The Exaltation of the True Cross by an anonymous Russian Orthodox icon painter (link)

    Letter #125, 2023, Thursday, September 14: Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

    I just received this letter from a reader, Joe Cahill. (Thank you, Joe.) I found it fascinating and wished to share it with you, since today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross:

    The Cross of Our Blessed Saviour was found by St Helena on the 3rd May 326. The actual feast day is 14th September 334 on the completion of a cathedral to honour the event. What is not mentioned in this summary is that within half an hour of finding the cross, Emperor Constantine was made aware of the find. A series of bonfires set up throughout the mountain ranges between Jerusalem and Rome alerted him to the findFascinating.” —Joe Cahill

    I cannot confirm from my own knowledge that this claim, that the news was sent across the empire in half an hour, is true, and do I have some doubts about it. (I would imagine that the lighting of each of the dozens of fires that would have been required might have taken up some minutes before the signal flame blazed up, taking several hours, so perhaps the claim that the emperor was made aware of the news of the finding of the Cross “within half an hour” is an exaggeration. Moreover, I assume that it all needed to occur during the night, so the flames could be seen in the blackness, so perhaps there was a passage of some time between the finding of the Cross during the day and the sending of the night-time signal that it had been found.)

    In any case, the question of the “half-hour” claim is not my interest here.

    Rather, whatever the precise facts about the length of time the news took to reach the Emperor Constantine from Jerusalem, what most strikes me is that the emperor wished to receive word as quickly as possible of the success of his mother’s mission to find the true cross.

    The mental world, the spiritual world, of the emperor was such that the finding of Christ’s cross was of profound importance to him.

    We might ask: why would it have been so important?

    And the answer must be: that Constanine considered the death of Jesus on the cross, on that very cross that his mother Helena found in Jesuralem, to be of central importance, for him, and for the whole world of which he was the supreme ruler.

    Which of our political leaders today would regard the cross upon which Christ was crucified to be of such central importance?

    Any of them?

    In reflecting upon the answer to this question, we may begin to understand the type of political culture which rules our world today.

    So let us celebrate today the finding of the true cross upon which Our Lord was crucified almost 2,000 years ago, and let us keep in mind that what was accomplished in that death, upon that wooden cross, changed the very structure of reality itself, defeating death and opening a way to eternal life, the first glimpses of which were seen by Jesus’ followers just after dawn on the first Easter Sunday morning, when they saw the empty tomb…

    We who live in 2023 have not received word of this resurrection after crucifixion on a wooden cross by a long series of bonfires spread across an empire, but by the eyewitness testimonies of many witnesses.

    Let us reflect on that.—RM

    (Below is a more complete account of the meaning of this feast day.)


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    Feast of the Holy Cross (link)

    In the Christian liturgical calendar, there are several different Feasts of the Cross, all of which commemorate the cross used in the crucifixion of Jesus.

    Unlike Good Friday, which is dedicated to the passion of Christ and the crucifixion, these feast days celebrate the cross itself, as the sign of salvation.

    In Western Catholicism, Eastern Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Lutheranism and Anglicanism the most common day of commemoration is 14 September, or 27 September in churches still using the Julian calendar.

    In English, the feast is called The Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the official translation of the Roman Missal, while the 1973 translation called it The Triumph of the Cross.

    In some parts of the Anglican Communion the feast is called Holy Cross Day, a name also used by Lutherans. The celebration is also sometimes called Holy Rood Day, or by the historic names Roodmas or Crouchmas.


    The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated every year on 14 September, recalls three events:

    1. The finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena.

    2. The dedication of churches built by Emperor Constantine on the site of the Holy Sepulchre and Mount Calvary.

    3. The restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem in AD 629 by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, after it had fallen into the hands of the Persian Emperor Chosroes II in the AD 614 Sasanian conquest of Jerusalem.    

    Under Emperor Constantine, around AD 327, Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem caused excavations to be made in order to ascertain the location of Calvary as well as that of the Holy Sepulchre. It was in the course of these excavations that the wood of the cross was recovered. It was determined by Macarius to be authentic (the crosses of the two thieves were also recovered) and for it Constantine built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. Subequently, pieces of the True Cross relic were distributed across the empire and by the turn of the 5th century were venerated as far away as Italy.

    The Ancient Georgian ladgari (Chantbook) bears witness to the celebration of the Exaltation of the Cross in Jerusalem prior to the middle of the 6th century. In the west before the end of the seventh century the feast was mainly observed in Rome. However, the earliest recorded commemoration of 14 September as the feast day on a Western calendar is from the 7th century A.D.

    In the Gallican usage, beginning about the seventh century, the Feast of the Cross was celebrated on 3 May, and called “Crouchmas” (for “Cross Mass”) or “Roodmas”. When the Gallican and Roman practices were combined, the September date was assigned to commemorating the rescue of the cross from the Sassanid Persians, and the May date was kept as the Finding of the Holy Cross or Invention of the True Cross to commemorate the finding. (“Invention” is a rendering of the Latin term inventio meaning “discovery”.) Pope John XXIII removed this feast in 1960, so that the General Roman Calendar now celebrates both the finding and the exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14 September, although some Latin American countries and Mexico still celebrate the feast of the finding on 3 May. Some communities which celebrate the liturgy in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite also observe the feast of the finding of the Holy Cross on 3 May.

    Theological distinction

    The Second Council of Nicæa of 787, drew the distinction between veneration of the cross and worship or latria, “which, according to the teaching of the faith, belongs to the Divine nature alone.” Petavius noted that this cult must be considered as not belonging to the substance of religion, but as being one of the things not absolutely necessary to salvation. Thus, the honor paid to the image passes to the prototype; and he who adores the image, adores the person whom it represents.


    According to Christian tradition, the True Cross was discovered in 326 by Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was then built at the site of the discovery, by order of Helena and Constantine. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the cross. One-third remained in Jerusalem, one-third was brought to Rome and deposited in the Sessorian basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem), and one-third was taken to Constantinople to make the city impregnable.

    The date of the feast marks the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335. This was a two-day festival: although the actual consecration of the church was on 13 September, the cross itself was brought outside the church on 14 September so that the clergy and faithful could pray before the True Cross, and all could come forward to venerate it.


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