September 2016 Print

Feast of the Holy Cross

by Fr. Christopher Danel

The month of September brings not only the autumnal ember days, but several feasts of great historical significance, and at the very center of the month there is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, so important to both East and West.

There have historically been two feasts of the Holy Cross. The Finding of the Holy Cross was celebrated on May 3 in more recent times, while the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was celebrated on September 14. The two are closely connected, of course, not only by their object, but even by their date. In fact, the actual event of the Finding of the Holy Cross is unanimously accepted as having occurred on September 14, hence the date of the feast which would later be called the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The feast in May has a later Gallican origin. In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV’s commission for the reform of the Roman Breviary suggested suppressing the May feast in favor of the more ancient Feast of the Exaltation in September. The suggestion was tabled for a couple of centuries until the calendar revision of 1960, which was incorporated into the 1962 Missal. As a result, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has special importance on the universal calendar, while the May feast of the Finding is nevertheless provided in the Missal’s appendices and may be celebrated as the rubrics allow.

The Finding of the Holy Cross

While the date of the Finding of the Holy Cross is settled as September 14, the year is less certain. The Alexandrian Chronicle ascribes the date of the Finding as being September 14, 320. Durandus cites AD 310, while an Eastern source places it as early as the episcopate in Jerusalem of St. James the Apostle [sic]. The Spanish religious Egeria mentions it in her pilgrimage journal written in AD 416, the Peregrinatio Aetheriae, noting that the consecration of the Martyrion (Calvary) and of the Anastasis (Resurrection), the two ancient shrine-churches now enclosed within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, was made on the day of the Finding of the Holy Cross [September 14] in AD 335. The Eastern calendars commemorate the consecration on the eve of the feast, September 13, and some sources indicate the consecration may have been made actually on the eve. Egeria writes, “It was decreed that when the above-mentioned holy churches were first consecrated the consecrations would be on the same day as that on which the cross of the Lord was found, so that these events might be celebrated at the same time, on the same day and with full liturgy.” The great ecclesiastical historian St. Eusebius was actually present at the consecration of those churches, and he writes of it in his Vita Constantini of AD 337, although he does not address the connection with the Finding, to history’s regret.

St. Helena’s Discovery

It was the mother of Constantine the Great, the Empress St. Helena, who was responsible for the discovery of the relics of Our Lord’s Passion, including His Holy Cross. The site of the Crucifixion and of the Burial had been profaned by paganism, but as a providential result were still marked. After the Roman Emperor Titus destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, his successor Hadrian transformed the ruins of Jerusalem into a new city called Aelia Capitolina, and in the process he ordered that the sites of the Crucifixion and the Sepulcher should be covered over with rocks and earth. In AD 119 an idol to Venus was erected over Calvary, while an idol to Jupiter was erected over the site of the Sepulcher.

During her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in AD 326, St. Helena endeavored to find the relics of the Passion. She ordered the pagan idols to be obliterated, and began the excavations to remove the fill around Calvary and the Sepulcher, thus revealing the preserved sites. In a deep grotto excavated only a few yards away, the relics were found, including the sign placed over Our Lord’s head (the titulum, preserved and venerated in Rome), the nails, and three crosses. To discover which of the three crosses was the Cross of Redemption, all three were applied to an infirm woman, who was miraculously cured by the third one, revealing it to be the True Cross, while the other two had belonged to St. Dismas and to the other thief. (Some accounts, on the other hand, describe the crosses as being applied to a dead man who miraculously came back to life.) St. Helena then had the churches built over Calvary and over the Holy Sepulcher, whose consecration a few years later has been described above. During the project, the Emperor Constantine wrote to St. Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, entrusting him with the duty to ensure that those churches were provisioned and adorned with all of the regal splendor due to the King of Kings. As the Emperor provided for the construction of these holy places at Mount Calvary sub praesentia matris suae, in the presence of his mother, one can certainly perceive the role of St. Helena there as being likened to that of Our Lady keeping vigil at the Cross of her own Regal Son.

Solemn Celebration of the Feast

From that time, the feast of September 14 has been celebrated with particular solemnity at Jerusalem, even being celebrated for a whole octave. Egeria gives a brilliant description of the great fervor of the days surrounding the feast in her time, around eighty years later:

“Many days beforehand a crowd of monks […] begin gathering together from various provinces, not only from Mesopotamia and Syria, from Egypt and the Thebaid where the monks are numerous, but also from all other places and provinces. In fact, there is no one who would not go to Jerusalem on this day for such solemn liturgy and for such a splendid feast. Lay people, both men and women, also gather together in Jerusalem on these days from all provinces in the spirit of faith and on account of the feast day. Though fewer in number, there are still more than forty or fifty bishops in Jerusalem during these days, and with them come many of their clergy. What can I add? Everyone considers that he has fallen into great sin if he is not present on days of such solemnity, unless there be conflicting obligations, such as would keep a man from fulfilling a good intention. During the Feast of the Dedication, the decoration of all the churches is similar to that at Easter and at Epiphany” (trans. G. Gingras).

