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Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.


In the first half of the twentieth century, Pierre Barbet, then chief surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paris, made a study of our Lord’s Passion and Death, called A Doctor on Calvary, based upon the Sacred Scriptures, ancient secular literature, the Shroud of Turin, and his own experiments. In this priceless work, he describes how all the evidence points to Christ having carried to Calvary only the horizontal crossbeam, which fit by tenon and mortise onto the permanently planted vertical beam. On account of the particular agonies consequent upon being crucified—asphyxia resulting in too much carbon dioxide in the blood, in turn resulting in cramps that wracked His entire flesh from the extremities to the torso—the body of our Blessed Lord was upon His death set in place by rigor mortis with unusual swiftness.

Thus, after Christ’s Sacred Heart had been pierced as ceremonial proof of His death so that Pilate could fulfill Roman law and hand over the dead body of God to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, these men would have first removed only the nail piercing the sacred feet to the vertical beam. Then, the crossbeam, still bearing all the weight of Christ’s flesh, was lifted off the vertical beam and lowered; the feet were brought forward so that the body was carried horizontally, still in the figure of one crucified, the mere seventy feet to that new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.

This would have been much simpler and easier than attempting to remove the body from the crossbeam while it was yet atop the vertical beam, or carrying the body without the support of the crossbeam. Dr. Barbet theorizes that two men held the ends of the crossbeam, one held the feet of Jesus, and two men supported His waist with a twisted linen. Once they arrived at the Holy Sepulcher, the nails were removed from the wrists, and the Cross was put aside; the body was laid on the Shroud, and the shoulders were worked pliant until the hands could be folded in. The Shroud was draped over the upper half of His body, the tomb was sealed, and all departed.

For the next forty years, the devout Christians living in Jerusalem preserved the venerable memory of this holy place. But then, in the year 70 AD, the Roman General and later Emperor Titus crushed the revolt of the Jewish Zealots. The Christians who had been living in Jerusalem before the siege fled to Pella across the Jordan, where they stayed for several years until it was safe to return and they could continue their pious veneration of our Lord’s tomb. Another revolt by the Jews was suppressed by the Emperor Hadrian around the year 135 AD, after which the Holy Sepulcher was covered with earth, and a temple of Aphrodite with a statue of that goddess was erected on the spot.

After Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius in 312, which had been foretold by a vision of the Cross and the words In hoc signo vinces—“In this sign you will conquer”—the new ruler of Rome displayed such piety that his mother Helena converted to Christianity. After the Council of Nicaea in 325, the 80-year-old Helena visited the sacred places in the Holy Land and searched for the Holy Sepulcher and our Lord’s Cross. At her command, the statue of Aphrodite was cast down, the temple razed, and the earth cleared. It helps when your son is the emperor. The Sepulcher was found, but Jews had hidden the Cross in a well or ditch and covered it with stones to keep the Christians from venerating it. One of the few who still knew the secret location, however, being moved by grace, pointed out to Helena where the Cross was to be found.

Upon unearthing the sacred relics, they discovered that not just one but three crosses were therein contained, as well as the nails and the inscription with the charge of Christ’s execution written by Pilate. However, as there was no indication which of the crosses was the true one, St. Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, took all three to a woman on the point of death. When touched by the true Cross, she miraculously recovered. The day of the finding of the Cross was thereafter commemorated on May 3rd down through the centuries until this feast was all but suppressed in 1962, for reasons mysterious even to the mind of God. At any rate, St. Helena left a portion of the true Cross enshrined in a silver reliquary placed in the newly built basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, which was eventually dedicated on September 14th, 335. The rest of the Cross, as well as the nails and Pilate’s inscription, she sent to Emperor Constantine in his new imperial capital of Constantinople.

There, he placed a large portion of the true Cross inside a statue of himself on a porphyry column in the Forum as a protection of the city. Very small portions of it were highly prized as relics, and around the year 400 St. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople—who, incidentally, died on September 14th—testified that the fortunate faithful who were possessed of such a treasure carried them in crosses made of silver and gold that hung around their necks. When Emperor Justin II sent a large fragment of the true Cross to the Frankish Queen Radegunda in 569, St. Venantius Fortunatus, the bishop of Poitiers where the relic was received, composed the hymn Vexilla Regis, which we will sing this evening at Vespers.

But what happened to the portion of the Cross left in Jerusalem? Around the year 572 the Persian Empire, encompassing what is now Iraq and Iran, launched a war against the Byzantine Empire, that is, the Greek-speaking eastern half of the once mighty Roman Empire. By 622 they had conquered Syria, Turkey, the Holy Land, Sinai, and Egypt. In Jerusalem alone, the Persians massacred 60,000 people and enslaved 35,000 more. The basilica of the Holy Sepulcher was ransacked, and the relics of the true Cross were carried away to the Persian capital of Persepolis on the Tigris River. Five years later, however, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius defeated the Persians, and on September 14th, 629, he solemnly returned the relics of the true Cross to Jerusalem—which is why September 14th is still to this day the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

That the three crosses had been hidden together along with the nails and inscription seems to indicate the Jews knew Christians had long venerated them, most likely all in one place. Certainly, from its discovery in the fourth century, the true Cross has been an object of special liturgical veneration by the faithful, who on Good Friday gathered under the watchful eye of the bishop of Jerusalem and his deacons, bowed and kissed the Cross. This act of worship is only fitting to that wood upon which the limbs of God were stretched and which were drenched with His Precious Blood. And because it was through the Cross that Christ saved us, we sing to it and pray to it. That Vespers hymn mentioned earlier has a verse that says:

Dear Cross, best hope o’er all beside,
That cheers the solemn passion-tide:
Give to the just increase of grace,
Give to each contrite sinner peace.

Extended from Jerusalem throughout the Christian world, our own Good Friday liturgical veneration paid to the crucifix is a pledge and proof that we take up our cross to follow Christ every day of the year, that no day is without its mortification, its contradiction. For this is the difference between a disciple of Christ and a disciple of the world, that we deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow the Master rather than pampering ourselves and catering to self-inclination and pride. And how do we take up our cross, but that, as St. Paul says, we bear always in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies?

The Imitation of Christ says, “Jesus has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His Cross. He has many seekers of comfort, but few of tribulation. He finds many companions of His table, but few of His fasting. All desire to rejoice with Him, few are willing to undergo anything for His sake. Many follow Jesus that they may eat of His loaves, but few that they may drink of the cup of His passion. Many are astonished at His Miracles, few follow after the shame of His Cross.”

Interior mortification of shackled pride, curbed anger, and restrained imagination are, to be sure, of greater spiritual value than the exterior mortification of fasting, vigils, and silence. But without any doubt, just as the more manifest penances are hypocrisy without internal austerity, so also the deeper and more vital disciplines are unattainable without likewise embracing austerity in the flesh.

When the sign of the Son of Man appears in the sky to judge the world with justice, St. John tells us that His elect will be marked with the seal of the living God, that is, the sign of the Cross. What was begun in baptism and furthered in confirmation Christ will search to find perfected in our interior lives. If, then, we would exalt the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and so be prepared for that dread day, may we ever seek to bear the Cross in our flesh so that we may resemble the Crucified in our souls. For the one who embraces the Cross now will one day embrace the Crucified—or rather He will embrace us and confess us before His Father and all the holy angels and saints in heaven.

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