign of the Emperor Phocas, Chosroes king of the Persians invaded Egypt and Africa. He then took possession of Jerusalem; and after massacring there many thousand Christians, he carried away into Persia the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which Saint Helena had placed upon Mount Calvary. Phocas was succeeded in the Empire by Heraclius; who, after enduring many losses and misfortunes in the course of the war, sued for peace, but was unable to obtain it even upon disadvantageous terms, so elated was Chosroes by his victories. In this perilous situation he applied himself to prayer and fasting, and earnestly implored God's assistance. Then, admonished from Heaven, he raised an army, marched against the enemy, and defeated three of Chosroes' generals with their armies.
Subdued by these disasters, Chosroes took to flight; and, when about to cross the river Tigris, named his son Medarses his associate in the kingdom. But his eldest son Sisroes, bitterly resenting this insult, plotted the murder of his father and brother. He soon afterwards overtook them in flight, and put them to death. Sisroes then had himself recognized as king by Heraclius, on certain conditions, the first of which was to restore the Cross of Our Lord. Thus, 14 years after It had fallen into the hands of the Persians, the Cross was recovered; and on his return to Jerusalem, Heraclius, with great pomp, bore It back on his own shoulders to the Mount whither Our Savior had carried It.
This event was signalized by a remarkable miracle. Heraclius, attired as he was in robes adorned with gold and precious stones was forced to stand still at the gate which led to Mount Calvary. The more he endeavored to advance, the more he seemed fixed to the spot. Heraclius himself and all the people were as-tounded; but Zacharias, the Bishop of Jerusalem, said: Consider, O Emperor, how little thou imitatest the poverty and humility of Jesus Christ, by carrying the Cross clad in triumphal robes. Heraclius there-upon laid aside his magnificent apparel, and barefoot, clothed in poor attire, he easily completed the rest of the way, and replaced the Cross in the same place on Mount Calvary, whence It had been carried off by the Persians. From this event, the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross, which was celebrated yearly on this day, gained fresh luster, in memory of the Cross being replaced by Heraclius on the spot where it had first been set up for Our Savior.
The victory thus chronicled in the sacred books of the Church was not the last triumph of the Holy Cross; nor were the Persians Its latest enemies. At the very time of the defeat of these fire-worshiping pagans, the prince of darkness was raising up a new standard—the crescent. By the permission of God, Islam also was about to try its strength against the Cross: a two-fold power, the sword and the seduction of the passions. But here again, in the secret combats between the soul and Satan, as well as in the great battles recorded in history, the final success was due to the weakness and folly of Calvary.
The Cross was the rallying-standard of all Europe in those sacred expeditions which borrowed from It their beautiful title of Crusades, and which exalted the Christian name in the East. While on the one hand the Cross was warding off degradation and ruin, on the other It was preparing the conquest of new continents; so that it was by the Cross that the West remained at the head of nations, rather than beneath the foot of the crescent. Through the Cross, the warriors in these glorious campaigns are inscribed on the first pages of the golden book of nobility. The orders of chivalry, which claimed to hold among their ranks the elite of the human race, looked upon the Cross as the highest mark of merit and honor.
O adorable Cross, our glory and our love here on earth, save us on the day when thou shalt appear in the heavens, when the Son of Man, seated in His majesty, is to judge the world! (1)
Image: Russian icon of Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (icon from Yaroslavl by Gury Nikitin, 1680). (10)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff