by Fr. Eric Flood, FSSP – District Superior
In the construction of a Catholic church, the symbol of the cross is a central theme throughout the architecture and furnishings as it is the Christian sign of our salvation. The great altar of sacrifice is adorned with an altar cross: that is, a crucifix with the image of Our Lord affixed to it. When a church is consecrated, it has twelve crosses placed on the walls of the church to be anointed with sacred chrism. The vestments of chasuble, stole, maniple, and amice each have a cross sewn into them; the Stations of the Cross are to have wooden crosses attached to them; and the mensa (table) of the altar has five crosses cut into it. Furthermore, in each of the seven Sacraments, the Sign of the Cross is mandatory, and the Sign of the Cross is made over 50 times in the Mass itself.
Catholics in the first century began to make the Sign of the Cross on their forehead when beginning new tasks of the day or when praying. Over time, the Sign of the Cross was made over various parts of the body with particular intentions, and eventually, these Signs of the Cross were united in one large sign as we make now.
Divine Providence also augmented the importance of the Cross when Maxentius invaded Rome in the fourth century. In order to protect Rome, Emperor Constantine waged war against Maxentius, and one day, the Emperor saw a luminous cross in the sky with the words, “in this conquer.” The next night while he slept, he saw the same cross along with Christ appearing with it, who admonished him to place the Cross as his guide. It was under the glorious banner of the Cross that Constantine overcame his adversary in the year 312. The Cross then became an object of devotion to the Emperor, and soon, criminals were no longer inflicted with crucifixion as a punishment.
In the year 326, the mother of Constantine, St. Helena, who was about 80 years old, went to Jerusalem to excavate the dirt around the place where the tomb of Our Lord was supposed to be. It was after the death of Our Lord that the Jewish leaders had hidden the Cross in a ditch or well, and covered it over with stones so that Catholics would not find it and venerate it. By the fourth century, only a chosen few among the Jews knew the spot where it was hidden. It happened that one of them by the name of Judas, touched by Divine inspiration, pointed it out to the excavators. Later this Judas became a Catholic saint and is honored under the name of Cyriacus.
During the excavation, three crosses were found, and in order to determine which was the Cross Christ died upon, it was touched to a dead man by St. Helena, and the man came back to life. St. Helena and Constantine then built a magnificent basilica on the spot the Cross was found and placed the True Cross in it. That basilica is the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which exists today. This began the Feast of the Finding of the Cross which we celebrate on May 3.
When the Persian king, Chosroes II, invaded Jerusalem in the year 614, after he killed thousands of Catholics, he took the Cross which St. Helena had found. In retaliation, the Roman Emperor Heraclius engaged in a war against Chosroes, but he was overwhelmed with many misfortunes and defeat. When he tried to negotiate for peace, Chosroes would not consider it. As a result, Emperor Heraclius began to pray, fast, and implore God’s assistance. He then formed an army and eventually overcame Chosroes. When Chosroes was fleeing Rome, he was about to cross the Tigris River and he proclaimed one of his sons to be his successor. However, his older son, being jealous of his younger brother being named king, murdered his father and brother and was made king.
Emperor Heraclius then demanded that the new king return the Cross of Christ which left Jerusalem fourteen years earlier. In order to have a solemn entry of the Cross into Jerusalem, the Emperor Heraclius decided to carry it on his own shoulders in imitation of Christ. He was dressed in kingly apparel, but when he was leaving the gates of Jerusalem, he came to a halt and could not move. It was then that the Bishop of Jerusalem cried out: “O Emperor, you are trying to imitate Christ when He carried the Cross, but Christ was not dressed in rich garments, but poor ones.” So the Emperor removed his royal robe, put on a rough garment, and was then able to easily carry the Cross up to Calvary. It was this day, September 14, 629, that we celebrate annually in the traditional calendar, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Once St. Helena found the Cross, public adoration of it began to grow, most especially on the day remembering the death of Christ—Good Friday. Even to this day, it is part of the Good Friday liturgy to kiss the feet of the Crucified Lord. In the fifth and sixth centuries, artists began to make the Cross as elaborate as they could by putting flowers, palms, and leaves sprouting from the root of the cross itself. As a living tree has life in it and gives life to its fruit, so too, life should be shown as springing from the new Tree of Life.
It was not until the sixth century that the figure of Christ appeared on the Cross. For up to this time, death by crucifixion was still vivid in those who lived in the Roman Empire. Thus, there was still a shame attached to such a death, and the Christians did not display the corpus of Christ out of respect for Him. Initially, the body of Christ displayed no signs of suffering, but in the tenth century, art took on a realistic tone, and the pain of the Cross began to appear on the body of Christ. And for the last millennium, devotion to the Crucifix has increased amidst persecutions, revolts, and governmental intervention to prevent it.
We too should follow the Catholic custom of having the Crucifix hanging on the walls of our home, for we will then be frequently reminded of how much Our Lord loves us.