The Cross. It is the key to Christianity and the ultimate symbol of the faith. The Cross, a profane method of execution, became one of the sought-after artifacts that were associated with Jesus. Because of its attributed importance, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross came into being. Also, because of the significance of the Cross, the history of this feast is intertwined with beloved traditions.
After the death and resurrection of Christ, both the Jewish and Roman authorities in Jerusalem made efforts to obscure the Holy Sepulchre, Christ's tomb in the garden near the site of His crucifixion. The earth had been mounded up over the site, and pagan temples had been built on top of it. The Cross on which Christ had died had been hidden (tradition said) by the Jewish authorities somewhere in the vicinity. According to tradition, first mentioned by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem in 348, Saint Helena, nearing the end of her life, decided under divine inspiration to travel to Jerusalem in 326 in an attempt to locate the True Cross. Saint Helena, who was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. She razed the second-century Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior’s tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher on that spot. A Jew by the name of Judas, aware of the tradition concerning the hiding of the Cross, led those excavating the Holy Sepulchre to the spot in which it was hidden. Three crosses were found on the spot. According to one tradition, the inscription Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum ("Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") remained attached to the True Cross. According to a more common tradition, however, the inscription was missing, and Saint Helena and Saint Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, assuming that one was the True Cross and the other two belonged to the thieves crucified alongside Christ, an observation was made which allowed them to determine which was the True Cross. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman. In other versions of the latter tradition, the three crosses were taken to a woman who was near death; when she touched the True Cross, she was healed. In another, the body of a dead man was brought to the place where the three crosses were found, and laid upon each cross. The True Cross restored the dead man to life.
The cross immediately became an object of veneration. At a Good Friday celebration in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century, according to an eyewitness, the wood was taken out of its silver container and placed on a table together with the inscription Pilate ordered placed above Jesus’ head: Then “all the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they move on.”
In celebration of the discovery of the Holy Cross, Constantine ordered the construction of churches at the site of the Holy Sepulchre and on Mount Calvary. Those churches were dedicated on September 13 and 14, 335, and shortly thereafter the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross began to be celebrated on the latter date. In the early seventh century, the Persians conquered Jerusalem, and the Persian king Khosrau II captured the True Cross and took it back to Persia. After Khosrau's defeat by Emperor Heraclius II, Khosrau's own son had him assassinated in 628 and returned the True Cross to Heraclius. In 629, Heraclius, having initially taken the True Cross to Constantinople, decided to restore it to Jerusalem. Tradition says that he carried the Cross on his own back, but when he attempted to enter the church on Mount Calvary, a strange force stopped him. Patriarch Zacharias of Jerusalem, seeing the emperor struggling, advised him to take off his royal robes and crown and to dress in a penitential robe instead. As soon as Heraclius took Zacharias' advice, he was able to carry the True Cross into the church. The feast slowly spread from Jerusalem to other churches, until, by the year 720, the celebration was universal. To this day, the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the September anniversary of the basilica’s dedication.
For some centuries, a second feast, the Invention of the Cross, was celebrated on May 3 in the Roman and Gallican churches, following a tradition that marked that date as the day on which Saint Helena discovered the True Cross. In Jerusalem, however, the finding of the Cross was celebrated from the beginning on September 14. (ThoughtCo. (2021, September 4). The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/feast-exaltation-of-the-holy-cross-542472)
The Catechism of the Church states, the Council of Trent emphasizes the unique character of Christ’s sacrifice as “the source of eternal salvation” and teaches that “His most holy Passion on the wood of the Cross merited justification for us”. And the Church venerates His Cross as she sings; “Hail, O Cross, our only hope” (Article 617)
A popular prayer for this feast is as follows;
Oh, Adorable Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, You have suffered death on the Cross for our sins. Oh, Holy Cross of Jesus, be my true light! Fill my soul with good thoughts, ward off from me all things that are evil, ward off from me all dangers and death and give me life everlasting! Oh, Crucified Jesus of Nazareth, have mercy on me now and forever.
In honor of Your Precious Blood, Lord Jesus, Your death, resurrection and ascension which leads to everlasting life, true as You were born on Christmas Day, true as You were crucified on Good Friday, true as Joseph and Nicodemus took You down from the cross and buried You, true as You ascended into Heaven, may You preserve us from our enemies visible and invisible forever.
Oh, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us. Through Your suffering on the Cross, grant me strength to bear my Cross without fear or dread and give me the grace that we may follow You, to live evermore in the place you have secured for us, wholly sanctified and justified, and worthy to gaze on the pure countenance of the Father. We ask this in Your Name. Amen