Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Faithful Cross, above all others,
One and only noble Tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be;
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.
We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy Holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world.
From Full Homely Divinity: At the center of Christianity, at the center of the world, at the center of history, stands the Cross of Jesus. An instrument of humiliation and agonizing death, the Cross stands as a stark symbol of the hardship, pain, and sorrow of sinful humanity that has wandered far from the paradise God created for us to live in and enjoy. At the same time, the Cross is the remedy for the sin of the world, the mystical tree of life, and the throne of glory on which the Son of Man is exalted as the Son of God. When Jesus was lifted up on the Cross, he raised up all who have fallen under the burden of sin; when his body was broken on the Cross, he made the world whole; when he died on the Cross, he gave life to those who were perishing. The 20th century historian of religion Mircea Eliade observed: “Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all.” (“Symbolism of the Centre” in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991, p.39) For Judaism, “the hill of Zion [is] the very center of the world” (Psalm 48:2). The Temple in which God himself chose to dwell, even in its absence today, still orients the Jewish people and gives meaning and direction to their lives. For Christians, that center has moved a few hundred yards to the west, to the hill of Calvary, to the place where God suffered and died in the flesh, and rose again, establishing a new and unbreakable axis mundi(center of the world) by which the direction of all human endeavor is judged and permanently reoriented.
With the tangible reality of the Incarnation at its heart, Christianity has always taken places and things very seriously. Ours is not an ephemeral religion of ideas and principles. It is about the Word made flesh and the indelible mark which God makes on the physical universe which he created and delights in. England’s unofficial anthem, “And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?” puts into words the ongoing desire of Christians to maintain physical contact with the God who became man in Palestine. From the earliest times, Christians remembered the specific places where Jesus walked and talked, where he lived and died and rose again. Non-Christians knew this and did their best to conceal and destroy those places. Nevertheless, when Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, went to the Holy Land in 326 to look for the holy places, there were those who were able to help her. The most important place of all, Calvary and the garden tomb, had been covered over centuries before. The site had been filled in and a temple to the god Jupiter had been erected over the place where Jesus Christ died and rose again. These obstacles were no problem for the mother of the first Christian emperor. The temple was demolished and the site was excavated, revealing the rocky hill called Golgotha, and the tomb nearby where Jesus had lain until the third day. The place was also pocked with cisterns, and in one of them three crosses were found, together with the title that had been fastened to the Cross of Jesus. The title was detached, so it was not clear which cross was the one on which the Savior had died. There are various accounts of what happened next. One says that the three crosses were taken to the home of a dying woman and each one was placed on top of her. When the true Cross touched her, she was miraculously healed.
Helena embarked on an ambitious building program which included the massive Basilica of Constantine in front of an open air shrine enclosing Calvary and the Tomb of Jesus. Work on the shrine would continue for some time until it was finally completed as a walled and domed rotunda. Centuries later, after fires, earthquakes, and war had altered the original complex dramatically, the rotunda was incorporated into the smaller medieval Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Helena’s basilica was dedicated on September 13, 335, and on the following day, a portion of the True Cross was brought into the church and exalted and enshrined there. That day became the annual feast, celebrated throughout the world and known variously as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Holy Cross Day, and, in medieval England, Holyrood Day or Roodmas–“rood” being the Middle English word for “cross.” The day came to celebrate another event, as well, the return of the True Cross of Jerusalem in 629. In 614, when the Persians overran Jerusalem, they carried away the relic of the True Cross as one of the spoils of war. In 628, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered the relic and brought it back to Jerusalem the following year. Another day, May 3rd, was also known as Roodmas. This western celebration of the Invention (i.e., the finding) of the True Cross, has more recently been dropped from the calendar, so the September 14th is the day that is set aside for the celebration of the Cross–not replacing Good Friday or even recapitulating it, but celebrating the Cross itself as the instrument and place where human salvation is localized and lifted up.
It was inevitable that something so mysterious and powerful would accumulate a rich history of legends that seek to explain its origins and its meaning. Legends are not necessarily fictional stories. They are simply stories that have been written down so that they can be read (Latin legere, “to read”) again and again. They may not, in fact, be historically accurate, but they are often “true”, nonetheless, because they express meaning figuratively, if not literally. One of the loveliest of these legends tells how basil plants sprang up from the ground under the Cross where drops of the Savior’s blood fell. A related tradition says that Helena was aided in her search for the True Cross by a bed of basil that was growing over the very place where the Cross had been buried. Another tradition says that a sprig of basil which growing out of the wood of the Cross itself. The name of the herb comes from the same root as the Greek word for “king,” basileus, thus it is an herb made for a king. In Orthodox churches, the cross that is exalted liturgically on this feast, traditionally rests on a bed of basil during the Liturgy. Basil may be blessed and distributed to the faithful on Holy Cross Day, and it would be appropriate to prepare and eat dishes that include basil, such as pesto, as part of the home celebration of the feast.