Have you noticed how fuzzy the idea of “truth” has become? Things are no longer “true” in any objective sense. They are, as Stephen Colbert said, “truthy” – true enough…ish. Sort of. Our social media usage illustrates this. We no longer live our lives. We curate them, packaging the bits we want others to see. We crop out the ugly for public attention. The “like” culture has blurred the line, not just between truth and “truthy,” but also the line between actual life and media. This blurring may have been started by Alan Funt on the old tv show, “Candid Camera.” Candid Camera played jokes on ordinary people, and when the joke was revealed, host Alan Funt would pull off his disguise and deliver his catchphrase, “Smile, your on Candid Camera!”
One of the people to fall victim to Alan Funt’s blurring of real vs media was Alan Funt himself. In 1969 Alan Funt was on an Eastern Airlines flight to Miami when the flight was highjacked. The highjacker held the stewardess at knifepoint and demanded the plane fly to Havana. When passengers noticed Alan Funt seated near the highjacker, they began to applaud. When the man disappeared into the cockpit, Funt tried to explain that this was not television. According to the Radio Lab October 15, 2015 podcast episode, “Smile My Ass,” when the passengers didn’t buy it, Funt attempted to enlist a priest sitting in first class to explain the situation. The priest didn’t believe him either. They took him seriously, though, when Cuban military boarded the plane. When we resort to packaging our own truth, how are we to know what we can actually believe in? This is where the Feast of the Holy Cross comes in…
The year was 326. Constantine, who became emperor in the wake of Diocletian’s “Great Persecution” (303-311), was betting his empire on upstart Christianity. Unlike other religions, the Christian faith depends, not on creed or philosophy, but upon a historical event: the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Christian message is that death has been conquered and humans reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus (2 Cor 5, Col 1:22, 1 Cor 15:1-8). But Constantine needed to know if the story was true. He sent the one person he could count on to go see the Holy Land and confirm or deny the historical reports: his 78 yr old mother, Helena. Helena arrived in Jerusalem and found no tomb. Emperor Hadrian had destroyed Jesus’ burial place two centuries earlier and built a temple to Aphrodite on the location, inadvertently marking the place of Christ’s passion in perpetuity. When she asked whether or not the events in the New Testament actually happened, surely she would have met others her age who would say things like, “Well, my great-grandpa was healed by Jesus, does that count?”
Tradition tells us that Helena had Hadrian’s temple torn down. In the rubble they found three crosses left over from before the destruction of Jesus’ tomb in 130 CE. Consider that 130 date: a century after Jesus’ resurrection, a mere 3 decades after the death of John, the last living apostle. Legend has it that to identify “the true cross,” Helena had a sick woman approach the three artifacts. Upon touching the third she was healed. The “true” cross was left behind to adorn a church Helena commissioned to be built on the site. The Feast of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 14th, marks the bringing of that cross outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the day after the church’s dedication (335 CE) so that the community could see it. The cross was removed when Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the crusades, and bits of it were distributed all over Europe. By the 1600s John Calvin would remark, “if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.” Helena also saw the place of Jesus’ birth, the location of the feeding of the 5000, and many other sites of Jesus’ life, marking them with state sponsored Roman churches.
Was Helena’s cross the “true cross”? Who knows. Are the fragments distributed around the planet pieces of that cross? Probably not. But the Feast of the Holy Cross does tell us that the places Jesus walked are there – as described in the New Testament. There were worshippers, people whose lives were still being changed by the power of Jesus’ actions on the cross, still gathering where their great-grandparents had been gathering since the resurrection. And, especially in light of repeated persecutions, there is no reason for people to have begun gathering and commemorating in those places were the stories they told their children not true.
In this age when the line between truth and truthiness is blurred, there is another old game show that is a better model for us: Groucho Marx’s, You Bet Your Life. The truth is that you and I can bet our lives on Jesus Christ and his great acts of salvation on our behalf. And while we don’t have any kind of a sure claim to the “true cross” we have rock solid knowledge of a Gospel that is true. The places described in the Gospels are as described in those Gospels, because the Gospels are the narratives of dependable witnesses.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” -1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV