Common to many parts of Christianity, in East and West, is a commemoration of the Holy Cross in these days of September. Catholics of the West as well as parts of the Anglican Communion and other Western Christians keep September 14th as the Feast of the Holy Cross. We share this autumn commemoration with Eastern Catholics, the Orthodox Churches, and other venerable Churches of the East.
The feast takes us back to those days after the Peace of Constantine which allowed the Church a liberty and favor it had not enjoyed.
Constantine’s mother, the Empress Saint Helen, was a devout Christian. After her son was converted by the extraordinary events that made him sole occupant of the imperial throne, Helen went on an extended pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She caused to be built there edifices that marked various sacred sites of which Christian communities there had preserved the memory.
Few are cognizant of what this special person did many centuries ago that helped generations since, down to our own day, to visit the holy sites of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and to preserve what is precious.
In addition to what she built in the Holy Land, Helen returned to Rome with many relics…including the stairs which Jesus climbed on Good Friday (they can be visited in the Church of the Scala Santa, across from Rome’s Lateran Cathedral) and pieces of the Cross of Jesus, discovered and miraculously revealed to her outside Jerusalem’s walls. Fragments of it can still be found a short walk from the Lateran, in the Basilica of Santa Croce, which marks the site of Helen’s home. In fact, she also brought an enormous quantity of soil from Jerusalem so that her home would always rest on the hallowed, if imported, ground of that city where Jesus died and rose. The basilica is thus known still as “The Holy Cross in Jerusalem.”
This feast marks the anniversary of exceptional events that occurred in Jerusalem in the fourth century.
Jesus told us that, as His disciples, we must take up our Cross and follow Him. In the 21st century, the starkness of that statement can be hard for us to grasp. The familiar Cross is something we see in art and places of worship; many reading this are wearing a Cross or have one in sight.
We also spiritualize this directive from Jesus. We see the outline of the Cross in our illnesses, afflictions, and trials in life…our sharing in His suffering, which is certainly right and true.
The words of Jesus to those listening however would have evoked a dramatic sentiment. The Cross by which He redeemed us was not of precious metal and inlaid jewels…but rough wood. It is one of the most gruesome instruments of execution ever devised.
Years ago, I was a pilgrim to Perryville, Missouri’s National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, run by the Vincentian Fathers. A Vincentian, Saint John Gabriel Peyboyre, was martyred in 19th century China by crucifixion. In the church, I suddenly came face to face with a stark painting of him being crucified. It was part of a chapel dedicated to him. The memory has vividly stayed with me across the years that for some followers of Jesus in various times and places, His admonition is literal. This saint’s feast day, coincidentally, is September 11th.
“Take up your cross and follow me” is indeed literal for some disciples of the Lord today who live where Christianity emerged. Even for one seasoned by life, the photos today of Christians being crucified cause me to avert my gaze; they are hard to look at…even more than the painting of Saint John Gabriel.
The sufferings of our brothers and sisters who live in places dear to the heart, being the cradle of Christianity, prompted me to do what I could to try to help them — and their bishops, clergy and religious — through Solidarity with the Persecuted Church.
On this Feast of the Holy Cross, as you celebrate it wherever you may be, I invite you to remember and to pray for those who are suffering even as you read this. They participate in the mystery of the Cross of Jesus in a very unique way.
As the Father’s providence brought forward Saint Simon of Cyrene to help Jesus carry His Cross to Calvary, we have the opportunity to help those who carry the Cross today. For some, the help can be the difference between life and death. For others, the help may be the support of our prayers as they remain faithful to the Lord whom they love and thereby face the ultimate consequence for their fidelity. Help can take many forms.
As we look on this feast day at our own Cross, the one we carry in our lives as well as the one we wear on our person or keep in our home, please remember those with literal Crosses very much like the one that Our Lord was crucified upon. These brothers and sisters need you to be in solidarity with them.