Exaltatio sanctae Crucis, quando Heraclius Imperator, Chosroa Rege devicto, eam de Perside Hierosolymam reportavit.
The exaltation of the Holy Cross, when the Emperor Heraclius, having defeated the king Khosrau (II), brought it back from Persia to Jerusalem.
The Martyrology gives us only part of this feast’s story, so let’s go to the beginning.
In 326, St. Helena, empress and mother of Constantine, undertook her famous voyage to the Holy Land in order to find the sites and relics associated with the Lord’s Passion. With the Christian faith having been liberated only a few years earlier, there were no public shrines and churches in Jerusalem; despite this, the underground Christian community had faithfully preserved the oral tradition handed down since the time of the Apostles. When the empress asked the local Christians about the location of the cross of Christ, they led her to Golgotha, above which stood a temple to Venus, built precisely as a damnatio memoriae against Jesus of Nazareth.
The empress ordered the temple demolished. When workers had sufficiently cleared the foundation, according to legend, there was found a bush of aromatic basil growing where the temple stood. Taking this as a providential sign, they excavated the spot under the bush. Lo and behold, under the bush was found the remains of three wooden crosses, a coil of thorny branches, nails, and a sign (titulum) written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.
Identifying the crown of thorns and the titulum was simple; identifying the True Cross proved more challenging. We have two stories by which the people discerned the holy beams. The first says that the basil was actually rooted in the Cross. The second tells of an infirm woman who was brought to Calvary and ordered by the empress to touch each cross; the touch of only one Cross restored her health. In either case, Helena returned to Rome in 328 with a large beam of the True Cross, the titulum, some thorns, the nails, the steps of the old Praetorium, and a big heap of dirt from Calvary. The steps of the Praetorium, which Christ ascended on his way to see Pilate, were reassembled just outside the Lateran Basilica where they remain today (the Scala Sancta). She transformed her personal villa in the City, the Sessorian Basilica, into a shrine for the Cross and the other relics. Before the shrine’s mosaic floor was laid, she spread the soil of Calvary above the foundation, so that those who come to the shrine would in some sense be standing “in Jerusalem”– hence the official name of the church, Basilica Sanctae Crucis in Hierosolymam (Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem).
Another section of the Cross remained in Jerusalem, where it would be kept in a new shrine built over Golgotha and the garden of the tomb– the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church was consecrated on 13 September 335; on the next day, the piece of the Cross was brought outside and raised aloft (hence “exaltation”, ex-alt-atio, literally “lifting on high”) for the veneration of the people.
In 602, the Persian Sassanid Empire invaded the Byzantine Empire, beginning a 26-year war. The Persians captured many Byzantine provinces in Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Jerusalem was sacked in 614 and the True Cross carried away as a war trophy. Byzantine misfortune was turned around only by the ascendancy of Heraclius in 622. After raising a large army, he chased the Persian king Khosrau II all the way back toward Persia and defeated him decisively at Nineveh in 627. In 628, Heraclius recovered the Cross and in March 629, it was returned to the Sepulcher in a magnificent ceremony,
Thus, today’s citation from the Martyrology is a bit anachronistic, for it celebrates three separate events: the discovery of Cross by St. Helena in 326, the raising of (a portion of) the Cross outside the Sepulcher after its dedication in 335, and the return of the Cross to Jerusalem from the Persians in March 629. While the Greeks celebrate the discovery of the Cross on 3 May, the Christians of Jerusalem, since the beginning, celebrated it on 14 September. Nevertheless, the actual exaltation, the raising of the Cross outside the Holy Sepulcher, occurred as a matter of historical record on 14 September 335, and thus even today Christians of East and West share this same feast.
Also on this day in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum, given motu proprio, took effect. In a benevolent act of mercy, he restored the Traditional Roman liturgy to freedom in the Church. He officially declared that neither the Second Vatican Council nor the Missale Romanum of Paul VI abrogated the liturgical form in force prior to the Council, the form which Benedict now called “the Missal of John XXIII”. It was a bold, courageous, and controversial step by the Pope, but in his wisdom, he understood that “what earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too”. Therefore, no longer could hostile prelates forbid its celebration; the indult era, when bishops could “ghettoize” the traditionally-attached communities, had ended. No more leper colonies– now, any priest of the Roman Church can celebrate this older, Extraordinary Form.
By implementing this decree on the Feast of the Holy Cross, we might reflect on how Pope Benedict’s decision to liberalize the traditional liturgy has led to a “rediscovery of the Cross”– for the extraordinary form unabashedly keeps its eyes on Christ. Its solemnity, silence, sobriety, sanctity, and sense of sacrifice often stand in stark contrast to the boisterous, anthropocentric horizontalism which unfortunately characterize most celebrations according to the newer Roman Missal. While this theme can be elaborated with a litany of examples, I will point out only one– the centrality of the Cross.
In the Extraordinary Form, there are many little gestures of adoration whenever certain words are pronounced or actions undertaken. For example, every time the priest or one of the sacred ministers walks across the sanctuary, he will always stop, face the Cross at the center of the altar, and genuflect. During the Gloria, at the words adoramus te and suscipe deprecationem nostram, everybody profoundly bows in the direction of the Cross. During the Creed, at mention of the Incarnation (and not only at Christmas and Annunciation), everyone kneels and bows toward the Cross. Every time the priest says Oremus, he profoundly bows toward the Cross. Every time Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto is said, everybody profoundly bows toward the Cross. And of course, at every mention of the name of Jesus, everybody profoundly bows toward the Cross.
In the Extraordinary Form, the Cross is the point of reference for everything; so must it also be in our lives. We must be able to look beyond the vicissitudes of temporal banalities which often mark Novus Ordo Masses, the banalities which risk trading worship of God for a celebration of ourselves. The mystery of the Cross, that supremely sobering sign of self-sacrifice, must permeate all facets of Christian existence, for as Christ himself said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24; cf. Mt. 10:34, Lk. 14:27). Appropriately, in the older form, today’s Mass is called Missa ‘Nos autem gloriari’, from the introit of the Mass taken from Galatians 6: “It behooves us, then, to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection, and by whom we are saved and delivered.” Let this dense little verse from St. Paul always remain in our hearts. Let the centrality of the Cross remain forever.
O Crux ave, spes unica,
in hac triumphi gloria!
Piis adauge gratiam,
reisque dele crimina.
Te, fons salutis Trinitas,
collaudet omnis spiritus:
quos per Crucis mysterium
salvas, fove per saecula. Amen.