Our Life in Christ

Our Life In Christ 

The Exaltation of the Cross – September 14, 2021

by Fr. Jonathan Cholcher

In the decades following the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the city of Jerusalem underwent massive political and religious changes. A series of Jewish uprisings culminated in the siege of Jerusalem and complete destruction of the city and Jewish Temple by the Romans in the year 70 A.D.; the Jewish High Council, the Sanhedrin, was dissolved. The Roman Emperor Hadrian commanded the rebuilding of the city as Colonia Aelia Capitolina and the construction of a temple of Jupiter over the site of the previous temple. This followed the Bar-Kochba (“son of the star”) rebellion in 135 A.D. Another temple of Venus (Aphrodite) was constructed over the place of Christ’s crucifixion.

About 200 hundred years later, the Emperor Constantine approached Rome to confront his rival Maxentius. Before the battle the sign of the Cross appeared to Constantine in the noonday sky along with this inscription: In hoc signo vincit (By this sign conquer); the emperor commanded the battle standards of his army to be adorned with the sign of the Cross after which he won an overwhelming victory eventually ushering in the acceptance of Christianity throughout the empire.

In the twentieth year of Constantine’s reign (326), he sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem the venerate the Holy Places and find the locations of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. Digging through the rubble Helena came upon three crosses, one containing three nails in the middle of the other two. A dying woman was suddenly healed when one of the crosses touched her, and Patriarch Macarius thus identified the True Cross venerating and exalting it publicly. When he raised the Cross for all to see, the crowd exclaimed: Kyrie eleison! (Lord, have mercy!), the origin of our Feast today.

At the desire of the Emperor Constantine, St. Helena went on to oversee the construction of the Church of the Anastasis (Gk., Resurrection) on the actual location of our Lord’s death and resurrection. Many know this grand building as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Tomb) because it encompasses not only Golgotha but the tomb in which Christ’s Body lay and rose from the dead. Since the ninth century at every Pascha, the Holy Fire is miraculously kindled and has been carried out by the Patriarch from the Tomb and shared with the faithful.

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is a bittersweet occasion. In it we commemorate the indestructible and incorruptible power of the Resurrection. The Cross of Christ works the miracle of healing from death to life. And the Cross is real and effective to save, which is why the Cross has become a universal symbol of salvation in Christ, adorning our bodies and buildings in gesture, in jewelry, in furniture, and in iconography.

Yet this Feast is a strict fast day in the practice of the Church. The triumph of the Cross is won through self-denial, voluntary suffering, and conformity to the will of Christ. Jesus said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews and stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:18, 23-24).

The Cross is not a good-luck charm or symbol of worldly success and gratification. The Cross is the instrument of victory over decay and death for those who are willing to clear away the rubble of sinful passions and attach themselves to keeping Christ’s commandments of faith and love. “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

The Psalmist prays to God: “Nail my flesh with the fear of You, for I fear You because of Your judgments” (Ps. 118[119]:120). The fear of God – “the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 110[111]:10; Prov. 1:7) – affixes our flesh “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14) to the commandments of God, and so we are crucified with Christ on the wood of the Cross, the instrument of His perfect obedience to the will of the Father. The Cross displays reconciliation with God through the obedience of godly fear (Heb. 5:7-8) in the midst of a world obscuring the truth of Christ in the rebellion of godless pride.

Once buried for three hundred years, the treasure of the Cross was uncovered and exalted in faith by those who celebrated Its true significance. As in the days of St. Constantine, the triumph of Christianity today is not measured by any criterion of worldly, material success; rather, this Feast reminds us our triumph consists of victory over attachment to temporal goods in the humble, patient, and courageous keeping of the ways of the Kingdom of heaven. The Cross and its message are perpetually subject to the negligent and forgetful abuse of sinners, yet this device intended for shame and death always operates in the lives of those faithful to Christ as the one and only means of joyful life eternal.