We find the origins of the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross back in the year 335 A.D. when, on September 14th of that year, a basilica built by the Emperor Constantine was consecrated. The site was that of Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher. Earlier, the Roman Emperor Hadrian had leveled the site, covering it with earth and building a temple to the Roman goddess Venus along with a statue to Jupiter on top of Calvary’s site. A few years later the Emperor Constantine encouraged Christianity to flourish in the Roman Empire. Constantine’s mother, whom we know as St. Helen, subsequently searched for and found the remnants of our Lord’s Cross after excavating Hadrian’s temple terrace to get down to the actual site of Calvary.
About three hundred years later the Persian King Chosroes captured Jerusalem and carried off the True Cross, taking it to Persia, today’s Iran. Fourteen years later the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius defeated the Persian King Chosroes and brought the True Cross back to Jerusalem. With great ceremony, and wearing sumptuous and be-jeweled vestments, Heraclius in a grand procession carried the Cross on his shoulder back to Calvary, the site of Constantine’s original basilica.
When he arrived at the gate in Jerusalem’s wall leading to Calvary he found that he couldn’t move. Some invisible force had stopped him; he simply couldn’t move forward. The Bishop of Jerusalem, a man named Zachary, addressed the Emperor in these words: “In all of this finery you are far from imitating Christ’s poverty and the lowly state of our Savior when He carried the Cross.” Thereupon the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius took off his finery and donned a simple cloak. It was then he found that he could move forward — and so carried the Cross back to Calvary’s site.
The lesson for us is obvious. We must ask ourselves what burdens us, what weighs us down, and keeps us from spiritually moving forward? The Cross is not so heavy that we cannot carry it or move under its weight. Christ, after all, said “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…” If He is yoked with us then there is no burden too heavy that you and He cannot carry together. But if you are burdened by the weight of this world’s glitter and gold, you will soon be immobilized by it. It will not only weigh you down, it will crush your spirit.
Moreover your heart will be crushed by the struggle against forces that will take it all away from you. You will be heart-broken by family feuds over inheritances and other money issues. So-called friends, while managing your money for you, will betray you and strip you of your money. Think of all of the sports figures, superstars and Lotto winners who have died in poverty because their managers and agents behind their backs stripped them of their fortunes. So have corporate moguls. In all of their glitter and sumptuous life-styles they were crushed and buried. No Roman Emperor did this to them. Their so-called friends and even family members did it to them.
Even though we are not superstars and media giants we, too, know that we can be buried by this world’s cares, allurements, glitz and glitter. People buy or build outsized houses, cars, boats, computers, TV’s, and all manner of other things that captivate and distract them. Sometimes we get into them so deeply that we wonder what our lives are all about. What’s the meaning of my life, we ask? Why am I doing all this? Where am I going and in what direction am I going?
God does not get any enjoyment out of seeing us suffer, especially suffering just for the sake of suffering. But neither does God find any pleasure in watching us suffocate ourselves because we can no longer breathe any spiritual air. God does not want us to suffer for any reason. After all, didn’t He create Adam and Eve to enjoy the Garden of Paradise, to enjoy the wonders of this world, to enjoy all of the animals, trees, stars in the sky, and the glories of this beautiful earth?
The Cross teaches us another lesson. Not only did Christ die in order that we might be freed from this world’s bondage, His death also reveals to us the length and depth to which God has gone to give Himself to us. We’ve all heard the words of love songs: “I will do anything for you.” Well, so it is with God — He has done everything for us. The Cross shows the extent to which God loves us and how far He will go to give Himself to us.
The remedy for suffering is to be self-giving. Are not people who are self-giving among the happiest people we know? Think of those you know who are happy and ask yourself if they are not self-giving. One of the greatest paradoxes of life is that the more we give, the more we get. Those who love the most are those who are loved the most. Self-giving can be buried underneath the temples of this world’s false gods and goddesses. The Cross is the sign that contradicts them.
The secular world’s religion is one of getting, acquiring, buying, and filling one’s life with more and more things, loading us down with gadgets, glitz and glitter. Competition is valued more than community. Being Number One, on top of the heap, and the top of this world, seduces us and leads us away from the sort of life than Jesus calls us to live. For those who lust for power, God is thought of more as All Powerful than He is as Self-Giving.
The fact that we see a human body nailed on the Cross calls us to look into our own humanity. The Cross is more than a symbol, more than a sign. It is a summons to us to live our lives in sacrificial self-giving, in self-emptying love just as did the One who hangs there nailed on the Cross. No wonder, then, that we want to bury it under our own modern statues to Venus, the goddess of love, and Jupiter the god of power. Jesus on the Cross is a sign of contradiction, a sign that contradicts the message of the world that surrounds us. It is also a sign of liberation, of freedom.
The Cross tells us that if we live life as Jesus did, if we live in His way, His truth, and His life we will find a freedom that this world cannot give. For God has called us to “live in the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God”, to live a life high exalted, a life high above and beyond anything this world’s gods and goddesses can ever hope to offer us.