IN MARCH, 2012 THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT sided with employers who refused to allow Christians to wear a visible cross at work. Wearing a cross is not a requirement of Christianity, the spokesman affirmed, so wearing one in public is not protected by the law.
In October, 312 government took a very different position. Inspired in a dream to mark his soldiers’ shields with the cross, the Roman officer Constantine went on to win control of the empire, an act he attributed to the help of the Christian God. Within a few years reverence for the cross had become the universal mark of Christians in the empire. St John Chrysostom, writing later in the same century, would note how. “Kings removing their diadems take up the cross, the symbol of their Savior’s death; on the purple – the cross; in their prayers – the cross; on their armor – the cross; on the holy table – the cross; throughout the universe – the cross. The cross shines brighter than the sun.”
Jerusalem, City of the Cross
Beginning about the year 325 the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena began to uncover and adorn the sites associated with the life of Christ. In 333 the Church of the Nativity was dedicated in Bethlehem and in September 13, 335 the Church of the Resurrection, built to enclose the tomb of the Lord, was dedicated. The site, revered by Jerusalem’s Christians, had been covered over in AD 135 when a previous emperor, Hadrian, ordered that a temple to Aphrodite built there as part of his attempt to remake Jerusalem into a Roman city. Constantine had the temple destroyed and the surrounding area cut away to make the tomb and the mount of Golgotha more prominent. A covered atrium was built to enclose these two shrines which was then joined to an adjoining basilica and covered by a single domed roof.
By restoring the biblical character of the Holy Land, the Roman emperor Constantine undid the work of his predecessor Hadrian and also of the emperor Tiberius, under whom Christ was crucified, and the emperors of the previous two centuries who tried to destroy His Body, the Church.
The Century of the Cross
During the excavations conducted for the construction of the church, workers unearthed the cross of Christ and the title placed over his head. A portion of the cross was sent to the emperor in Constantinople, but the principal part was enclosed in silver and entrusted to the care of the Bishop of Jerusalem. As a result Christians throughout the empire dreamed of visiting the Lord’s tomb and venerating the precious and life-giving cross of Christ which was enshrined there. A few years after the church’s dedication, St Cyril of Jerusalem could actually point to the cross as tangible proof that Christ was truly crucified. “Jesus then really suffered for all men; for the Cross was no illusion, otherwise our redemption is an illusion also. His death was not a mere show, for then is our salvation also fabulous. …If I should now deny it, here is Golgotha to refute me, near which we are now assembled; the wood of the Cross itself refutes me, which was afterwards distributed piecemeal from hence to all the world” (Catechetical Lecture 13.4).
On May 7, 351 another manifestation of the cross took place over Jerusalem. The current bishop, St Cyril of Jerusalem, reported that a large cross encircled by a rainbow appeared in the heavens, just over the holy Golgotha, reaching as far as the holy mount of Olivet, (almost two miles). He affirmed that it was seen not by one or two persons, but clearly and evidently by the whole city and remained visible for several hours.
In c. 381-384 the Spanish pilgrim nun Egeria visited Jerusalem. She described the veneration of the holy cross on Good Friday, noting that the cross and the title are removed from their reliquary and held by the bishop. Then “all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it”(Pilgrimage, 37.3). Egeria also describes the week-long anniversary of the church’s dedication each year; however much of what she wrote has been lost. The manuscript is incomplete.
Recovery of the Cross
One other event concerning the cross is remembered at this time. The Roman Empire was often at odds with its neighbor to the east, the Sassanid Persians. When Rome was pagan, Christianity was welcomed in Persia, but when Rome became Christian the Persians turned against the Christians as Roman sympathizers. In AD 613 the Persians invaded. They sacked Jerusalem in 614 and seized the precious cross as spoils of war. The Emperor Heraclius retaliated and in 627 surrounded the Persian capital and recovered the cross. On March 21, 630 Heraclius brought the cross back to Jerusalem and it was restored to the Church of the Resurrection.
The Cross Today
Christians in the fourth century clearly saw the power of the cross in the events of their age as signs that the Roman Empire was meant to turn to Christ. Succeeding centuries saw the cross become something of a talisman, carried or worn for personal protection. When Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 they divided up the emperor’s portion of the cross for bishops and princes throughout Europe. Subsequent ages saw Europe dismiss the cross and even the Crucified as passé and irrelevant. The cross remained only as an item of jewelry or other ornament but less and less as the sign of the true life of the world.
In Jerusalem Christ emptied Himself, even to death on the cross. Today we see the cross emptied of its imperial, political and talismanic associations – necessary perhaps for the true meaning of Christ’s sacrifice to shine forth again in power. The radiance of the Crucified is in His refusal of power rather than in an embrace of it/.
The divine treasure hidden in the earth, the Cross of the life-giving Lord, appears in the sky to the pious emperor, showing him the spiritual sign for his victory over the enemy. With love, in joy and faith, he is divinely inspired to seek the exaltation of the object of his vision. He carefully has it lifted from the bosom of the earth for the redemption of the world and the salvation of our souls. (Vespers of the Forefeast)
By its elevation, the Cross is like an appeal to the whole creation to adore the blessed Passion of Christ our God who was suspended on it, for Christ destroyed by this Cross the one who had destroyed us. In His great goodness, He brought us back to life after we had been dead, and He beatified us and made us worthy of Heaven, for He is merciful. Wherefore, we exalt His name with great rejoicing and glorify His infinite condescension. (Vespers of the Feast)
The rod of Your divine power has appeared from on high: the Cross, sent to us in Sion, wholly illumined by grace and boundless light. The heavenly cross of our crucified God has shone forth above glorious Golgotha, proclaim-ing to all that salvation has come to the world through His sufferings. Bowing down before it we chant unceasingly and ask with faith that He grant peace to the world and that He save our souls. (Vespers. May 7)