Thursday, May 03, 2007

The "Invention" (Finding) of the Holy Cross

Today’s feast is double. It is the feast of the finding of the Holy Cross, and the feast of the apostles Philip and James. The two feasts merge in that Philip and James, as well as the other apostles except John (thanks to Our Lady) fled from the crucifixion for fear. They loved with the imperfect love of Filein, not with the perfect love of self-gift to death that is Agapao. However, both were loved by Jesus Christ who asked no more from them at the present moment than the weak and traitorous love of mere friendship. In the lives of these Apostles, the divine vocation was compatible with the limitations common to all men. Sometimes they were pig-headed and obstinate, with their fair share of human outlook, like the other Apostles. The Lord had to form them bit by bit, with infinite patience. St. John tells us in his Gospel that when Christ was ready to do the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, he asked Philip, Whence are we to buy bread for these people to eat? In saying this, he was putting him to the test; he himself knew well enough what he meant to do. Philip answered according to purely human reasoning: Two hundred silver pieces would not buy enough bread for them, even to give each a little.”

Sacred Scripture often shows us other weaknesses that the Apostles had: petty earthly ambitions, discouragement at difficulties, lack of faith… Nonetheless, because they were simple, their defects were slowly filed down. Thus they prepared themselves to cooperate with our Lord in his mission of redemption. Philip ended by preaching the Gospel in Phrygia where he was crucified and martyred. In his old age, James was thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. The memory of these Apostles must fill us with confidence. We too have weaknesses and defects, but we can count on the powerful help of grace and we shall conquer them.

The Cross
On the occasion of this feast of the finding of the Holy Cross, St. Josemaria said:

“The Lord has given us the system to follow in Opus Dei so that the cross that he himself imposes on us, or which he allows circumstances things or persons around us to impose on us, that the cross that he has made for us, does not weigh upon us. And that system is to love without allowing it to fall and without dragging it. It means embracing adversities whether they be internal or external, and realizing that they all have their purpose and that they are all a wonderful treasure.

“When one walks where Christ walks when there is no longer mere resignation but the soul conforms itself to the cross, when the soul takes on the form of the cross, then one loves God’s will, when one wants the cross, then the cross no longer weighs, then the cross is no longer mine but his, and he carries it with me.
“To find the cross is to find Christ. And with him there is always joy even when on e is faced with injustice, misunderstanding or physical suffering. This is why, even though I understand that it is an ordinary way of speaking, I become upset when I hear adversity, which often springs from one’s own pride, called a cross. That is not the cross. That is not the true cross because it is to Christ’s cross. I have never felt sorry for myself, though the Lord has sent me plenty of sorrows. Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord, because you have given me an asceticism that is yours, because you have made me understand that to have the cross is to have joy. It means possessing you.”

It is only by finding the Holy Cross that we pass from that immature love that masks an ever present egoism that is capable of a love of friendship that is always potentially traitor and fraud – to the mature love of Christ that is persevering to the point of death for the other. Today we celebrate the physical discovery of that cross.

Golgotha Covered by Two Pagan Temples

The Emperor Hadrian (117-138) had the dip in the ground that separated Golgotha from the Sepulcher filled in, and on this new platform had two temples built, one dedicated to Juno over the Sepulcher, and the other to Venus, on the summit of Golgotha. Hadrian is known to have felt great animosity towards Christianity at the end of his life, and it is almost certain that these temples were built especially to destroy for ever the earthly traces of the Redemption.Early Church historians commented ironically on the paradoxical results of the pagans’ efforts with the passage of time. “Poor men!” exclaimed Eusebius of Caesarea. “They thought it was possible to hide from the human race the splendor of the sun that had risen over the world! They did not yet understand that it is impossible to keep hidden under earth Him who has won the victory over death!” 1 Indeed, by the fourth century, when the Church finally enjoyed freedom, these two pagan temples enabled the Holy Places to be located unfailingly. All that had to be done was demolish the temples and excavate underneath, and the Holy Sepulcher and the summit of Calvary were revealed.

