At one time called “The Triumph of the Cross,” today’s feast has a long history. Fourth century Church historian Eusebius says that the emperor of Rome, Constantine, while fighting a losing war, had a vision of the cross which appeared with the words, “In this sign you shall conquer.” As the story goes, Constantine used the sign, won the war, converted to Christianity, and ended persecution against the Church. Constantine’s mother, St. Helen, is said to have discovered the true cross on Sept. 14, 326, thus giving the date for today’s feast. The historical truth is cloudy, but the stories and the feast serve to make us ponder the Cross.
The cross did not immediately become a symbol of Christianity for it was an instrument of torture and death for slaves, traitors and the worst of criminals. Crucifixion was more than a means of execution. It was designed to be a complete debasement and humiliation of those crucified. Individuals were tortured in public then crucified naked so that all passers by could watch you die a slow and agonizing death. Crucifixion sent a powerful message to those who would defy Rome. Because it was a symbol of Rome’s brutal rule, the cross became a symbol of the hatred for the Roman Empire.
The Israelites acknowledged that God brought them out of slavery, and that in the desert God had given them food; however, they hated the desert and they didn’t like the food. Despite freedom, food and water, they grumbled against God. They should not have been surprised, then, that their lack of gratitude brought punishment through the bites of the seraph serpents.
The word “seraph” means “to burn” implying that the venom of the snakes must have caused a burning pain. As instructed by God, Moses made a bronze serpent to heal those bitten. It was kept in the Temple, but during religious reform, King Hezekiah had the bronze image destroyed. The original purpose of the bronze serpent was to be used in healing rituals; but the Israelites had begun to offer sacrifices to “Nehuštan.” Hezekiah believed that the image had become an idol. It had to be destroyed.
There is a notable contradiction here. The image of the very thing that was killing people had saved their lives; but the Israelites forgot the image’s history and purpose. Rather than the image pointing them to God’s healing and compassion, the bronze serpent had become an idol and diverted worship away from God rather than toward God.
The cross, the instrument of excruciating and debasing capital punishment, presents its own contradiction. Why did a symbol of a hated empire and of death become a symbol of sacrificial love. It was Jesus’ “obedience even until death, death on a cross” that redeemed us. The cross, by the act of Jesus’ love for us, became a symbol of the ultimate act of love.
There was a time when in every home a crucifix enjoyed a place of honor. Every bed had a crucifix hung above it as a sign of trust in the care and protection of our loving Savior. A grandson was thrilled when he inherited the crucifix that had hung prominently in his grandparent’s home. Years later, he brought the crucifix to a family reunion as a way to help everyone remember their grandparents. His aunts and uncles and most of the cousins who were old enough to remember the crucifix accused the him of making up the story of the crucifix. He was flabbergasted that he was the only one to have remembered it hanging in his grandparents’ home. The good news was that there were plenty of pictures brought to the reunion, and in each picture that had been taken in the front parlor hung the crucifix. All were astonished they had either never noticed or had forgotten the crucifix.
On this feast of the Holy Cross, we should ask if we have become so used to seeing crucifixes around us that we don’t see them anymore. Have we forgotten the history and meaning of the crucifix? How many of us know why we keep the corpus (body) on the cross when our Protestant brothers and sisters do not? How many wear a cross around their neck and only see it as a pretty piece of gold or silver jewelry? How many of us see a pretty cross and remember that it was an instrument of a horrible death but also a means of salvation?
Do our crosses evoke any image of a loving Son who was obedient even to death on a cross out of love for us? Today would be a good day to remember that the symbol of ultimate love should be more than a decoration. The cross should point us to God’ love and not be an object admired only because it is pretty.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.