In many places a commemoration we Lutherans usually call Holy Cross Day is observed on 14 September. Its actual name is Exaltatio Sanctae Crucis, which in Latin means "Exaltation of the Holy Cross". Thing is, exaltatio in Latin does not mean what its derivative exaltation has come to mean in English. It means raising aloft, so the name actually translates as "Raising Aloft of the Holy Cross" which is pretty close to its Greek name "Raising Aloft of the Precious Cross". I ain't getting into the Greek. I also ain't getting into all the other "Holy Cross Days" on 13 September, 12 October, 6 March, 3 May and 1 August either!
But I am getting into making clear that the literal exaltation, the lifting up, of the cross for which this "feast" was instituted is not a reference to either Christ or the cross of Calvary as the means of salvation or its triumph, but to the lifting up of a supposed relic. Here's the deal.
So What's a Holy Cross Day?
Glad you asked. But before getting down to that, let me be clear about two things. None of what follows should be construed as knocking the historic liturgy and things related to it. I consider it one of the great treasures of "Lutheranism" that they are retained except where they contradict, as distinct from are commanded by, Scripture. And, none of what follows should be construed as knocking an ever growing awareness of and reverence for what was accomplished for us by Christ on the cross.
It should be construed as what it is, knocking the retention of this "feast" as in any way aiding either the work of zealously guarding and defending the liturgy or of deepening the awareness of and reverence toward what was accomplished for us by Christ on the cross.
The Origin of Holy Cross Day.
So why a Holy Cross Day on 14 September? Because on 14 September 335 the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was concluded. The dedication itself was the day before, then on 14 September the "cross" was brought outside for veneration by the people. And, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, made it a feast day. That's why. What in all church planting Judas does that mean? And what cross? Why, the "true" cross, discovered by the Emperor's mom Helena on a dig funded by the Imperial treasury, that's what cross! Huh?
So why ain't it called the Church of the Holy Cross then? Well guess what, there was already something standing there, which was another church, well a temple actually, to the goddess Aphrodite, known to the Romans as Venus, she from whom the planet, and also Friday, is named. Some say the place was originally a Christian worship site, for reasons that will presently be clear, and that the temple was later built by Emperor Hadrian in his rebuilding of Jerusalem.
Why Jerusalem Had To Be Rebuilt. Again.
Now why rebuilding? Well, remember, Jerusalem was completely trashed by the Romans in 70 AD. Whyzat? Well it started in 66, when some Greeks started offering pagan sacrifices outside a synagogue in Jerusalem. At first, the Roman soldiers stationed in Jerusalem did not get involved in this local matter. But next thing you know, the Jewish priests quit offering token sacrifices to the Emperor -- the Roman Empire generally left you alone as long as you paid tribute to the top and didn't rock the boat, which is how its surviving state church still pretty much operates. And then next thing you know there's protests against Roman taxes, call it an ancient Tea Party, and muggings of Romans living there. Finally, when some of the boys from duty stations in the area go in to intervene they get their butts kicked by a bunch of Jews (that's the Battle of Beth Horon) which clean pisses off the Roman Emperor, guy named Nero.
Old Nero tells General Vespasian -- who had distinguished himself in the Roman invasion of Mother England (OK Britannia at the time) in 43 as commander of Legio secunda Augusta (Second Augustan Legion), one of the four legions deployed -- to go in and open up a major can of whoop-ass on Judea. Which he commences to do along with the forces of his son, Titus, also a general, in April 67, with total forces of about 60,000. By 68 they had pretty well cleaned house in the north, and in the south the Jews pretty well cleaned house on each other with infighting, so about all that was left was Jerusalem.
But then something else happened back in Rome. Nero was getting too bizarre for even the Romans, the Senate and the military went against him, he was declared an enemy of the people, so he bolts and commits suicide in 68. All hell breaks loose and in 69 Rome goes through four emperors! First, the new emperor, guy named Galba, gets assassinated by a guy named Otho who wants to be the new emperor so he bribes the Emperor's bodyguards, the Praetorian Guard, to kill him. Then a guy named Vitellius, with the best legions in the Roman army on his side, defeats Otho and inspires him to commit suicide, but then Vitellius pisses everybody clean off by having so many feasts and parades that he about bankrupts the Empire. So in July 69 Vespasian gets hailed as emperor by his army and other Roman armies -- Roman armies did that sometimes, that's also how Constantine would later get his start as emperor -- and, thinking maybe that isn't such a bad idea, Vespasian heads to Rome and his allied armies kick the living crap out of Vitellius' forces and kill him, and the Senate proclaims Vespasian emperor 21 December 69. Helluva year.
Vespasian had left crushing the Jewish rebellion to his son Titus, which he bloody well does, so thoroughly destroying Jerusalem that Jospehus, the Roman name of the great Jewish contemporary historian Yosef, says you wouldn't have even thought the place was once inhabited. This includes the destruction of the Temple, which happened on 29/30 July 70. In the Hebrew calendar it was Tisha B'Av, or the 9th of Av (a month in the Hebrew calendar) and guess what, it was on exactly that date that first Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, leading to the Babylonian Captivity (the one of the Jews, not the church) some 656 years earlier.
Why the Destruction of the Second Temple Is a Big Deal.
The destruction of the Second Temple has enormous consequences for both Christianity and Judaism. To have the centre of one's worship and people's identity destroyed for the second time was catastrophic. And this time there wasn't even a captivity in which to be carried off. Worst of all, with the Temple gone, it would now be impossible to fully follow the Law, with the Temple and its sacrifices gone. How does a religion and people based on the Law continue when observing the Law is no longer fully possible?
There's only two answers: one, the Law could now pass because it had been fulfilled, or two, something else would take the place of the Temple sacrifices until such time as they could be restored. The second answer was forthcoming from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. During the siege, he was slipped out in a coffin, and knowing the destruction was coming, and sensing Vespasian would become Emperor, negotiated from him three things: 1) sparing the city Jamnia, 2) sparing its sages, who were students of Rabbi Gamaliel, grandson of the great Hillel, and whom St Peter mentions as having argued against killing the Apostles for their messianic beliefs about Jesus, and among whose students St Paul counts himself, 3) a physician to attend an old rabbi (OK, his name was Tzadok) who had fasted for forty years hoping to ward off any destruction such as has just happened. It was here that Judaism as we know it, in the absence of the Temple, began to take shape. Basing himself on Hosea 6:6, he concluded that our mitzvoth (good works) and prayer would now take the place of the sacrifices commanded in the Law.
The other answer is that the sacrifices had culminated in that to which they pointed, the sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary, who is now both priest and victim, and the destruction of the Temple is what was meant when Jesus said some of those living would see the end, meaning the end of things as they knew it -- which some of them did.
Hadrian Rebuilds Jerusalem.
The story goes that, as Hadrian, who had become Emperor on 10 August 117, was rebuilding Jerusalem, which began in 130, there was a site that had been a Christian church reportedly on the site of Jesus' burial, so Hadrian, who hated Christians, ordered dirt brought in to cover the site, then had a temple to Venus (Aphrodite to the Greeks) built on top of the earth on top of the old church site. So Constantine ordered the temple destroyed and the earth underneath it moved back out!
Makes for a nice story, but the story is pure bull. Hadrian located the forum for the new Jerusalem where Roman fora were always located, which is, at the meeting of the main north-south road through town and the, or one of the, main east-west roads. In Jerusalem it was the latter case, and the forum was located in the space between the two east-west roads and along the north-south road, and the temple to Venus was part of that. So far from being a special action against Christians, it was just a following of standard Roman practice anywhere.
And, that the site is that of Jesus' tomb is so unlikely as to be nearly surely false. The Bible says Jesus' tomb was outside the city walls of Jerusalem, and this site is within the walls of Jerusalem. Oh well, some say, the walls of Jerusalem in Jesus' day were different. Two problems with that. If they were east enough of the current walls to make the site west of them, Jerusalem would have been quite a narrow city. Also, building a tomb west of the city is highly unlikely, as wind in Jerusalem generally blows from west to east, and thus would blow over the tombs bringing ritual impurity, not to mention a possible stench, to the city and in particular to the Temple Mount. So, graves go to the east of the city.
Also, these bogus legends obscure the fact that while Hadrian did see Christianity as an uncouth superstitious cult dangerous to a humane social order, that was nothing compared to his regard for Judaism, of which he wanted to remove all traces altogether. What Hadrian actually did do has nothing to do with temples to Venus on Christ's crucifixion or burial site. The rebuilding of Jerusalem was as a new city with no Jews, called Aelia Capitolina, Aelius being Hadrian's clan name (nomen gentile) and Capitolina referring to Jupiter Capitolinus, as in the great temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill (from which comes the English word capitol, btw) in Rome. He built a temple to Jupiter on the ruins of the Temple site, forbad observance of Jewish law or its calendar, especially circumcision which was held to be utterly barbaric, publicly burned the Torah scrolls, and attached Judaea to Syria and renamed it Syria Palaestina, Philistine Syria, in 135.
And, to those unlikely to be true legends, add those about Helena and the finding of the "true" cross. Helena was the mother of Constantine. His father was Constantius, however, it is unclear if she was a legal wife or a concubine, which then meant an extra-legal wife since the marriage was between social classes (he was noble, she was not), and that was prohibited by Roman law (same problem Augustine had with "the one" who was mother of his son). Helena's unclear status was controversial for both husband and son, and Constantius later dumped her in a power deal to solidify his political position to marry another (Theodora), which he did in Trier, then called Augusta Treverorum and his new capitol. Son Constantine the "Great" would later do the same thing for the same reasons. Once her son became Emperor, Helena returned to public life and was made Augusta Imperatrix, and was given unlimited access to the imperial treasury to locate objects of Christian veneration.
The story is, after the Temple of Venus was torn down and the land removed, excavation found three crosses at what was supposed to be the site of Jesus' burial. So a woman near death was brought, and did not recover on touching the first two crosses but did on touching the third, which Helena proclaimed the cross of Christ. Problem is, for one thing contemporary accounts of the excavation (Eusebius) do not mention Helena being there at all, rather unlikely for the Augusta Imperatrix to not be mentioned if she were there. For another, the legend about authenticating the true cross appears not only later, but in at least three distinct versions, the one just related, and one where a dead man was touched to each of the three and came back to life at the right one, and that the inscription put on the cross was still on it.
Take Your Pick. Or Not. Exaltatio Sanctae Crucis.
What a wretched mess, most of it legend of the most spurious kind and the rest of it fact of the most disgusting kind. A verifiable total confusion of the Two Kingdoms (left and right hand) surrounded by unverifiable legends that don't even agree with each other. This honours the cross of Christ? Such a miserable excuse for piety should be shovelled out and thrown away just like Constantine shovelled out what Hadrian shovelled in. The object of our veneration is not the cross per se, or toothpicks from it, or legends about finding it, or big fancy churches built at state expense on the supposed site of it, or a feast day established by a Roman Emperor, but Christ and his action on it for our salvation, whose body and blood he gives you right in your own parish in Communion at Divine Service.
The true Raising Aloft of the Holy Cross is not like some empty fiction, for example the story about Dietrich von Bern, or these miserable True Cross legends and imperial-sponsored liftings-up thereof, but as St John says in John 12:32 "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." Et ego si exaltatus fuero a terra omnia traham ad me ipsum. The Alpha and the Omega, and his Omega Point, through whose exaltation, lifting up, we are drawn from the Alpha and raised aloft to the Omega.
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