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“Holy Cross Day” is one of the oldest, annual celebrations on the Church’s calendar, dating back to the early part of the 4th century. Legend has it, and there are several witnesses that claim the legend has a lot of truth to it, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, whose name was Helena, was a devout Christian. And her passion was to uncover as many places where Jesus carried out His ministry in Palestine as possible. And as the mother of the Roman Emperor, who was the Christian Emperor, she had all the backing and support she needed.
Under her direction, several archeological digs uncovered the supposed sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial. As the legend has it, on September 14, 320 AD, three crosses were discovered in the process, and one of these was presumed to be the cross on which Christ Himself had been crucified.
15 years later, a basilica was built on this site that is called the “Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher” and the remnants of the cross of Christ were kept in it. The building was dedicated on September 14, 335 by the Emperor Constantine who declared that September 14th was to be remembered as “Holy Cross Day.”
The legend continues. About 300 years later, the Turks invaded Palestine and sacked the ‘Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher” among others. They stole the cross of Christ. After several unsuccessful attempts, the Roman Emperor Heraclius finally defeated the Turks and reclaimed the cross, returning it to the Basilica on, you guessed it, September 14th, 630 AD.
What I find to be even more interesting than the ‘legend’ of how “Holy Cross Day” came into the Church’s calendar is the name that is given to this day. “Holy Cross Day.” I guarantee you that no one who was there, and no one who had ever actually witnessed a crucifixion would have ever thought to think of the cross as ‘holy.’ Those two words just don’t go together.
“Holy” refers to what is ‘set apart.’ In particular, what is ‘set apart’ from everything that is ugly and dirty and painful and cruel and sinful. To be “holy” is to be pure and perfect and glorious.
The “Cross” is the instrument of torture and execution invented by the Persians and developed to cruel excess by the Romans to inflict the maximum suffering over the longest period of time. Cicero called it, “the supreme capital penalty.”
The two words just don’t belong together. It’s not just that it doesn’t make any sense. It’s repulsive. “Loving murder.” “Righteous beheading.” “Sacred electric chair.” “Delicious vomit.”
But we put “Holy” and “Cross” together and so easily and naturally. We call this instrument of cruelest torture, “the true sign of triumph,” “the noblest tree,” “symbol of the world’s redemption.” (LSB #454:4)
And that’s because we believe that there was One holy man who made us sinners holy by His suffering and death on a cross. We believe that blood that was shed on the cross was the blood of the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world by offering Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice for sin. We believe that God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us and nailed Him to the wood of a cross in our place, as our substitute, for our sake.
By His wounds, He suffered a painful and horrible death, so that I may live and be set free from the pangs and the fear death. For by His wounds, we are healed. And by His death He has overcome our death, so that whoever believes in Him, even though he dies, yet will he live.
He was taken into prison to set the prisoners of sin free.
He was falsely accused and wrongfully judged by man so that we might escape the righteous judgment of God for our sin.
When He was unjustly accused, He did not open His mouth so that we might not be justly accused for all of the terrible things we have ever said.
His head was pierced with thorns and His face was covered in blood so that our face our Creator without shame and wear a royal crown.
He was stripped of His clothes so that we may wear the robe of righteousness.
He heard the most bitter and blasphemous curses and taunts so that we may hear the rejoicing of the angels in heaven that one sinner has been saved.
He carried the cross bar upon His own shoulders so that we may have the burden of our sin lifted from us.
His hands were nailed to that wood as the price for the terrible things that we have done with our hands.
A steel spike was driven through His feet into the wood as the punishment we deserve for walking in the path of evil.
He was abandoned by His Father so that He would never abandon us.
He suffered a terrible thirst so that our thirst for forgiveness and peace with God might be quenched.
He was given over to the power of Satan so that we might never know that hell.
He wept so that He might wipe away all the tears from our eyes in heaven.
He died so that we might live forever.
God has reconciled the world to Himself through the cross of Christ,
overcoming our death with His death,
working all things for good in the lives of those who love Him,
delivering us from all evil
and raising the dead in Christ to eternal life.
The Son has glorified the Father and the Father was glorified by His Son, so that all who have been signed with the sign of the cross on their forehead and upon their heart might be glorified in heaven.
So, did Helena really find the real cross that our Lord was crucified on? Well, like all legends, we’re not really sure and we never will be. But that’s okay because our faith and our assurance is not based on ‘legends.’ It’s based on God’s Word which is perfectly true down to every last detail.