Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Veneration of the cross dates back to the fourth century, when St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When she had the Temple of Aphrodite razed because it was said to have been built over the tomb of Jesus, workers found three crosses, one of which was believed to be the cross of Jesus. Subsequently, Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the site. The feast became part of the Church calendar in the 7th Century, after the Emperor Heraclius returned the Holy Cross, which had been stolen by the Persians, to Jerusalem.
The cross is an important symbol for those of us who are Christians. At one level, the cross serves as a reminder of the extent of God’s love for us, made manifest in Jesus. As we hear in today’s Gospel, in the words so familiar to us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him migth not perish but have eternal life.” It also symbolizes for us “the mind of Jesus,” who (as we hear in our first reading for today in the beautiful words of the Letter to the Philippians) “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and [humbling] himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
But our veneration of the cross is more than simply gazing on what God has done for us through Jesus. It means more than merely reciting our prayers of adoration before the cross. Truly venerating the cross means putting on the mind of Jesus. It means taking up our own crosses and living lives worthy of those who have been redeemed. It means being Christ in the world.
Kneeling in front of the cross or processing with the cross singing praise is the easy part. Living in the light of the cross is the challenge.