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The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, celebrated by many Christians, originated in Jerusalem where Jesus died and rose again. On September 13, 325 AD, Christians came from all parts of the Roman world for the dedication of a church the Emperor Constantine built over the empty tomb of Jesus and the place where he was crucified.
Called the Anastasis (Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was one of early Christianity’s largest and most resplendent holy places; its liturgy, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church.
Visitors today to Jerusalem find a smaller, shabbier successor to Constantine’s great church, because the original building was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders. Today, the ancient building bears the scars of sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires, and natural disasters.
Scars of a divided Christendom are also visible in it. Various Christian groups, claiming age-old rights, warily guard their separate responsibilities in the place. Visitors have to wonder how this church witnesses God’s saving plan?
Perhaps the church itself has an answer, built as it is over the place where Constantine’s mother and his builders came upon the ruins of the Roman execution site from the time of Jesus and his empty tomb. In the 2nd reading for the feast, St. Paul speaks of the great scandal of the Incarnation. Jesus Christ “took the form of a slave,” not the form of privilege or power, but of a life of suffering and death. “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2,6-11)
In the Book of Numbers, the 1st reading for the feast, we’re told of the grumbling of the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert after being miraculously freed from Egypt: “With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses. ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water?’”(Numbers 21,4-9)
In the gospel for the feast, from John, Jesus recalls the people who grumbled and complained about God and Moses and points to himself as the healing serpent lifted up as the cure for unbelief. Jesus tells Nicodemus, a man struggling for belief, to look to the Son of Man who will be lifted up on the cross.
A strange remedy! Yet by looking at him, we gain wisdom. “Everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3,13-17 ) The mystery of the Cross gives us patience and perspective.
“Do not forget the works of the Lord!” (Psalm 78, Responsorial Psalm) We can’t forget Jesus Christ. Like those before us, we seek and inquire after God again and again; we remember God our rock, the Most High God, our redeemer. Don’t forget Jesus Christ who “emptied himself.” His cross lifts us up.