Wednesday, September 14, 2016

In Exaltatione S. Crucis

According to tradition, around 320 A.D. Saint Helena (the mother of the Emperor Constantine) found (invenit) the True Cross on which Christ had been crucified. Unlike some Crusader-identified sites, many of the older sites associated with New Testament events - e.g., the site of Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher - and the churches erected on those sites have authentic ancient tradition behind them. (Photo: Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher). The site which early Christians in Jerusalem identified with Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher had been in effect protected, so to speak, by the decision of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (Emperor 117- 138) to erect there a temple to Venus. Two centuries later, the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, demolished the Temple of Venus and erected the Basilica complex of the Holy Sepulcher on that sacred site. The new shrine was dedicated on September 13, 335. Then, the next day, September 14, the relic of the Holy Cross that had been discovered by Saint Helena was brought out for public veneration. Hence the origin of today's feast day. 

Over time, Saint Helena's Finding of the Cross came to be venerated on other dates (May 3 in the Latin Church). Meanwhile, in 614, the Persians conquered Jerusalem and made off with the relic. Then, the Persian defeat by the Emperor Heraclius in 628 was the occasion for the relic's return. As a result, September 14 became now primarily a commemoration of that glorious event. Since the abolition of the separate May 3 feast in 1961, today has become the annual celebration of the entire mystery of the Cross as a sign of glory and of Christ's complete victory.

Prior to Paul VI's Breviary reform, the old Office contained an account of the return of the relic of the Cross to Jerusalem in 628. The three lessons of the former Second Nocturn recounted how the Persian King conquered Jerusalem and, how 14 years later, the Roman Emperor Heraclius eventually defeated the Persians, recovered the Cross, and solemnly carried it into jerusalem. The sixth lesson then continued:

Heraclius, regally adorned as he was with gold and precious stones, was brought to a standstill at the gate which led to Calvary. The more he tried to press forward, the more he seemed rooted to the post. Heraclius himself and all the people were astonished, but Zacharius, Bishop of Jerusalem, spoke out: "O emperor, think how little you are imitating the poverty and humility of Christ Jesus, when, in triumphal robes you carry his Cross." Immediately Heraclius took off his royal robe and his shoes. He put on a coarse garment, resumed his journey, and completed easily the rest of the way. The Cross was replaced on Calvary on the very spot whence it had been taken by the Persians. From this time forth the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated annually on this day, began to take on new importance, in commemoration of this event.

It may be a detail easy to pass over, but I have always found something particularly appealing in the symbolism of how Heraclius, having found it hard to move forward (indeed impossible) when arrayed in all his regalia, easily completed his journey once he became willing to dress poorly. In a society such as ours, which so largely measures people by their material success and judges their worth by such standards as how fashionably and expensively dressed they are, this ancient story is yet another useful parable about the ultimate worthlessness of so much of what we conventionally value and how ultimately freeing and liberating it actually is to adopt a very different sort of path.

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