Today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Tradition tells us that, around the year 320 AD, St. Helen of Constantinople found the True Cross, the cross on which our Lord Jesus Christ died. The Empress and her son, Emperor Constantine, had a church built on the site of the discovery, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. They named the church the basilica of the Resurrection, which was consecrated on the 14th of September. The relics of the True Cross were kept in the basilica. In the beginning of the seventh century, the Persians sacked Jerusalem and they took the sacred relics of the Holy Cross. They were recovered soon after by the Emperor Heraclitus, around 630 AD. Tradition says that the Emperor, sumptuously clothed in the insignia of his rank as emperor, wanted to carry the Cross to its original place on Calvary. But the weight of the cross became more and more unbearable. Other traditions say that an unseen force stopped the Emperor from continuing. Zacariah, the Bishop of Jerusalem, advised the Emperor that, if he wished to carry the Holy Cross, he should take off all the rich clothes and dress so as to imitate the poverty and humilty of Jesus. When Emperor Heraclitus had dressed in poor clothes and barefoot, he was able to carry the Cross the rest of the way to the top of Golgotha.
In the book of Numbers, we heard how the people had complained against God and Moses. And for that reason, seraph serpents were biting the people and many were dying. When they began to repent, the Lord told Moses: "Make a seraph serpent and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live." The seraph serpents symbolize the sins of the people. Sin bites the soul and causes it to die. The Lord desires to save the sinner. But, as St. Augustine says, "The One who made you without your consent, will not save you without your consent." To look upon our sins and confess that they are sins is to permit the Lord to heal us and save us from our sins. The seraph serpent was also a symbol of how the Lord would save his people on the Holy Cross.
Jesus made the imagery clear when he told Nicodemus: "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. . . For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." Jesus also said in the Gospel according to St. John, chapter 12, verse 32: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself." Jesus has redeemed us by means of the Holy Cross, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians: "found in human appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross."
A cross was an instrument of punishment for criminals. It was a death designed to be painful and humiliating. Jesus, however, was innocent. He suffered our death, which we have merited by our sins. When I look upon the Cross, I am able to see many things. I see the wounds which my sins have caused. His pierced feet - because I have not walked in the path of righteousness. His pierced hands - because I have extended my hands to grasp what is not correct. His Sacred Head crowned with thorns - because of my pride and my sinful thoughts. His pierced side - from which even the last drop of his Sacred Blood poured out upon the ground because he allowed his heart to be opened so that he might substitute his love for my lack of love. These wounds which I have caused to my Savior are at the same time evidence of my shame and the source of my hope. What sort of Savior do I have? One who is willing to suffer all my just punishments in order to save me from my sins. Are you able to see the love which was crucified there upon the Holy Cross? Countless Saints and mystics had a devotion to the Holy Cross, and the instruments of his death precisely because Love Himself proved the depths of his love for us. Love was crucified for our sake. Like the people in the desert, the only remedy is then to look upon our sins by gazing at the Sinless One who became sin to save us from eternal death. For the sake of his love for us, we venerate even the cruel instrument of his death. In the midst of seeing our sins we must look deeper than merely to remind ourselves of our sins. Christians glory in the Holy Cross, not so as to beat themselves continuously with their own faults but so that they may discover the depth of our Savior's love.
In the words of St. Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri: "I kiss devoutly the Cross on which Thou didst die for me. I, on account of my sins, deserved to die a miserable death, but Thy death is my hope. Ah, by the merits of Thy most holy death, grant me the grace to die embracing Thy feet and consumed by Thy love. Into Thy hands I commend my soul. I love Thee, O Jesus my love!, more than myself, and I repent with my whole heart of ever having offended Thee. Do not permit me to be separated from Thee again. Grant that I may love Thee always and then do with me whatever pleases Thee.