St. Helena

The driving force behind the rediscovery of the places of our Lord’s Passion was the Empress St Helena, who traveled to the Holy Land in 326. She was the mother of the Emperor Constantine and was already advanced in years – she must have been around 80 by that time. But she did not want to die without having prayed in the land where the Lord had lived, died and risen. We have little information about St Helena’s early life. She was probably a native of Bithynia, and of humble origin. St Ambrose says that she was a stabularia – possibly meaning a servant at an inn – before her marriage to Constantius Chlorus in the year 273. Their son Constantine was born the following year. Constantius was an ambitious officer in the Roman army, who achieved the rank of joint Emperor in 293. That same year he repudiated his wife, who was not of noble blood, and Helena remained under a cloud until her son Constantine bestowed the title of Empress on her in 306. By that time Helena was already a Christian, and she used her privileged position to do good, practicing charity towards the poor, and enriching divine worship by all the means in her power. So outstanding were her faith and piety that St Ambrose did not hesitate to sing her praises, calling her a “Great woman, who gave to the Emperor much more than you received from him.” 2On her journey to the Holy Land she was responsible for the building of the first basilicas, that of the Nativity in Bethlehem and of the Ascension on Mount Olivet. As for Golgotha, when St Helena arrived in Jerusalem the pagan temples had just been demolished, so that the Empress was able to fulfill her dream of kneeling on the ground where our Savior had been raised on the Cross, and praying at the rock of the Holy Sepulcher. However, she realized at once that the most important relics of all had not yet been found.St Ambrose gives us a vivid description of her walking among the ruins of the Roman temples accompanied by soldiers and workmen, and asking herself, “Here is the battleground, but where is the victor’s trophy? Do I sit on a throne, while the Cross of the Lord is buried in the dust? Am I surrounded by gold, and the triumph of Christ by rubble? (…) I see that you have done everything possible, O devil, to bury the sword by which you were brought to naught.” 3

The new excavations ordered by the Empress bore fruit when three crosses were found in the ground near Golgotha, as well as the tablet on which was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (usually represented by the initials of the Latin words, INRI). This was the “invention” or finding (from the Latin invenire, to find) of the Holy Cross of our Lord, which had been hidden for three centuries. The holy Empress left most of the relics in Jerusalem, but she took back with her to Rome three fragments of the True Cross, the tablet with the inscriptions, one of the nails, and some thorns from the crown that the executioners had placed on Jesus’ head. She also had a large amount of earth from Golgotha brought to Rome, and the stone steps from the stairway that our Lord had trodden four times on the day of his Passion, when he was tried before Pilate in the Praetorium.The Sessorian Basilica, or “Sancta Hierusalem”There are many documents dating from the third and fourth centuries that describe how, after St Helena’s visit, the Christians venerated the relics that had been left in Jerusalem. This is attested by Eusebius, Rufinus, Theodoret, and St Cyril of Jerusalem. Egeria (or Aetheria), a woman who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Places in the fourth century, spoke of great crowds of the faithful who, even then, gathered from all the Christian East to take part in the solemn celebrations in honor of the Cross.This Nail, the three fragments of the Cross and the INRI tablet were kept devoutly by St Helena in her imperial palace, the Palatium Sessorianum. Some years later, possibly after his mother’s death, Constantine had a basilica built there which took its name from the palace and was known as the Sessorian Basilica, and also Sancta Hierusalem – Holy Jerusalem. The earth from Golgotha that the Empress Helena had brought from Golgotha was laid down as the symbolic foundation of the building, and the precious fragments of the Holy Cross were displayed for the veneration of the faithful in a reliquary of gold adorned with jewels.Of this first basilica built by Constantine only a few pieces of the outer walls now remain. Another was built in the twelfth century, and this was replaced in its turn by a late Baroque building, completed in 1744, which still stands today. Despite these architectural changes, and other events such as the Barbarian invasions of Rome, a large number of documents testify that the relics now venerated in the basilica are the very same as those brought by St Helena from the Holy Land.

The basilica naturally became the object of devotional visits by the Christian people, and very soon the Good Friday liturgy began to be celebrated there. Until the fourteenth century the Pope in person walked barefoot at the head of the procession from the Lateran Basilica to the Basilica of Santa Croce, to adore the vexilla Regis, the banner of the King and flag of our salvation.

St. Josemaria Escriva

August 4, 1946
St Josemaría went to pray in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme on August 4, 1946. He had been in Rome less than two months, since June 23. Since arriving in the Holy City he had worked intensely, amid the fierce summer heat and in spite of the problems caused by his diabetes, to prepare the documents that had to be presented to the Holy See to obtain the Decretum Laudis, or “Decree of Praise”, for Opus Dei. This would mean the approval of the Work as an institution of pontifical rite, endowed with universal regulations. St Josemaría urgently wished for this approval as it would facilitate Opus Dei’s apostolic expansion, and he put every effort into completing the work in the shortest possible time.On August 4, at a quarter to five in the afternoon, the Cardinal Prefect of the competent dicastery had a meeting with Don Alvaro del Portillo to discuss the dates when the documents could be presented. This was when the Founder of Opus Dei decided to spend that Sunday afternoon praying in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, while Don Alvaro was with the Cardinal.It is easy to guess what St Josemaría’s prayer that afternoon must have been like: a prayer of confident, faith-filled petition, together with the utmost acceptance of God’s Will. There, before the relics of the Passion, he must have thought once again how “finding the Cross of Jesus Christ on our path assures us that we are following in his footsteps.” 4 The Decretum Laudis was finally granted by the Holy See more than six months later, on February 24, 1947. Although this delay made St Josemaría suffer, he accepted it without losing his peace of mind, as an opportunity to embrace the Cross. And he passed on that attitude to his children. “We must always be peaceful and positive about setbacks if they occur, about what people call failures. Success or failure is in the interior life. Success consists of receiving Jesus Christ’s Cross serenely, opening our arms wide to it, because for Jesus and for us, the Cross is a throne, it is the exaltation of love. It is the summit of redeeming effectiveness to bring souls to God, in our own mode as lay-people: with our conversation, our friendship, our work, our words, our doctrine, our prayer and mortification.”5

