The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

The Cross is one of the most central objects of the Christian faith. It is the symbol of God’s love for us expressed by the self-sacrificing death of Jesus, his Incarnate Son.

The public veneration of the Cross originated in the fourth century. According to legend it began with the miraculous discovery of the True Cross by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, on 14 September, 326, while she was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was then built at the site of the discovery, by order of Helena and Constantine. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the cross placed inside it in 335. This was a two-day festival. Although the actual consecration of the church was on September 13, the cross itself was brought outside the church on September 14 so that the clergy and faithful could come forward to venerate it.

In the year 627, during the reign of the Emperor Heraclius I of Constantinople, the Persians conquered the city of Jerusalem and removed a major part of the Cross from its sanctuary. The emperor determined to recover the relic which he regarded as the new Ark of the Covenant for the new People of God. Before leaving Constantinople with his army, Heraclius went to the church wearing black in a spirit of penance; prostrated himself before the altar and begged God to sustain his courage. In the ensuing war, the emperor was victorious. One of the conditions of a peace treaty was the return of the Cross, in the same condition as when it was removed. On his return to Constantinople Heraclius was received by the acclamations of the people. They came out to meet him with olive branches and torches. The Cross was honoured with a grand triumph.

The emperor then wished to give thanks to God by going in person to return the Cross to Jerusalem, after an absence of 14 years. In Jerusalem, he wished to carry the Cross on his shoulders, but on reaching the gate leading to Calvary, he could not go forward. He was astonished and his retinue could not understand. The Patriarch Zachary then said to him:

Take care, O Emperor! In truth, the imperial clothing you are wearing does not sufficiently resemble the poor and humiliated condition of Jesus carrying His cross.

Heraclius then removed his shoes and bejewelled robes. Wearing a poor man’s tunic, he was able to proceed to Calvary and replace the Cross. It is said the occasion was marked by a number of miracles: a dead man returning to life, four paralytics cured, ten lepers healed, 15 blind men given their sight, several possessed people exorcised and many sick people totally healed.

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