Today, 14 September, marks the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a principal holy day celebrated in the churches of the East and the West with great solemnity.
For Catholic and Orthodox Christians in particular, this feast commemorates several events, including the finding of the true cross by Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Between 326 and 328 A.D., the aged dowager, later venerated as a saint, traveled to the Holy Land as a Christian pilgrim and found the cross on which Jesus hung. Her discovery of the relics of the Passion prompted her son to clear the site and erect a shrine to commemorate the place the Lord was crucified, died, and was buried, and where he rose again on the third day.
That shrine — known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the West and the Church of the Resurrection in the East — has been the focal point of devotion and division, piety and war, for more than 1,600 years.
Fewer than 300 years after its dedication on 13 September 335 A.D., the shrine was ravaged by fire and plundered. The cross was taken as bounty when the Persians swept through Palestine in the year 614, capturing it from the Romans with the center of their empire in Constantinople. Some 15 years later, the emperor of the Romans, Heraclius — who nearly lost in defeat his capital and empire of what we today describe as Byzantine — routed the Persians and reclaimed the cross, restoring it in triumph in the Holy City of Jerusalem. This event, too, is commemorated in today’s feast.
In a sense, the Holy Sepulchre symbolizes humanity’s flaws and weaknesses, embodying humanity’s instinct to capture, contain and control that which we do not understand — in this case, the redemptive power of the life-giving cross. Yet, it also exhibits humanity’s ultimate goodness and reveals glimpses of our potential as creations made in the image and likeness of the one God.
About six months after his election as pontiff, Pope Francis focused on the power of the two “trees” — the Tree of Knowledge in Eden and the cross — that relate to this complex story of humanity’s relationship with God.
“The one tree has wrought so much evil, the other tree has brought us to salvation, to health,” he said. “This is the course of humanity’s story: a journey to find Jesus Christ the Redeemer, who gives his life for love.
“God … has not sent the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. This tree of the cross saves us, all of us, from the consequences of that other tree, where self-sufficiency, arrogance, the pride of us wanting to know all things according to our own mentality, according to our own criteria, and also according to that presumption of being and becoming the only judges of the world.
“This is the story of mankind: from one tree to the other.”
As we reflect on the significance of today’s feast, we cannot fail to recall Eden’s Tree of Knowledge, and the consequences of the fall of humanity. But let us regather our thoughts and prayers, and focus on the tree on which Jesus suffered and died. Let us remember his resurrection, this ultimate triumph of good over evil, and offer in prayer and in gratitude our thanks to God for his mercy and love.
“In hoc signo vinces.” In this sign, you shall conquer.
Michael J. L. La Civita is the communications director of CNEWA.