The Roman Empire after Emperor Diocletian was wrought with great strife as emperors and deputy emperors of the West and of the East struggled for power. Among them was Flavius Valerius Constantinus, known also as Constantine the Great who was appointed Caesar or deputy emperor of the West by Diocletian’s successor, Galerius. Constantine was in control of Britain and Gaul, while his brother-in-law Maxentius, arose and waged war against Galerius and made successful incursions into Italy and Rome itself.
When Galerius died (AD 311), Constantine brought his war campaigns to Italy, and consequently won battles at Turin and Verona and advanced further to Rome which was militarily under Maxentius. Maxentius under fierce defiance came out to fight Constantine but was vanquished at the Milvian Bridge. The battle of Milvian Bridge was productive of a succession of victories that at about AD 324, Constantine rose to be the master of the entire Roman Empire.
Constantine victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge was according to numerous historical details, linked to the CROSS. A story, of what happened was recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea, a scriptural scholar and historian who wrote the first detailed biography of Constantine soon after his death. He obviously knew Constantine very well and mentioned that he got the story directly from the emperor. Constantine was a pagan emperor and a devotee of the sun god; Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun. However, before the Milvian Bridge battle, he and his army saw a CROSS of light in the sky above the sun with words in Greek that are generally translated into Latin as “In hoc signo vinces” (‘In this sign conquer’). That night Constantine had a dream in which Christ told him to use the sign of the cross against his enemies. He was so impressed that he had the Christian symbol marked on his soldiers’ shields and when the Milvian Bridge battle gave him an overwhelming victory he attributed it to the sign of the CROSS which was revealed to him.
Some years after the Milvian Bridge victory, the mother of Constantine who had become a Christian and who in later time became St. Helena, went to Jerusalem in search of the Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Extensive excavation was done at the burial site of the Lord until three “crosses” were recovered. There was confusion as to which was the Cross of Christ as there were two thieves crucified on either side of Christ at Calvary. To determine which of the three was the Cross of Christ, a sick person was ask to touch the three crosses at different intervals and the person recovered instantly at the touch of one of them. That particular cross also effected further miracles and was thus confirmed, acclaimed and exalted as the Cross of Christ. At the site of the discovery, a Church was erected and was dedicated as a basilica with the name Church of the Holy Sepulchre on 14th September 335. This is the remote reason behind today’s feast.
The First Reading today (Numbers 21:4b-9), provided a background for the Cross. We were told that when the people of Israel became impatient in the wilderness and spoke against God and Moses, God sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people and so many died. In the face of this scourge, the people came to Moses to plead for pardon and God asked Moses to make a fiery serpent and place it on a standard and anyone who looks at it after being bitten will live.
Any attentive mind would want to know why God chose to punish the people by means of snake bites and also decided to save then by means of an image of a fiery serpent set on a standard. In biblical history, the first real mention of a serpent was in the Garden of Eden (Gen.3:1ff) and it was the insinuations of the serpent that made Adam and Eve to offend God and this also happened by the tree at the middle of the garden. That tree stood tall like the standard of Moses.
Significantly, God allowed the serpents to bite them reminding them of the original source of human failure; the serpent by the tree at the middle of the garden. By the time he wanted to save them he used the image of a serpent which unlike the others do not bite and was set on a standard unlike the others that were below the standard. Now life consisted in looking up to the standard. It is like telling the people “on this lies your salvation”. Just like Constantine was told “in this sign you shall conquer”!
The full expression of the power of the Cross is to be found in Christ’s Cross. Now there is a contrast between the tree of Eden and the Cross of Calvary. By the tree of Eden we failed and lost our friendship with God but by the tree (Cross) of Calvary we were raised up and regained our friendship with God. By the tree of Eden we were condemned, but by the tree (Cross) of Calvary we were saved. Just as no one bitten by the serpent could recover without looking at the fiery serpent on the standard, nobody can be saved without the Cross of Calvary.
Our Lord in the Gospel Reading of this feast day of the Cross (John 3:13-17) told Nicodemus that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so MUST the Son of man be lifted and whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. The serpent was lifted up on a standard and our Lord was lifted up on the Cross. The Cross is thus a sign and symbol of salvation. In the Cross there is eternal life for whoever would believe.
The rehearsal of our understanding of the phenomenon of the cross will be very apt here. For most people, the cross is simply a burden but that is not true. An attentive look at a cross reveals that it is an additional sign (+). Hence there are gains in the cross and not minuses. Furthermore, the cross can serve as a ladder to assist us in climbing over obstacles when we place it against any obstacle. More so, the cross can also be a key or a sword when we place it in a horizontal position.
The cross is also an instrument of exaltation. With its standing position, it points us to heaven; it points us to a greater height. It is upon this foundation that St. Paul in the Second Reading (Phil.2:6-11) established that our Lord Jesus Christ, besides having equality with God humbled himself to pick up the Cross for our sake by being humble even unto to death. On the basis of that, God raised him up (exalted him) and gave him a name which is above every other name. The cross no doubt provides the frameworks of our being lifted up or being exalted. Our Lord Jesus Christ made a promise that when he is lifted up he will draw everyone to himself (John 12:32). It is good to note that being lifted up he is drawing all people to an exalted position.
There is no greater message today than the message of the cross. St. Paul would remark that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor.1:18). Hence, for those who are being saved, it tells us that there may be tears in the night but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5). It tells us not to be worried that our Lord has overcome the world (John 16:33) and it tells us not to allow our hearts to be troubled. That we should trust in God (John 14:1).
As we celebrate the exaltation of the Cross, let us remember that our own exaltation lies in that same Cross of Jesus Christ. Hence, we should be ready to carry and defend our cross wherever we find ourselves because we shall be exalted by God’s caring hands and loving heart. Happy celebration.