Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!
Exaltation of the Holy Cross—14 September AD 2008
“God forbid that I should glory, in anything other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.”[2]

The True Cross Restores a Dying Woman to Life—1438 Woodcut

Ordinary of the Mass
English Text
Latin Text
Preface of the Holy Cross

    The preface of today’s Mass suggests that the crucifixion of our Lord on a wooden Cross was under the specific design of Almighty God, for just as mankind had fallen from grace by eating the fruit of a tree, so would mankind be redeemed on the wood of another tree—the devil, who had overcome mankind, would himself be overcome by the wood of the Cross of Christ.  A somewhat improbable legend even holds that the Cross of Christ was made from the wood of the very same tree of which Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  That would be impossible to verify, but we do know a good deal about the way in which the Church came into possession of the Cross on which Christ died.

    We know that not long after the time of Christ, the Romans crushed a Jewish rebellion and destroyed the city of Jerusalem.  The site of the crucifixion was covered over with a mound of dirt, and pagan temples were erected upon it.  Christians were powerless to do anything about this state of affairs, for the Romans ruled the city brutally, and even to be a Christian could, and sometimes did, bring the death penalty.  It wasn’t until the early fourth century that the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be a legal religion in the Empire.  Constantine was not baptized until the day he died, but his mother, whom we venerate as Saint Helena, enthusiastically embraced the Catholic Faith.

    At roughly the age of 80, representing her son, Helena made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem  at the invitation of the bishop, named Macarius.  At Helena’s direction, workmen were employed to remove the pagan buildings and the mound of earth.  After a lot of difficulties, three crosses were found, together with the placard which Pontius Pilate had nailed to our Lord’s Cross, saying “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  Unfortunately, the placard was not attached, so it wasn’t possible to distinguish our Lord’s Cross from the others.

    But Bishop Macarius had an inspiration.  All three crosses were taken to the bedside of a woman at the point of death.  Each one was touched to the woman, and one of them restored here to complete health, a divine indication that it was indeed the Cross of Christ.  Emperor Constantine arranged for the construction of a splendid basilica on the site, sometimes called the Basilica of the Resurrection, and sometimes the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  (We have a tiny reminder of that site in the crucifix at the beginning of our Stations of the Cross.)  Part of the True Cross was placed in a silver reliquary, and part of it was brought back to Constantine.  Tiny pieces have circulated throughout Christendom, with some churches being fortunate enough to have a relic for veneration by the faithful.

    In the traditional Catholic calendar, this “Finding of the True Cross” by Saint Helena is celebrated on May 3rd.  Today, on September 14th, we celebrate the return of the precious relic in 629 A.D, after it had been taken by the Persians in their conquest of Palestine and Egypt about fifteen years before.  The Eastern Emperor, Heraclius, vanquished the Persians and demanded that they return to their own territory and return the relic of the Cross.

    Emperor Heraclius, dressed in fine robes, personally carried the relic in its silver container back to the basilica on Mount Calvary,  But as he approached, something kept holding him back.  At the suggestion of Zacharias, the Bishop of Jerusalem, Heraclius exchanged his clothes with a beggar, so as to more appropriately imitate the poverty and humility of our Lord, and was then able to complete the return of His Cross to Mount Calvary.

    It should not surprise us that the Cross is center of such devotion.  Together with the nails and the placard, it is the only tangible memento of the bloody Sacrifice in which God the Son offered Himself up to the Father for the redemption of mankind.  Our Lord would allow Himself to be “lifted up,” He told the crowd, as we read in the Gospel, “signifying the death by which He was to die.”[3]  It is indeed the tree used by Jesus Christ to conquer the devil who despoiled mankind by means of a tree.  The Cross of Christ is central to our holy Faith.

    That is why you will see a crucifix prominently displayed in every Catholic Church, and why there must be a crucifix over every altar where Mass is offered.  The Cross and the Church are one, for it is through the ministry of the Church that the sanctifying graces of the Cross flow to men and women, enabling them to work our their salvation in holiness.  The Cross and the Mass are one, for when He instituted the Mass, our Lord told the Apostles that the bread and wine were now His body and blood, which would be poured out for many in remission of sins—and this was no mere symbolism, as we know from our Lord’s insistence as He preached to the crowd in John 6—it was no mere symbolism, for within hours after the first Mass, He did in fact give up His body and shed his blood for the forgiveness of our sins.

    It would be wrong to downplay the suffering of Christ on the Cross, as the Modernists sometimes do with their empty crosses, or images of a resurrected Christ on the cross.  We must never lose sight of the terrible connection between our sins and the sufferings of Christ—the greatest motivation to a holy life is in having pity on our suffering Lord, and resolving to sin no more, so that we will not add to His suffering.  There are some nice art-pieces which depict Christ as High Priest, wearing the vestments of the Mass on the Cross, but even they should never completely replace the suffering Christ on the Cross.

    I shouldn’t have to remind you that every Catholic home should have a crucifix on prominent display.  Hopefully, in such a location that the family can gather before it to pray together.  It is fine to have one in your bedroom, but Catholics ought not be ashamed of their Faith;  they ought to have the crucifix in the living room as well.

    Before I close, let me mention that devotion to the Cross is not some medieval invention—it is not something that was missing from the early Church, and invented centuries later.

    In his epistles, Saint Paul speaks often of the Cross:

    To the Corinthians he wrote: “Christ sent me not to baptize; but to preach the gospel: not in wisdom of speech, lest the cross of Christ should be made void”[4]  The Cross, Paul is saying, represents not the highness of wisdom, but the lowliness of suffering and humility.

    “With Christ I am nailed to the cross,”[5] he told the Galatians.  The sentiment of a heroic man who was not content with allowing Christ to suffer alone, but instead took on some of His sufferings as his own.

    To the Philippians he wrote: “Many walk . . . enemies of the cross of Christ”[6].  Here Paul is equating the Cross with salvation, maybe even as Christ Himself—surely, we must not be enemies of either one.

    He wrote figuratively to the Colossians about a divine decree against Adam and his descendents, saying that Christ blotted “out the handwriting of the decree that was against us, which was contrary to us ... He has taken it away, fastening it to the cross"[7]

    Today we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  We celebrate the glory of Christ—and we celebrate the glory of mankind, snatched from the grip of the devil, through the suffering of the God-man on the Cross.  How apt, then are Saint Paul’s words to the Galatians, when we speak them with our own mouths:

“God forbid that [we] should glory, in anything other than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom the world is crucified to [us], and [we] to the world.”[8]



[2]   Galatians vi: 14.

[3]   John xii: 31-36.

[4]   1 Corinthians i:17

[5]   Galatians ii:19

[6]   Philippians iii:18

[7]   Colossians ii:14

[8]   Cf. Galatians vi: 14.


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