Early in the 4th century (326), St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem in search of the holy places of Christ’s life. She had the 2nd century pagan temple honoring Venus razed which, tradition held, had been built over the tomb of our Lord. It was on this site that her son, Constantine, built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. During excavation workers discovered three crosses. The one upon which Jesus was crucified was identified when a dying woman was healed when she touched it.
In celebration of the discovery of the Holy Cross, Constantine ordered the construction of churches on the site of the Holy Sepulcher and on Mount Calvary. Those churches were dedicated on Sept. 13 and 14 in 335. Shortly thereafter the Feast of The Exaltation of the Holy Cross began to be observed on the 14 of September; by the year 720 it was celebrated throughout the Church.
To this day the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the September anniversary of the Basilica’s dedication. The feast entered the Western calendar in the seventh century after Emperor Heraclius recovered the cross from the Persians, who had carried it off, after conquering Jerusalem in 614, fifteen years earlier.
Tradition says that Emperor Heraclius carried the Cross on his own back but when he attempted to enter the church on Mount Calvary an inexplicable force stopped him. Patriarch Zacharias of Jerusalem, seeing the emperor struggling, advised him to remove his royal robes and crown and to dress in a penitential robe instead. As soon as Heraclius took Zacharias’ advice, he was able to proceed carrying the True Cross into the church.
Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, said, “But what does exalting the Cross mean? Is it not maybe scandalous to venerate a shameful form of execution? The Apostle Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). Christians however, do not exalt just any cross but the Cross which Jesus sanctified with his sacrifice, the fruit and testimony of immense love. Christ on the Cross pours out his Blood to set humanity free from the slavery of sin and death. Therefore, from being a sign of malediction, the Cross was transformed into a sign of blessing, from a symbol of death into a symbol par excellance of the love that overcomes hatred and violence and generates immortal life.”
Today’s vestments will be red