The Holy Cross Dynamizes Us from “Love of Friendship” (Filein) to “Gift of Self” (Agapao)

Benedict XVI said that the call [to follow Jesus] near the Sea of Galilee, and then the confession of faith: "`You are Christ, the Messiah’" is a confession that is still lacking, initial and yet open. St Peter puts himself on a path of "sequela", following. And so, this initial confession carries within it, like a seed, the future faith of the Church.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“The school of faith is not a triumphal march but a journey marked daily by suffering and love, trials and faithfulness. Peter, who promised absolute fidelity, knew the bitterness and humiliation of denial: the arrogant man learns the costly lesson of humility. Peter, too, must learn that he is weak and in need of forgiveness. Once his attitude changes and he understands the truth of his weak heart of a believing sinner, he weeps in a fit of liberating repentance. After this weeping he is finally ready for his mission.
On a spring morning, this mission will be entrusted to him by the Risen Christ. The encounter takes place on the shore of the Lake of Tiberias. John the Evangelist recounts the conversation between Jesus and Peter in that circumstance. There is a very significant play on words.
In Greek, the word "fileo" means the love of friendship, tender but not all-encompassing; instead, the word "agapao" means love without reserve, total and unconditional. Jesus asks Peter the first time: "Simon... do you love me (agapas-me)" with this total and unconditional love (Jn 21: 15)?
Prior to the experience of betrayal, the Apostle certainly would have said: "I love you (agapo-se) unconditionally". Now that he has known the bitter sadness of infidelity, the drama of his own weakness, he says with humility: "Lord; you know that I love you (filo-se)", that is, "I love you with my poor human love". Christ insists: "Simon, do you love me with this total love that I want?". And Peter repeats the response of his humble human love: "Kyrie, filo-se", "Lord, I love you as I am able to love you". The third time Jesus only says to Simon: "Fileis-me?", "Do you love me?".
Simon understands that his poor love is enough for Jesus, it is the only one of which he is capable, nonetheless he is grieved that the Lord spoke to him in this way. He thus replies: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you (filo-se)".
This is to say that Jesus has put himself on the level of Peter, rather than Peter on Jesus' level! It is exactly this divine conformity that gives hope to the Disciple, who experienced the pain of infidelity.
From here is born the trust that makes him able to follow [Christ] to the end: "This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God. And after this he said to him, "Follow me'" (Jn 21: 19).
From that day, Peter "followed" the Master with the precise awareness of his own fragility; but this understanding did not discourage him. Indeed, he knew that he could count on the presence of the Risen One beside him.
From the naïve enthusiasm of initial acceptance, passing though the sorrowful experience of denial and the weeping of conversion, Peter succeeded in entrusting himself to that Jesus who adapted himself to his poor capacity of love. And in this way he shows us the way, notwithstanding all of our weakness. We know that Jesus adapts himself to this weakness of ours.
We follow him with our poor capacity to love and we know that Jesus is good and he accepts us.”[1]
It was a long journey for Peter that made him a trustworthy witness, "rock" of the Church, because he was constantly open to the action of the Spirit of Jesus. Peter qualifies himself as a "witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed" (I Pt 5: 1). When he was to write these words he would already be elderly, heading towards the end of his life that will be sealed with martyrdom. He will then be ready to describe true joy and to indicate where it can be drawn from: the source is believing in and loving Christ with our weak but sincere faith, notwithstanding our fragility.
He would therefore write to the Christians of his community, and says also to us: "Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls" (I Pt 1: 8-9).

--Notes1. Eusebius of Caesarea, De Vita Constantini, 3, 16.2. St Ambrose, De Obitu Theodosii, 41.3. St Ambrose, De Obitu Theodosii, 43-444. St Josemaría Escrivá, Letter 14 February 1944, 19.5. St Josemaría Escrivá, Letter 31 May 1954, 30.

[1] Benedict XVI, General Audience, Wednesday, 24 May 2006.

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