The siege began on 14 April, in the year 70 AD. Four years earlier the Jews had rebelled against Rome, and Rome had finally had enough of that irritation. From that moment, Jerusalem was doomed. The siege lasted only four months, four difficult, horrible months for the Jews trapped in the city. The walls were breached in August, and by 8 September the Roman General Titus — soon to be Emperor — had razed the city and the temple. All was ruin and rubble.
Some sixty years later, circa 130, the Emperor Hadrian began to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman city, Aelia Capitolina. This reconstruction altered the landscape of Jerusalem; many holy sites were lost — some covered with fill dirt and rubble, some buried under new construction — Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre among them.
Fast forward to the reign of Constantine (AD 306 – 337) who ended the formal Roman persecution against the Christians in 313 and declared Christianity a tolerated religion. Surely, Constantine had political motives for this, but his own conversion to the faith seems genuine, so that he may rightly be called the first Christian Emperor. He built churches and supported the clergy. He called the Council of Nicaea to deal with heresy and to define and unify the orthodox faith. And he turned his attention toward the holy city of Jerusalem.
The holy places in Jerusalem needed churches to mark them and to serve as sites for pilgrimage, so Constantine thought; he set about the task of locating those sites and building those churches. None were more important than Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre, sites lost during the building of Aelia Capitolina. Pious legend tells how Constantine awarded his devout Christian mother Helena the honorable task of locating those sites and directing the building of the churches. The early Church historian Eusebius wrote this about Helena:
Especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and unprotected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing; she liberated some from imprisonment, or from the bitter servitude of the mines; others she delivered from unjust oppression, and others again, she restored from exile. While, however, her character derived luster from such deeds … , she was far from neglecting personal piety toward God. She might be seen continually frequenting His Church, while at the same time she adorned the houses of prayer with splendid offerings, not overlooking the churches of the smallest cities. In short, this admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct” (The Life of Constantine, XLIV, XLV).
The stories of how Helena located Calvary and the true cross of Christ are many and varied. I’ll mention just two that I like. While searching for Calvary, Helena noticed a large patch of an aromatic herb unknown to her. She felt compelled to dig in that spot and there she uncovered the wood from three separate crosses, those of the thieves and Jesus. As an aside, that herb is now named basil, from the Greek basileus meaning king. Many churches are decorated with basil plants in observance of Holy Cross Day.
So far, so good; Helena had discovered Calvary and wood from three crosses. But which one was the true cross of Christ? A woman suffering from a terminal illness was brought to the spot and asked to touch the wood from each of the crosses in turn. When she touched the wood of the last one, she was miraculously healed; that must be the true cross of Christ. And so began the veneration of the Holy Cross of our Lord Jesus. The church built on that site to house the cross was completed on 13 September 335 and formally dedicated the next day, 14 September, which we now observe as Holy Cross Day.
Holy Cross Day is an occasion to think deeply about the cross, to venerate it: not to worship it but to reverence it, to honor it as the instrument on which and through which the Lord Jesus triumphed over sin and death, trampling hell and Satan under his feet. This is a day perhaps to sit silently before the cross, to gaze at it in wonder, to sing its glory. In the church of my youth we had no custom of venerating the cross, but we did sing this:
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross
The emblem of suffering and shame
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
And I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it some day for a crown (The Old Rugged Cross, The Rev’d George Bernard)
In the Anglican Church, as part of the Good Friday liturgy, we may observe Devotion Before the Cross. A covered wooden cross is brought into the church in the sight of the people. As it is uncovered, this antiphon is said or sung:
Behold the wood of the Cross, on which was hung the world’s Salvation.
O come, let us adore him.
We glory in your Cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
for by virtue of your Cross
joy has come to the whole world (Anthem 1, BCP 2019, p. 574).
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world (Anthem 2, p. 574).
Those who are not Christians are sometimes puzzled at our devotion to the cross. Why take a murder weapon and make it the symbol of the faith? Why venerate the cross? This is a good day to reflect on those questions.
The Roman Empire was certainly one of the world’s greatest civilizations, but, at its core, it was based upon violence — threatened and real — and upon power, brute force exercised by the government. Its military instilled fear and obedience. Its justice did likewise.
As an expression of its power and with the purpose of instilling fear, Rome devised the most brutal form of execution then known: crucifixion. Its purpose was not merely to physically torture and destroy the victim, but to publicly debase and humiliate the victim as a deterrent against similar crimes. Through the beatings, the forced march through town, the nailing of hands and feet, the stripping naked of the victim, the hours of agony suspended between heaven and earth, the mocking by the gathered crowds, Rome was declaring the victim to be sub-human, vermin, worthy only of being exterminated. All this came to Jesus not for anything he had done, not for any sin he had committed, but for us and for our salvation. He bore our sins on the cross in our stead. So the cross tells the great truth about us. Look at Jesus; this is what sin had done to us, what sin had reduced us to. That was our true state. When Pilate said, “Behold, the man,” he wasn’t just speaking about Jesus beaten, bloody, and shamed. He was speaking about mankind — about all of us and each of us — under the burden of sin. We sometimes wink and smile at sin: white lies, harmless infidelities, petty thefts, small betrayals, momentary anger — little things that everyone does. But the cross will not tolerate that self-deception. Look at Jesus on the cross. That is the result of your white lies, your harmless infidelities, and all the rest. That is what your sin has reduced you to. We venerate the cross because it confronts us with the damnable truth of our sin like nothing else can do.
But the cross also reveals to us the length, the depth, the breadth, and the height of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus, the willingness of God, in Christ, to sacrifice himself for us and for our salvation. The cross declares that those created in the image of God, though beaten, marched through town, stripped naked, nailed to a tree, mocked by evil powers through their own sins, are nevertheless the beloved of God in whose image they may be restored. We venerate the cross because it reveals to us the self-sacrificing, unfathomable love of God for us like nothing else can do.
There is no way to explain this, no words of human wisdom adequate for the mystery of the cross. There is only proclamation, adoration, veneration. As Paul writes:
1 Corinthians 1:18–21 (ESV): 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. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
1 Corinthians 2:1–2 (ESV): And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
We venerate the cross because we worship Christ Jesus and him crucified.
Holy Cross Day also marks the beginning of the Fall Ember Days, the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following Holy Cross Day. These are days to fast and pray for those called to ordained ministry in the Church, but also to remember that we are all called to ministry, that is, we are all called to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus. As another hymn from my childhood asked:
Must Jesus bear the cross alone
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for ev’ry one,
And there’s a cross for me.
But, the hymn continues:
O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
Ye angels, from the stars come down
And bear my soul away (Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?, Thomas Shepherd).