Today's feast commemorates the events of the seventh century, just before the rise of Islam and the loss of the Holy Land to the infidels, when the Persians (the inhabitants of what is today Iran) mounted a military campaign that extended through Palestine to Egypt and parts of northern Africa. In 614, they attacked Jerusalem, killed thousands of Christians, and stole the relics of the True Cross, which had been unearthed by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century. Defense went poorly under the Emperor Heraclius until it became possible to take advantage of a family squabble among the Persian ruling family. Heraclius was able to arrange a peace treaty and the return of the Holy Cross in 629. The story has it that the Emperor himself carried the relic back to Jerusalem, but was unable to enter the gate of the church on Mount Calvary, where it was to repose. At the suggestion of Zacharias, the bishop of Jerusalem, the Emperor exchanged his costly golden robes for the clothes of a beggar, and was easily able to enter the church and enthrone the Cross.
The preface of today's Mass tells us that the divine plan selected the Cross as the means of our Lord's death "so that from where came death, from there also life might rise again; and that he that overcame by the tree, by the tree also might be overcome."2 The devil had secured the spiritual death of mankind by the tree of the forbidden fruit in the garden of paradise; so contrariwise, our Lord secured the spiritual rebirth of mankind by the tree of the Cross on Mount Calvary. Medieval writers even went so far as to suggest that the Cross might have been made from the very wood of that accursed tree -- unlikely, perhaps, but certainly an appropriate and fitting idea.
We know that in the very early Church the generally accepted symbol of Christianity was the fish. Sometimes the outline of a fish might contain the Greek word "icthus," which meant "fish," and could also be taken as a monogram of the Greek words meaning "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.3 Saint Peter and several of the apostles had been fishermen, a significant portion of the Gospel events had taken place in the fishing villages around the Sea of Galilee, and our Lord had promised to make the apostles "fishers of men," so that they might bring many souls into the Barque of Peter with the net of their preaching. In those very early days, the Cross still bore the stigma of representing the Roman method for dealing with criminals -- not particularly an emblem of which one might be proud. The Cross was not venerated publicly until the edict of Constantine, abolishing it as the means of execution, and commending it as the symbol of our salvation.
But, even before Constantine, as early as the second century, we have evidence of the private veneration of the Cross. "In all our travels and movements", says Tertullian (De cor. Mil., iii), "in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupieth us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross". By the time of Constantine's edict, the Cross had become a a gesture of benediction, as many quotations from the Fathers in the fourth century would show. Thus St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his "Catecheses" (xiii, 36) remarks: "let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in every thing; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in goings; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest".4
With a few years between them and the horrific events of the crucifixion, the Christians of the third or fourth century were able to look back with some detachment and recognize that the crucifixion was an act of love on the part of God who wanted to redeem His fallen creatures -- and act of love on His part, becoming man, so that finite mankind could have the perfect gift to offer in reparation for Adam's refusal of the infinite God. With similar detachment, they were also able to recognize that the horrific death by crucifixion had been chosen by God as an everlasting reminder of the spiritual carnage worked by sin. It was both the glorious act of loving condescension described by Saint Paul in this morning's epistle, that Christ "emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave, being made like unto men ... humbling Himself, even unto death upon a cross" -- and -- the act of love referred to by our Lord at the Last Supper in Saint John Gospel: "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do the things I command you."5
So, within a few short years, the Cross went from a sign of ignominy to become the emblem of Christians and Kings. It is a marvelous thing, really, when you consider it. We can receive Holy Communion but once a day; most of us are lucky if we can spend even an hour with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament; not everyone can get to daily Mass. (Although, you should try!) Having a relic of the true cross for our own is out of the question for most. But everyone can make the Sign of the Cross when he begins to pray, or to invoke God's blessing upon his children, or upon his food and drink, upon his work in the daytime, and his bed at night. With a simple gesture, both the rich and the poor, no matter where they may be, can call to memory the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the principle means of our salvation on the tree of the Cross.
Of course, over the years there have been misguided movements to do away with the Cross or the Crucifix. Islam may have been the first, with seventh century persecution of Christians in Syria for possessing any kind of image of our Lord or the saints, or of any human form -- especially an image that suggested that God had taken human form, as does the Crucifix. The eighth and ninth century Iconoclast heresy brought about the destruction of many precious icons and sculptures, as well as the closure of monasteries and the slaughter of many monks by the Eastern Emperors. There are a few other examples.6 Iconoclasm seems always to be associated with some other heresy, hiding behind the foolish notion that remembrance of our Lord or the Saints by means of a picture or a statue is equivalent to the worship of the golden calf by the Jews in the desert. The Reformation in the 16th century is another example: the art in the churches was smashed beyond recognition, while the communion of saints and the sacrificial nature of the Mass were denied, and while the monasteries were plundered by the "reformers."
Our own age is certainly not free of iconoclasm. We have all seen examples of crucifixes that resemble the cross no more than they resemble the crucified and suffering body of our Lord. We have seen Christ-less crosses, as well as Cross-less Christs. We are directed to a "happy Jesus," or to no Jesus, or to no cross at all. "Christianity must change," we are told -- "lest it present a negative and off-putting image to converts and our own young people" -- or "lest it offend the Jewish people by appearing to blame them for the Crucifixion" -- or lest it offend "those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; who profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."7 The Cross must go, precisely because it is so perfect a representation of the major truths of the Faith: The Trinity, the Incarnation, the Sacrifice of Calvary (and by association with it, the Sacrifice of the mass), the Resurrection of our Lord, and the resurrection of the dead.
Now, that may work for those who have no real faith. For those who don't know or don't care what the Church teaches, or don't care if there is a Church. It may work for those whose goal in life is simply to "go along, in order to get along" -- for those who just want to "fit in" with the ways of the world.
But as Catholics, I would ask you to consider making devotion to the Cross and to our Crucified Savior a renewed and even greater part of your life than it has been -- if for no other reason than to bear witness to an unbelieving world -- but certainly also for the salvation of your souls and those whom you love. Every Catholic home should have a crucifix, displayed where it can be seen. Make the Sign of the Cross carefully and devoutly when you pray -- not just out of habit, but in remembrance of the Crucifixion, and in adoration of God in Three Persons. Don't hesitate to bless your dinner or your children, no matter who might see you do it! Begin your work and your travels; bless your going to sleep and your arising from it with the Sign of the Cross. Don't write the Cross off as some quaint symbol, no longer fit for display in our secular society.
"But it behooves us to glory in the Cross of our Lord