From a historical perspective, today’s Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross commemorates three events:
- The finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, in the 4th century;
- The dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, built by Constantine soon after the finding of the True Cross;
- The restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem in the 7th century by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, after it had been seized as a trophy by the Persian Emperor Chosroes II.
More than simply a marker of historical events, today’s feast is a celebration of the Cross as the triumphant symbol of our salvation. The Cross was the means by which Christ brought us back into the friendship of God. It was His chosen weapon in the battle He waged for our souls. It is a continual reminder of His glorious victory over sin and death.
Just as a victorious king takes down the flag of his enemy and raises his own when he wins a battle, so do we mount the Cross high on our churches, on our buildings, and in our homes to commemorate and celebrate the triumph of Christ the King. We gather under the Cross as His loyal subjects, the joyful people that He freed from the bondage of the devil.
The Church has an ancient and beautiful hymn to the Holy Cross that captures the joy we feel today. Vexilla regis prodeunt—The Royal Banner Forward Goes—was originally written in the 6th century and is principally sung during Passiontide and for today’s feast.
The first verse alone offers us a beautiful meditation for today. Translated from the Latin:
Abroad the Regal Banners fly,
Now shines the Cross’s mystery;
Upon it Life did death endure,
And yet by death did life procure.