You probably missed it. It doesn’t show up in most calendars, and it isn’t mentioned newsfeeds – Holy Cross Day was September 14.
Here’s the story: Constantine converted to Christianity and sent the one person he trusted to discover whether or not this “Christian stuff” was true: His mom, Helena.
Helena arrived in the Holy Land in 326 and found Christians worshipping in the places Jesus walked, just as they had since the resurrection. They showed the emperor’s mother the places of Jesus’ life, and she built churches atop them. One of the places Christians were worshipping was around a pagan temple to Jupiter in Jerusalem.
It turns out the temple had been built by Emperor Hadrian (as in Hadrian’s Wall across England) after a Jewish revolt against Rome in 133. As one might imagine, Roman emperors didn’t much like revolts, so Hadrian destroyed Jerusalem and rebuilt it as a Roman city. Hadrian sought to get Christians to abandon the site of Jesus’ resurrection by destroying the cave tomb and covering the site with a pagan temple…forever marking the spot for posterity. Think about it: In 133AD people who had been led to faith by the apostles were still alive to watch the tomb destroyed. Two hundred years later Helena arrived and ordered the temple torn down and the enormous Church of the Holy Sepulcher built over Calvary and the empty tomb. In the demolition, as the story goes, they discovered three wooden crucifixes. Church historian, Eusebius, records that Helena located a sick woman and had her touch the three crosses. Upon touching the third she was healed. Helena declared that cross “the true cross.”
According to very early tradition, they kept the cross in the church yard the day of the church’s dedication for all to see, and brought it inside to elaborate ceremony the next day, the day we call, “Holy Cross Day.”
It’s a neat story about an artifact that was later chopped up and distributed…so widely that John Calvin once quipped that if all the pieces of the “true cross” were gathered, the hold of a large cargo ship couldn’t contain them.
Holy Cross Day, though, is not really the celebration of a now historically unverifiable artifact. No, commemorating the instrument of Christ’s death is appropriate because the central focus of the Christian life is the work Jesus accomplished on that cross and the cruciform life Jesus’ followers are called to live in the world. The Cross is the unveiling of God’s true life in the world; and the Cross is the proper shape of human existence. The Cross of Christ is more than an event in history. It is the event of history.
Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.” The world’s need is the cross. The Good News is the news of the cross. God’s gift to you is the cross: God taking your sin and death upon his Son, forever transforming an emblem of shame reserved for the worst criminals into the icon of transformation and grace for all the world.
The cross points to the great truth that our lives are not our own, we were bought with a price. If you are in Christ, you were buried with Christ in baptism and raised to new life in him. If you are in Christ, you belong to the Crucified One – A Savior who calls His friends to himself, and then sends us out as heralds of His arms open wide on the hard wood of that cross.
Did you miss the Feast of the Cross this year? Did it slip past you unawares? Despair not. The true artifact God has left in the world is not a collection of rotting splinters. God has left behind something infinitely more powerful to point the way to the Father’s grace – living artifacts. Christian, God has left you as a testimony of His grace, as the picture that is worth a thousand words, as the implement of healing for a sick world. That’s right:
The True Cross…is YOU!