Today we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
During the first 280 years of its life the Catholic Church was severely persecuted. The symbol of the Cross, the symbol of public humiliation and excruciating death, was rarely used in our Christian iconography. But this doesn’t mean that the early Christians were reluctant to express their devotion to the Cross. Writing in the year 204, the Christian theologian Tertullian said: “At every going in and out, when we put on our clothes, when we sit at table, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the Cross].”
In the year 313, the Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan which proclaimed toleration for the Christian faith within the Roman Empire. Constantine’s mother, Helena, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and with the support of the local bishop, excavated the area known as the site of Golgotha.
Tradition states that portions of the true Cross, with a partial nameplate still attached was found, resulting in Constantine ordering that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher be built over the site. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the Cross placed inside it.
So the feast that we celebrate today marks the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the year 335. That Church was unfortunately destroyed by the Muslims in the year 1009, only to be rebuilt centuries later, with the new occupants, all Christians from different Rites of the Catholic Church, vying for control of the site.
Unfortunately, even among our brother Christian Churches – Orthodox, Latin, Ethiopian, Coptic, there have been numerous clashes and conflicts over the control of the site. It is as if these guardians of the Church had not internalized the meaning of the true Cross, the meaning of what happened on that site 2000 years ago, the meaning of the supreme sacrifice of God’s love.
Our Holy Scriptures tell us that Moses lifted up the bronze serpent, a sign of sin, and the people were healed. Jesus makes an analogy of the serpent with the healing power of the Cross, since it is a sign of our sin and our redemption.
The meaning of the Cross takes on a new dimension as a result of the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, resurrecting Jesus from the dead. The Resurrection transforms the Holy Cross into a sign of Christ’s victory over sin and the opportunity that we have to personally choose to accept His victory and make it a part of our life.
God, through the instrument of the Holy Cross, shows us the level of His love for His creation. The Father shows His love for us by giving us the best He has, His Son, and His Son shows His obedience and trust in the Father, through His willingness to become a perfect offering, a pure sacrifice, back to the Father on our behalf.
Let us pray that we, on a daily basis, attempt to imitate this profound love of God. Our love is strengthened by the truth of our faith, and by the historic reality of the Cross. When we do this we will understand that the crosses that we carry, and the sufferings that we endure, unite us to the Lord, and help us transform our lives into His.
Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the painting: The above fresco painting and its close-up were completed by the Italian painter Masaccio during the years 1425-27. It is currently located in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. This is a very important painting in the history of western liturgical art for it combines the images of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit (the white dove that appears as a scarf or collar around the Father’s neck). Current research mentions that the brilliant engineer and architect, Philip Brunelleschi, may have been consulted by Masaccio since he had continued the research into the ideas of linear perspective. You can view this sense of linear perspective in this painting in the three dimensional aspect of the vaulting behind the figures. Brunelleschi had continued the studies on linear perspective that were started by the famous painter from Siena, Peter Lorenzetti, in the early 1300’s.