It’s interesting that the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross – celebrated annually on September 14 – comes at a time of year when we so often think about starting new things: a new school year, a new wardrobe, a new season. Even if we’re no longer in school ourselves or have children starting a new school year, we still get that “itch” to start something new, to progress to the next level, to begin a new project.
Does that remind you of another time of year in which we look forward to beginning anew? Sounds a bit like Lent, doesn’t it? We clean out the closet of our hearts and fill it with a new spiritual wardrobe so that on Easter Sunday, we can start new things, a new season of growth.
It’s a great help to me to have this beautiful feast of the Cross placed mid-September. It reminds me that there would be no new beginnings without Christ’s Crucifixion. That’s why this is such a hopeful feast – we exalt the Cross, not mourn over it. In some circles, the feast is called the Triumph of the Cross. I can’t think of a better word for it. With the Crucifixion, Christ triumphed over evil. He carried his Cross first so that we could carry ours, not mournfully but triumphantly.
Origin of the Feast
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross dates back to the fourth century when St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. There she tore down the Temple of Aphrodite, which was believed to have been built over Christ’s tomb. She located the tomb, and Constantine built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher over it. During the excavation, workers found three crosses, one of which is believed to be the one on which our Lord was crucified. It was identified when its touch healed a dying woman.
Immediately, the Cross became an object of veneration. Toward the end of the fourth century, according to an eyewitness, the wood was taken out of its silver case and place on a table along with the inscription Pilate had ordered to be placed above Jesus’ head during a Good Friday service. After that, all those in attendance passed through one by one, each bowing down, touching the Cross and inscription with forehead and eyes and then, kissing the Cross before moving on.
Until today, the Eastern Churches – Catholic and Orthodox – celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the September anniversary of the basilica’s dedication. The Western calendar adopted the feast in the seventh century after Emperor Heraclius recovered the Cross from the Persians, who had carried it off 15 years earlier. Tradition holds that Heraclius intended to carry the Cross back into Jerusalem himself, but was unable to move forward until he took off his imperial garb and became a barefoot pilgrim.
It’s fitting to take a day out to spiritually exalt the Cross upon which our Savior suffered and died for us. He bore so much pain and agony on account of our sins and with a love that is limitless despite our faults and sinfulness! The feast is the occasion for a new beginning, as well, as we resolve to take up our own crosses, given to us by Divine Providence, and carry them forward out of love for Jesus.
Here’s a traditional Catholic prayer that’s fitting for today, but also for each time we encounter a crucifix as it promises indulgences.
Prayer Before a Crucifix
Behold, O good and sweetest Jesus, I cast myself upon my knees in Thy sight, and with the most fervent desire of my soul I pray and beseech Thee to impress upon my heart lively sentiments of faith, hope, and charity, with true repentance for my sins and a most firm desire of amendment: whilst with deep affection and grief of soul I consider within myself and mentally contemplace Thy five most precius Wounds, having before mine eyes that which David, the prophet, long ago spoke in Thine Own person concerning thee, my Jesus: They have pierced My hands and My feet, they have numbered all My bones. (Ps 21, 17, 18)
Say one Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the Catholic Church and the intentions of the Holy Father.
A plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, may be gained by those who say this prayer with devotion before an image of our crucified Redeemer. A partial indulgence may also be gained for each devout recitation.
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