Let me share some history that might give us a deeper appreciation of our Church’s history. The Church always celebrates the Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross on September 14th. Its significance is such that it replaces the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time. You might wonder about the significance of the feast and its power to bump the Ordinary Time schedule.
Here’s the story. St. Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the year 326. Her pious son wanted to build a church in the city of Jerusalem. When mother Helen arrived in Jerusalem, she inquired about the site of Christ’s death. Seemingly there was no site or tradition surrounding the site. She was informed that, if she could find the site of Jesus’ burial, the Holy Sepulchre, she would have to dig nearby. It was a Jewish custom to bury whatever instruments were a part of a criminal’s execution.
Following Jesus’ death, the Roman pagans wanted no one to discover the site of the tomb because of their dislike of Christianity. Much stone and garage was piled on the site of the burial, which served as a base for a pagan temple, dedicated to Venus.
Driven by her own personal piety, St. Helen ordered the temple destroyed and the land cleared. In the process the holy sepulchre was discovered. Nearby in the dirt were three crosses and the nails used to crucify Jesus. Also, reportedly, the sign with Jesus’ title, the INRI, was found. But which cross was the cross of Jesus Christ? Happenstance, some would say, resolved the question. Others might say it was God.
There was a pious Bishop leading the Church of Jerusalem at the time, Macarius by name. When Helen was seeking to learn which cross was the true cross, there was a prominent Jerusalem woman who was critically ill and certain to die. The good bishop suggested that the three crosses be brought to the woman’s bedside. He truly believed God would answer their question and that true cross would save the woman. Praying to God to look to them and their faith in him, they held each cross, one at a time, over the woman’s body. According to the legend, the tradition, the woman was "immediately and perfectly cured" when one of the crosses was put near her.
Helen had a church built at the site. Almost tourist-like, she took a part of the cross home to her son in Constantinople and another part of it to Rome where she had built the Church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. Yes, it is in Rome today.
As you gaze at the Crucifix before you in the sanctuary, recall the first reading, the wandering Jewish people were complaining to God and Moses. God punished them, according to the Book of Numbers, for their complaints. Poisonous snakes began to appear around the people and those bitten died. Moses began to pray for the people. We know the rest of the story. God told him to make an image of the serpent, placing it atop a pole. Those who were bitten and looked at the snake were cured. Then in the gospel today, we hear what Jesus said to Nicodemus, " ... so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
So, when we look to the crucified image of Jesus Christ, we are reminded that his death on the cross, his being lifted up was God’s gesture of love and goodness toward us. He changes the question of the complainers from "why haven’t you help us?" to "why did you have to do this for me?"
We exult this holy cross today because our humanity, enslaved by original sin and our own sin, is given a new design in Jesus Christ. We exult this cross because in this crucified Jesus and his obedience to the Father’s will, we can "live our humanity in freedom."
[Much of the history here was taken from various Internet sites, Magnificat resources, and Praying with St Paul.]