Today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. One might wonder why it is that we’re celebrating the Cross in September when Good Friday tends to be on the other side of the calendar year. The reason is that the feast commemorates a specific event as well as the Holy Cross itself.
As for the event, we’re celebrating that day in the year 629 AD when the relics of the true cross were again venerated in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The relics, you see, had been purloined in 614 by the Persian Sassanid Empire lead by Khosrau II. Jerusalem was sacked by the Persians, the Christian shrines defaced, and treasures were hauled off to Ninevah in modern day Iraq. Heraclius was the Roman Emperor and was prone to warring. He had lost miserably to the Persians at the beginning of the 7th century, and these losses had resulted in the current situation. In 622, however, he mounted a counter attack against the Sassanids. This was with the Pope’s blessing, and it was considered something of a holy war against those who had defaced the holiest of Christian shrines.
Heraclius defeated Khosrau’s best generals in several battles, and even managed to thwart the attempts by Khosrau to start rebellions in other parts of the Empire so as to distract the invading armies. Heraclius’ efforts were not thwarted, however, and his victories mounted quickly enough that Khosrau was deposed, killed by his own son who then sued for peace.
On September 14, 629, Heraclius entered into Jerusalem bringing back the relics of the true cross which were encased in silver. According to the Western tradition, the Emperor bore the silver case on his own shoulder and with pomp and circumstance, in order to demonstrate that he was the “King of Kings”, the almighty, the basileus. Upon reaching the threshold of the Holy Sepulcher shrine he was stopped in his tracks and simply could not move forward. Zachary, the patriarch of Jerusalem, pointed out to the Emperor that his demeanor did not match that of our Lord’s when He bore the cross. Heraclius then removed his purple cloak and his crown and proceeded barefoot into the shrine. The relics were displayed, and many were healed that day.
The interesting twist on the story is that as a result of Heraclius’ victories, the weakened Sassanid Empire fell very easily to the rising Islamic forces coming out of Arabia, so that by 633 AD, four years after the event we commemorate today and just two years after the death of Muhammad, the Muslim tide had already swallowed what was left of the old Persian Empire. Three years later it would conquer all that Heraclius had won, for the Emperor had fallen ill shortly after defeating the Persians and did not even involve himself in the defense against the Muslims. Because of his victories against the Persians, Heraclius is the only Roman Emperor mentioned in ancient Islamic literature, and he is lauded as one of the great rulers and leaders of the age. In some Muslim stories, Heraclius actually became a Muslim.
But all this history does detract from the true point of the day, the exaltation of the Cross, the great symbol of Christianity from age to age. Since this week is all about (soon to be) Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, here is a bit from one of his beautiful sermons. The title is “The Cross of Christ, The Measure of The World.” That is truly the point here. As he will say below, the machinations of human activity cannot ever find their truest meaning unless they are measured against the Cross and what it proclaims. For the inquisitive mind, for the mind that seeks to know the meaning of things, the Cross is the key.
There is also a lovely and moving video at the end here and if you wanted a virtual tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, then here you go. Enjoy:
It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon every thing which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man. It has given a meaning to the various, shifting course, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings, of his earthly state. It has brought together and made consistent all that seemed discordant and aimless. It has taught us how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, what to desire, what to hope. It is the tone into which all the strains of this world’s music are ultimately to be resolved.
Look around, and see what the world presents of high and low. Go to the court of princes. See the treasure and skill of all nations brought together to honour a child of man. Observe the prostration of the many before the few. Consider the form and ceremonial, the pomp, the state, the circumstance; and the vainglory. Do you wish to know the worth of it all? look at the Cross of Christ.
Go to the political world: see nation jealous of nation, trade rivalling trade, armies and fleets matched against each other. Survey the various ranks of the community, its parties and their contests, the strivings of the ambitious, the intrigues of the crafty. What is the end of all this turmoil? the grave. What is the measure? the Cross.
Go, again, to the world of intellect and science: consider the wonderful discoveries which the human mind is making, the variety of arts to which its discoveries give rise, the all but miracles by which it shows its power; and next, the pride and confidence of reason, and the absorbing devotion of thought to transitory objects, which is the consequence. Would you form a right judgment of all this? look at the Cross.
Again: look at misery, look at poverty and destitution, look at oppression and captivity; go where food is scanty, and lodging unhealthy. Consider pain and suffering, diseases long or violent, all that is frightful and revolting. Would you know how to rate all these? gaze upon the Cross.
Thus in the Cross, and Him who hung upon it, all things meet; all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their centre and their interpretation. For He was lifted up upon it, that He might draw all men and all things unto Him.