Witnesses of the Cross
“Lord, where are your friends? Your subjects, where are they? They have left you.
This running away has been going on for twenty centuries…
We, all of us, flee from the Cross, from your Holy Cross.”
ST. JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA
The Way of the Cross, no. 4
Once a terrible sign of death and punishment, the Cross became a sign of love and peace through the power of Our Savior. On September 14th, we step into that conversion to commemorate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Crux fidelis, inter omnes
Arbor una nobilis
Nulla talem silva
Profert flore, fronde, germine,
Dulce lignum dulce clavo
Dulce pondus sustinens
Faithful Cross, true sign of triumph,
Be for all the noblest tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thine equal be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee!
The story of this feast is deep and rooted in the holy site itself. Imagine being a part of a bygone era where emperors held sway and venerable figures like St. Helena embarked on voyages to realms unknown in pursuit of the footprints of their faith. Her journey reflects an age-old human endeavor, one beautifully encapsulated by St. Josemaria: “To find the Cross is to find Christ” (The Forge, no. 779).
The historian Eusebius chronicled this monumental decision, highlighting the emperor’s endowment to his mother “to draw upon the imperial treasury to defray the expenses of her journey” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine). Thus, according to some Ancient sources, guided by a prophetic dream and spurred by her son Constantine’s recent conversion to Christianity, St. Helena set her sights on the Holy Land. As she stepped upon the sacred soils of Jerusalem, Helena encountered a region shadowed by a tapestry of pagan traditions, where temples were dedicated to various deities. A temple of Venus had been constructed atop the site of Christ’s crucifixion, a deliberate attempt to quell Christian worship yet failing to extinguish the indomitable spirit of Christian reverence.
The reaction of Helena was magnificent and energetic: “Those who hated Christianity, having covered the spot with a mound of earth, erected on it a temple to Venus, and set up her image there, not caring for the memory of the place. This succeeded for a long time; and it became known to the emperor’s mother. Accordingly, she caused the statue to be thrown down, the earth to be removed, and the ground entirely cleared” (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Chapter 17).
Amidst the remnants of the pagan temple of Venus, an astonishing discovery awaited. “When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple, which had been there erected, to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses were seen buried near the Lord’s sepulchre. All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern to which of the three the Body of the Lord had been brought nigh, and which had received the outpouring of His precious Blood” (Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Chapter 17).
St. Ambrose’s account of the event is concise and rich: “Helena found the Cross of Christ in a mound of Golgotha, and the title on which was written: Jesus Nazarene King of the Jews. But there were three crosses there, without a clear distinction for that venerable Cross, and so a test was made with the body of a dead person; when the dead person touched it, he rose again…” (Ambrose of Milan, De obitu Theodosii, 44-46.)
What a fantastic finding! The enthralling discovery ignited a wave of spiritual and architectural fervor, with Emperor Constantine envisioning a grand basilica that would enshrine both Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre. In his correspondence quoted by Eusebius, Constantine expressed:
“I have deemed it incumbent on me to dispatch this letter to you, on receiving which you will use all diligence to make provision for the erection of a church, a task especially worthy of the most earnest attention” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine).
The construction of the new basilica was a colossal endeavor. It required the best of the technical and financial resources from the Empire: “The emperor gave directions that the materials should be procured from what appeared to be the most costly and brilliant, and caused them to be transported from the remotest countries, Egypt, and Phoenicia. […] Thus, on the very spot which witnessed the Saviour’s sufferings, a new Jerusalem was constructed, over against the one so celebrated of old, which, since the foul stain of guilt brought on it by the murder of the Lord, had experienced the last extremity of desolation, the effect of Divine judgment” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, Book III).
It took over 8 years to complete the enormous complex, including the massive basilica and the dome of the Anastasis. In between them, a colonnaded atrium enclosed the Calvary. At the same time, the Holy Sepulcher was kept at the center of the dome.
On September 13th, 335 AD, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, already completed, was consecrated, and the celebration of the new basilica continued the very next day. As dawn broke on September 14th, the attention of the people and the pastors focused on the artifact that provided meaning to the whole building: the Cross.
As Cyril of Jerusalem said while preaching on the site: “He was truly crucified for our sins. For if you would deny it, the place refutes you visibly, this blessed Golgotha, in which we are now assembled for the sake of Him who was here crucified; and the whole world has since been filled with pieces of the wood of the Cross” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture XIII, 4).
This tradition resonates profoundly within the Christian community to this day. Almost seventeen hundred years later, on September 14th, we celebrate the finding of the Cross. And we can better understand the words of St. Josemaria, “On the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit.” And we sing with the whole Church:
Pange, lingua, gloriosi,
Et super Crucis trophaeo,
dic triumphum nobilem,
Qualiter Redemptor orbis,
Sing, my tongue, the glory,
of the victorius fight,
And the trophy conquested on the Cross.
Tell of the noble triumph,
the Redeemer of the world,
Overcame by immolating himself.
Image “The Vision of Saint Helena” by Paolo Veronese via WikiArt