From Death to Life: The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
Walker Percy, in an essay of his, insulated that religious words had lost their meaning from overuse. His argument was that we use religious words and language so much that the shock value of what the words actually say has been lost. I think he is exactly right and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is a perfect example. Let’s take the image of the cross and try to remove the religious imagery that so many of us associate with it. At the core and in the original, pre-Christ, symbolism of the cross the cross is a symbol of death. And not just a normal death. An agonizing death, a death people thought was due a criminal. The cross, and crucifixion, was a means of torture and intimidation; an attempt to scare people into submission to the powerful rulers. It was meant to be a symbol that would terrify people. So what exactly did Jesus Christ do on the cross that changes the symbolic nature of the cross from death and terror to the mark of a people belonging to God? The short answer is that, by his death on the cross, he conquered sin and the consequence of sin, i.e. death, and thus made the cross not a symbol of death but rather a symbol of victory over death.
That Jesus would make the cross a symbol not of death but of being saved from death was prefigured in the Old Testament. In the Book of Numbers the people of Israel had an episode in which serpents were sent and were biting the people and the people were dying. God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, mount it on a pole, and lift the pole up so people could see it. When a person was bitten by a snake, they were to look up at the bronze snake on the pole and be saved from death. The way this prefigures the victory of Christ on the cross is by having the instrument of death be the means of salvation. The symbolism is made even clearer by having the symbol on a wooden pole that would be mounted above the people. What might be an image of fear and terror on the wood of the pole becomes the means from which they are saved from that very death. Just in the same way that what is nailed on the wood of the cross becomes the means of salvation from that which is actually on the wood. By his death, he saves us from death.
Thus the cross becomes not something to fear or be intimidated by, but rather a thing to celebrate, to honor, to exalt! That becomes the basis of the feast we celebrate on this day. That the cross is a good thing, a thing to honor, a thing to exalt is a belief that has been a central tenet of our faith from the very beginning. But then, why do we celebrate this feast on this day? Why not on a day closer to Good Friday or Easter? Why in September?
To answer that we have to go back 1600 years to the mother of an emperor. In the early 4th century Constantine emerged victorious in a battle that made him the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Having had a vision in which he was told that under the sign of Jesus Christ he would conquer the empire he had his soldiers paint their shields with a Christian symbol. After their victory, and under Constantine as emperor, Christianity began a period in which they were not officially persecuted by the Roman Empire. But our story pivots from Constantine to his mother- Helena. Helena was a practicing Christian and had access to the rights and power of the Emperor after Constantine’s victory. One of her greatest desires was to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to find the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified.
She eventually was able to get to Jerusalem and found the Temple of Aphrodite which legend had was built over the tomb of Jesus. She had that temple destroyed and began construction of a basilica on that spot. During the excavations she came across three crosses that she, and others, began to believe were the three crosses present at the crucifixion of Jesus, the one Jesus was on and the two other crosses that the thieves he was next to were on. Taking a sick man they placed him on the crosses and he was cured after touching the center cross. They believed they had found the true cross of Jesus Christ. This confirmed the building of this basilica on the very spot that Jesus was crucified.
This Basilica, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, was dedicated on this very September day and thus we celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the day the church was dedicated that was built on the spot the cross itself was found.
So, as we celebrate the cross on this day, and every day; we remember that Jesus Christ has not only changed the symbol of death into the symbol of life, but he has changed death itself into eternal life. And thus we can echo the words of Evelyn Waugh at the end of his historical fictional account of the life of Helena where he says this about the cross: “But the wood has endured. In splinters and shavings, gorgeously encased, it has traveled the world over and found a joyous welcome among every race. For it states a fact. Hounds are checked, hunting wild. A horn calls clear through the covert. Helena casts them back on the scent. Above all the babble of her age and ours, she makes one blunt assertion. And there alone lies Hope.”