Anyone know why we keep a Feast of the Holy Cross on September 14? (Or on the Sunday closest to September 14, if it’s a Maronite parish?)*
On September 14, AD 335, they carried a piece of the cross of Christ in solemn procession into the newly dedicated Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Lord Jesus was crucified outside the ancient wall of the city, on the hill called… Golgatha. After He died, they laid Him in a nearby tomb, as we read in John 19: “In the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden, a new tomb. There they laid Him.” Mount Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher stand only a few dozen yards apart from each other.
When the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited the Holy Land during the 130’s, he renamed Jerusalem after himself, and he ordered that the sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial be covered over with earth, and then a pagan temple built there. Hadrian hated Judaism and Christianity. St. Dimitry Rostov put it like this in his homily for this feast:
[The Roman emperor wanted] the remembrance of the name of Jesus Christ to vanish from the earth… The place where he was crucified and buried was made a dwelling-place of demons, so that every nation would forget Christ, and the places where Christ had walked would never serve to remind anyone of Him.
Therefore, the Holy Cross and the tomb of Christ remained buried underground for almost two hundred years.
But: one thing we can certainly say is that the Christians of Jerusalem knew precisely where they were. We can safely say that, from the first Easter Sunday onward, not a single day passed without a Christian going to pray at the holy site.
So when the Emperor Constantine finally legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in AD 313, and when the emperor’s mother St. Helena went to the Holy Land to find the cross and the holy sepulcher, there were still Christians there, and they knew where to tell her to look.
So let’s keep this anniversary feast as an occasion to rejoice in the genuinely amazing faithfulness of Christians through all the tumults of history.
And let’s focus especially on this: our forefathers and foremothers in faith have held on through thick and thin not because they have had so much virtue—though many of them certainly have had great virtue. The main reason, though, is this: it’s the truth.
Our ancestors who have handed our sacred tradition down to us have simply been faithful to what they knew to be true. The great triumphant mystery of God-made-man involves facts. And those facts have been remembered faithfully and handed down to us primarily because they are true.
After all, that’s the only reasonable explanation for us being here together right now, dear reader.
Let’s look at it this way. A man regarded by the authorities as a delusional political nuisance was executed as a common criminal on the outskirts of a ramshackle city, which the Romans thought of as an outpost in the outer reaches of barbarian hell. If CNN had existed to report the news of the Roman Empire at the time, the chances that Wolf Blitzer would have mentioned this particular execution: zero.
The executed man was buried nearby, in a tomb that did not belong to his family–His family being altogether too poor to own any tombs. The chances of anyone making a written record about the location of the grave: zero.
In other words, we really cannot even imagine anything more obscure and forgettable than the death and burial of this particular man. Innumerable men and women have died, and been buried, and have been altogether forgotten. And by all external trappings, the Nazarene carpenter would fit into that human category, the category of the altogether forgettable.
Except for one fact: He is God.
He rose from the dead. He poured out His Holy Spirit. He unites us to Himself through the Holy Mass. He is the hope and the joy of mankind.
This is what Christians have known from Day One. So they prayed at the sites of his death and resurrection. They prayed there even when the worldly powers did everything to try to make them forget.
At Holy Mass, we take our place with these forefathers and foremothers of ours. The living memory of the living God-made-man survived the ravages of Hadrian and the other Roman emperors who hated Christianity. The tradition endured to the day when they carried the relic of the true cross into the beautiful new Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, seventeen centuries ago. And the living memory of the living God-made-man has endured through those seventeen centuries from then until now.
We take our place beside all our forebears, who have held the faith through all these hundreds of years, and we declare with them: We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You…
Because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world!
* Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ, this Sunday I am substituting for the pastor of our local Maronite parish, while my beloved parochial vicars hold down the fort at home.