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This Sunday, Sept. 14, is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
The emperor Constantine, is said to have seen a vision of a cross in the sky and the words “Under this sign you will conquer.” But that is not what served as the inspiration of this feast. It inspired him to legalize Christianity, but to the extent that he saw the cross as a means to earthly victory, his understanding needed to be purified.
The day in fact commemorated the legendary discovery of the true cross by his mother, St. Helena — a story that has a greater symbolic power to it.
The story of his mother literally digging into the place where Christ lived and uncovering a cross and nails taught a far more valuable lesson: The cross, more than a means to future success, is a past victory that needs to be unearthed and inserted into our lives today.
You can see how Helen’s lesson beats Constantine’s in the three dates of Sept. 11, 14 and 15 – days which have become a kind of triduum of sorrow for American Catholics.
On Sept. 11, terrorists flew planes into buildings, ending thousands of lives and changing countless more forever. Priests who were in downtown Manhattan that day tell of people accosting them in public, blurting out confessions and asking for absolution. Confession lines swelled in churches across America. “God Bless America” signs went up on gas stations, overpasses and fences from sea to shining sea. Seeing death, we thought of God, and thinking of God, we sought purity. Just as a mysterious cross was discovered in the rubble of Ground Zero in New York City, we found the cross deeply imbedded in our lives, and the cross brought hope.
September 15 is Our Lady, Mother of Sorrows, devoted to the loss experienced by Mary. For many families, it is a time to remember miscarried babies, or those lost to abortion. When my wife and I have attended Masses for the unborn, we were surprised by the power of these memories that we often ignore. Talk to the families who attend such a Mass, and you will find that the unborn dead are very much on their minds; we are surrounded by sorrows on all sides.
But we also find that Our Lady has gone there before us, and that her sorrow reached its climax at the foot of the cross. By offering our loved ones to God as she did, the sorrow turns to hope.
This is why the “Exaltation of the Cross” is so important; not as a slogan of victory in the sky but as a sign of God’s unfailing love here on earth.
“So must the Son of Man be lifted up,” says Sunday’s Gospel, “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
This is why we display the cross at the front of every Church, to show that we proceed only through and with Christ crucified.
And this is why we make the sign of the cross to open and close our prayer. It reminds us that, in our crosses, we are never alone, we are safe “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”