The Cross’ Capture and Return

Three centuries later, the Holy Cross endured capture from Jerusalem and a miraculous return. Around AD 614 Chosroes II of Persia sacked Jerusalem, massacred many thousands of Christians, and carried off with him the True Cross, which remained captive in Persia for fourteen years. Finally the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius was able to secure its return with supernatural means; by applying himself to prayer and fasting he obtained the assistance of God, who inspired him to raise an army to rout the Persians, which he did. On bringing the Cross back to Jerusalem in great pomp and splendor, Heraclius carried the Cross on his own shoulders toward Calvary. However, the Emperor clad in golden and jewel-adorned vestments found that he was unable to advance beyond the gate at Calvary no matter how hard he tried, to the astonishment of all the people. The Bishop of Jerusalem, Zacharias, admonished him rather to lay aside his royal garments and gird himself in poverty and humility. Heraclius thus put on course garments and walking barefoot found that he was easily able to progress up Calvary to restore the Holy Cross to the place of the Crucifixion. This occurred providentially on September 14, the day of the Holy Cross’ feast.

Extension of the Feast to the West

Already in the sixth century there are some references to the feast of the Cross’ finding under the name Exaltatio praeclarae Crucis, and with the Persian episode in the early seventh century, the feast took on even greater significance and began to be spread throughout the world under the name of the Exaltation. It took root particularly in those places where a relic of the True Cross was venerated, such as Constantinople, Alexandria, Naples, and not the least of which, Rome. Almost everywhere, the feast was celebrated with the exposition of the relic and the veneration of the Cross as on Good Friday. A Papal ceremonial from the late seventh century describes the veneration at the Lateran: “On the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, for the salvation of the human race, [the relic of the True Cross] is kissed and adored in the Constantinian Basilica of the Savior by all the Christian people.”

Feasts Related to the Exaltation

The first feast related to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is that of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, which occurs the following day, September 15. While devotion to the Sorrowful Virgin (Addolorata) and her dolors grew during the twelfth century, the feast of the Seven Sorrows was first introduced in Cologne in 1423, and was celebrated after Easter. Benedict XIII extended it to the universal Church in 1721, at the same time transferring it to the Friday after Passion Sunday, the current placement of the first of the two annual commemorations of Our Lady’s Sorrows. The Order of Servites, founded in Florence in 1240, dedicated itself to propagating the devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows and obtained from Innocent XI (†1689) a special feast of the Seven Sorrows on the third Sunday of September, which Pius VII (†1823) later extended to the whole Church. With the renewed emphasis placed on Sundays under the liturgical reform of St. Pius X, this saintly pontiff transferred the feast permanently to September 15, thus placing the feast of the Seven Sorrows and that of the Holy Cross side-by-side.

The second feast related to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is that of the Stigmata of St. Francis, precisely because the saint received the Stigmata on the feast of the Exaltation in 1224. Two years before his death, St. Francis went up a high mountain known as Mount La Verna (or Alvernia), together with his assistant Brother Leo, to begin a forty day fast before the Feast of St. Michael. He retired to a solitary place on the mountain, and gave Brother Leo instructions not to come near unless called. On September 14, with a holy intention, although neglecting the saint’s instructions, Brother Leo went in search of St. Francis through the moonlit woods until he came upon the sight of the saint speaking with God. Later, Our Lord appeared to him under the form of a Seraph bearing the image of Christ Crucified. “Then, after long and secret conference together, that marvelous vision disappeared, leaving in the heart of St. Francis an excessive fire and ardor of divine love, and on his flesh a wonderful trace and image of the Passion of Christ” (Fioretti, ch. 53, with credit to the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King). The feast of the Stigmata, instituted by Benedict XI and later extended by Paul V, was assigned to September 17, the first free day after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.


The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is a type of threshold in the liturgical year. It has historically been the anchor point for the autumnal ember days. The rhythm of the monastic life also makes a transition into a fall-winter schedule with September 14 (Regula S. Benedicti, chs. 41, 48). But above all, it is the celebration of the instrument of our redemption, the life-giving Cross. As St. Andrew of Crete wrote in the eighth century, “The Cross is exalted, and everything true gathers together.” Nos autem gloriari oportet: it behooves us to glory in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection, by whom we are saved and delivered (Introit).