This is How We Honor the Cross of Christ
The central event in the history of the Christian religion is the Easter Triduum - Jesus’ passion, death and Resurrection. Easter Sunday is certainly the Church’s greatest Solemnity because it is the day on which Jesus broke the bonds of death; but it is His death on Good Friday that made Easter Sunday possible. It is for this reason that the Catholic Church has always had a special veneration for the Cross on which Jesus died; for through this cross that He won our salvation.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
One prominent way in which the Church honors the Cross on which Jesus died is through a feast known as the “Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross,” celebrated every year on September 14. In the Catholic liturgy, this day is celebrated with red vestments, perhaps to call to mind the Precious Blood of Christ that was shed on the Cross. It was this Blood that purchased our salvation. Many non-Catholic denominations have empty crosses in their churches, with the claim that we should focus on Jesus’ Resurrection rather than His death. However, the Catholic Church has always maintained that it was not an empty cross, but Jesus’ death on a cross, that saved us. In fact, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul said: “ For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” (1 Corinthians 2:2). It was truly the event on Good Friday that liberated us from eternal death, for the Church teaches that the following day, Holy Saturday, was when Jesus descended into the netherworld to free all the righteous who were awaiting salvation. Christ’s death is indeed what saved us.
Why does the Church particularly honor the Cross on September 14? What is special about this date? The story goes all the way back to the year 326. While on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Helen, the mother of the great Roman emperor Constantine, discovered the actual Cross on which Jesus was crucified. This has come to be referred to as the True Cross. Her son Constantine subsequently ordered a church to be built on the site where Helen had discovered the True Cross. This church came to be known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The construction of the Church took nine years, and it was dedicated on September 13, 335. A relic of the True Cross was processed into the Church the following day, leading to September 14 being the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
The Church itself in which the Holy Cross is housed, known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is one of the oldest in Christendom. It was built over the actual site of Christ’s death, on Calvary. “Calvary” is a Latin word meaning “skull.” The Greek word for skull, “golgotha,” is also commonly used to refer to this site (see Matthew 27:33, Mark 15:22, Luke 23:33, John 19:17). In the time of Christ, it was just outside the walls of Jerusalem, but in our day, it is contained within what is called the “Old City of Jerusalem.” This is an approximately one square kilometer walled area that used to be the entirety of Jerusalem, until 1860. At that time the Jewish community of Mishkenot Sha’ananim was built outside the walls, becoming the first such settlement outside the area of the Old City.
The Tomb of Christ's Burial
During the construction of the Church in the 320s and 330s, Constantine wanted to ensure that the actual tomb where Christ was buried was given pride of place. A rotunda was built around the tomb, and directly over and enclosing the tomb itself is a small building known in Latin as an aedicula (in Greek it is called a Kouvouklion). An aedicula is a small structure that serves as a shrine to a deity. Aediculae were common in ancient Roman architecture; and being the Roman emperor, Constantine thought it fitting to construct such a structure for Christ, the only true God, perhaps to distinguish Him from the false gods of Roman antiquity. In order to enter the aedicula and see the stone on which Christ was placed, pilgrims must bend down and crawl on their knees, because the entrance is narrow and low to the ground. How appropriate that in order to come close to Christ, we must humble ourselves and come as beggars, for that is truly what we are before God. Once inside the small enclosure, pilgrims can touch the actual stone on which Christ was placed on that Friday evening, and on which He lay until His Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
The tomb itself is not the only sacred site contained within the Church. Pilgrims to this holy site can also see the Stone of the Anointing. This is a large flat slab on which it is said that Christ’s Body was placed after being taken down from the cross, and anointed by Joseph of Arimathea (see John 19:39-40). In addition, the top of the pillar on which Christ was scourged is contained within a small enclave in a wall of the Church. Aside from the aedicula of Christ’s tomb, perhaps the other most significant feature of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the Altar of the Crucifixion. This is a beautifully-decorated altar that can be accessed up a narrow stairway, and is traditionally thought to be the actual spot where Christ’s cross stood, and where He died. The altar is controlled by the Greek Orthodox Church, and so its artistry, symbolism and even the Greek text that adorns the altar may be unfamiliar to Latin Rite Catholics. It is a beautifully and reverently adorned spot to commemorate one of the most pivotal events in all of human history.
History of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Over the centuries, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has endured natural disasters, internal conflicts among Christian groups, and even attacks from non-Christians. In the early 800s, an earthquake damaged the dome, which was restored under the guidance of Greek Patriarch Thomas. Centuries later, in 1009, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the caliph or ruler of the Fatimid dynasty, succeeded in destroying much of the Church. However, in an agreement between his son Ali az-Zahir and the Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) Empire, the Church was restored and rebuilt. This restoration took place under the patronage of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, and was completed in 1048. The Holy Sepulchre again became the center of focus in the Crusader era, when Pope Urban II urged European Christians to come to the aid of their brethren in the Holy Land. The Crusaders recaptured Jerusalem, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, from the Fatimids on July 15, 1099.
Today, control of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is shared among a number of Christian denominations. While the Catholic Church does maintain some say in the maintenance of the Church, the Orthodox influence is very evident, especially in much of the adornment. With millions of visitors each year, this Church still stands as a monument to the vitality, universality and permanence of the Catholic faith. It serves as a reminder that our faith is not one of mere legends, stories, or myths, but is grounded in real, human history. Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection are true historical events, and a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a vivid reminder of His reality and His love for us.