Wednesday, September 14, 2011

September 14 - Exaltation of the Holy Cross

O Crux, ave spes unica! Hail, O Cross, our only hope!

Holy Cross - San Clemente, Rome
(Detail of Apse mosaic, 12th Century)
Dying, you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life. 
Save us by your cross, Christ our Redeemer.
- from the Eucharistic Prayer

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life.

- John 3:16 (Douay)

Early in the fourth century St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ's life. She razed the Temple of Aphrodite, which tradition held was built over the Savior's tomb, and her son built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher over the tomb. During the excavation, workers found three crosses. Legend has it that the one on which Jesus died was identified when its touch healed a dying woman.

The cross immediately became an object of veneration. At a Good Friday celebration in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century, according to an eyewitness, the wood was taken out of its silver container and placed on a table together with the inscription Pilate ordered placed above Jesus' head: Then "all the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they move on."

To this day the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the September anniversary of the basilica's dedication. The feast entered the Western calendar in the seventh century after Emperor Heraclius recovered the cross from the Persians, who had carried it off in 614, 15 years earlier. According to the story, the emperor 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.


The cross is today the universal image of Christian belief. Countless generations of artists have turned it into a thing of beauty to be carried in procession or worn as jewelry. To the eyes of the first Christians, it had no beauty. It stood outside too many city walls, decorated only with decaying corpses, as a threat to anyone who defied Rome's authority—including Christians who refused sacrifice to Roman gods. Although believers spoke of the cross as the instrument of salvation, it seldom appeared in Christian art unless disguised as an anchor or the Chi-Rho until after Constantine's edict of toleration.


"How splendid the cross of Christ! It brings life, not death; light, not darkness; Paradise, not its loss. It is the wood on which the Lord, like a great warrior, was wounded in hands and feet and side, but healed thereby our wounds. A tree has destroyed us, a tree now brought us life" (Theodore of Studios).


Adoramus te, christe, et benedicimus tibi,
quia per crucem tuam redemisti mundum.
We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee,
for by thy cross thou hast redeemed the world.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.

O God, who by the passion of thy blessed Son didst make an instrument of shameful death to be unto us the means of life and peace: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Suggestions for family activities:
  • If possible attend Mass together. Consider taking your family to a church that has especially fine Stations of the Cross. Look at the images and explain their meaning. At each Station pray, "We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, for by thy Cross thou hast redeemed the world". At the end, have the children kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and say a Hail Mary, an Our Father, and a Glory be.
  • Make the evening meal today more festive than ordinary -- light candles on the table or use the good dishes. 
  • Read one or more of the prayers or scripture readings for the day before the evening meal. Older children could take turns doing the readings. 
  • Begin teaching even the very youngest members of the family to make the Sign of the Cross at the end of the mealtime prayers. (Older brothers and sisters usually will be very glad to help the baby with this.)
  • Explain to children the meaning of the Sign of the Cross that we make before meals, and point out how this action is intended to unite every one of us with Jesus' sacrifice for us -- His crucifixion and His resurrection from the dead. 
  • Make a point of mentioning how great is God's loves for us. Encourage children to memorize John 3:16. This is a key verse about the triumph of Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross, and encourages children to revere and respect God's word in the Bible. Give a small reward or privilege to each child who memorizes the verse. Have them recite it for you when they say their bedtime prayers.
  • Two additional suggestions:
    -- Have grade-school-age children write the verse in their fanciest writing and illustrate it with a drawing of Jesus on the Cross. Even little people think a lot when they are drawing something. Maybe you could set a crucifix on the table for them to look at when they draw it. (Don't forget to display the results on the refrigerator -- or maybe send it to grandma.)
    -- Frost a sheet cake with white icing, and make a large Cross on the cake with red icing, and pipe "John 3:16" on the Cross. Let the children help decorate the cake further by sprinkling it with silver dragees or colored sprinkles.
  • If there are crucifixes in the children's rooms, make sure to call attention to it at bedtime prayers. If not, today would be a very good time to get them.


  1. Very interesting -- Thanks for sharing this bit of history about the cross.

  2. Very interesting. It's kind of sad that those people worshiped Christ's torture instrument, but it is a thing of beauty for us who know that it did not defeat Him :)

  3. Great suggestions for how to bring children up to understand Jesus' sacrifice for us. Thanks.

  4. Very interesting! Thank you for the history lesson and lovely prayers!

    blessings, zuda