Jacobus da Voragine
The Golden Legend
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross
This feast is called the Exaltation of the Holy Cross because on this day the faith and the holy cross were raised to the heights.
It should be noted that before Christ's passion the wood of the cross was a cheap wood, because crosses used for crucifixions were made of cheap wood. It was an unfruitful wood, because no matter how many such trees were planted on the mount of Calvary, the wood gave no fruit. It was an ignoble wood, because it was used for the execution of criminals; a wood of darkness, because it was dark and without any beauty; a wood of death, because on it men were put to death; a malodorous wood, because it was planted among cadavers.
After Christ's passion, however, this wood was exalted in many ways. Its cheapness passed into preciousness, so Saint Andrew the apostle exclaimed: "Hail, precious cross!" Its unfruitfulness gave way to fertility, as in the Song of Solomon (7:8): "I will go up into the palm tree, and will take hold of the fruit thereof " What had been ignoble became sublime, as Augustine says: "The cross, which was the gibbet of criminals, has made its way to the foreheads of emperors." Its darkness turned to light, as Chrysostom says: "Christ's cross and his scars will, on the Day of Judgment, shine more brightly than the sun's rays." Its death passed into eternal life, and we sing:
Ut unde mors oriebatur, inde vita resurgeret.1
Its stench became an odour of sweetness: "While the king was on his couch, my nard, i.e., the holy cross, gave forth its fragrance."2
The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is solemnly celebrated by the Church because on that day the Christian faith itself was exalted to the heights. In the year A.D. 615, the Lord allowing his people to be scourged by the savagery of the pagans, Chosroes, king of the Persians, subjected all the earth's kingdoms to his rule. When he came to Jerusalem, however, he withdrew in fear from the sepulchre of the Lord but took away a piece of the holy cross that Saint Helena had left there. Chosroes wanted to be worshiped as God. He built a gold and silver tower studded with jewels, and placed in it images of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Bringing water to the top of the tower through hidden pipes, he poured down water as God pours rain, and in an underground cave he had horses pulling chariots around in a circle to shake the tower and produce a noise like thunder. Then he abdicated his kingdom in favour of his son and, profane as he was, settled himself in the tower as in a fane, put the Lord's cross at his side, and decreed that all should call him God. Indeed, we read in the book On the Mitral Office that he sat on a throne in the shrine as the Father, put the wood of the cross on his right in place of the Son, and a cock on his left in place of the Holy Spirit. He commanded that he be called the Father.
Emperor Heraclius now marshalled a large army and marched against the son of Chosroes to confront him at the Danube River. Finally the two princes agreed to meet in single combat on the bridge that crossed the river, the victor to take over the empire, both armies being spared any damage. It was also decreed that anyone who came to the assistance of his prince would have his legs and arms cut off and be thrown into the river.
Heraclius offered himself totally to God and commended himself to the holy cross with all the devotion of which he was capable. The two princes fought for a long time, and the Lord granted victory to Heraclius, who thus made the opposing army subject to his command, with the result that all Chosroes's people acknowledged the Christian faith and received holy baptism. Chosroes himself knew nothing of the outcome of the war, because he was hated by all and no one told him about it.
Heraclius journeyed to Chosroes and found him seated on his golden throne. He said to him: "Because you have honoured the wood of the holy cross in your own way, you will be spared your life and your reign on condition that you accept the Christian faith and receive baptism, a few hostages being taken as guarantee. If on the other hand, you consider this beneath you, I will kill you with my sword and cut off your head." Chosroes refused the offer and Heraclius promptly decapitated him; but, since he had been a king, he was given suitable burial. Heraclius found the king's son, a child ten years of age, with him. He had the boy baptised and with his own hands lifted him from the font, then left his father's kingdom to him. But he demolished the tower and allotted the silver to his army as spoils of war, reserving the gold and the jewels for the rebuilding of the churches the tyrant had destroyed.
Now Heraclius carried the sacred cross back to Jerusalem. He rode down the Mount of Olives, mounted on his royal palfrey and arrayed in imperial regalia, intending to enter the city by the gate through which Christ had passed on his way to crucifixion. But suddenly the stones of the gateway fell down and locked together, forming an unbroken wall. To the amazement of everyone, an angel of the Lord, carrying a cross in his hands, appeared above the wall and said: "When the King of heaven passed through this gate to suffer death, there was no royal pomp. He rode a lowly ass, to leave an example of humility to his worshipers." With those words the angel vanished.
The emperor shed tears, took off his boots and stripped down to his shirt, received the cross of the Lord into his hands, and humbly carried it toward the gate. The hardness of the stones felt the force of a command from heaven, and the gateway raised itself from the ground and opened wide to allow passage to those entering. And a most sweet odour, which, from the day and moment when the sacred cross was taken out of Chosroes's tower, had glided across the far reaches of land from Persia to Jerusalem, now made itself felt, and refreshed with the wonder of its perfume all who sensed it. Then the truly devout emperor burst forth in praise of the cross: "O cross, more splendid than all the heavenly bodies, renowned throughout the world, deserving of all men's love, holier than all things else! O cross, you were worthy to carry the ransom of the world! O sweet wood, sweet nails, sweet sword, sweet lance, you were the bearer of sweet burdens! Save the host gathered today in praise of you and signed with your banner!"
Thus it was that the precious cross was brought back to its place, and the miracles of old began again: dead men were raised to life, four paralytics were cured, ten lepers were made clean, fifteen blind people received their sight, demons were driven out, and great numbers were delivered of various infirmities. Heraclius also repaired the churches and endowed them richly. Then he went back to his own land.
Some chronicles, however, give a different version of these events. We read that when Chosroes had occupied all the neighbouring kingdoms and had taken Jerusalem together with the patriarch Zachary and the wood of the cross, Heraclius wanted to make a treaty of peace with him, but he swore that he would not make peace with the Romans until they renounced the cross and adored the sun. Then Heraclius, fired with zeal, moved against him with an army, overran the Persians in a series of battles, and forced Chosroes to retreat as far as Ctesiphon. Later Chosroes fell ill with dysentery and wanted to confer the crown on his son Medasas. When his eldest son, Syrois, learned of this, he made a pact with Heraclius, then pursued his father with nobles and put him in chains. He fed the old man with the bread of afflictions and the water of distress, and in the end had him put to death with arrows. Later he dispatched all the prisoners, together with the patriarch and the wood of the cross, to Heraclius, and Heraclius took the precious wood to Jerusalem and eventually to Constantinople. So we read in many chronicles.
The pagan Sybil, as we learn from the Tripartite History, had this to say about this same wood of the cross: "O thrice blessed wood, upon which God was stretched!" Perhaps this was said because of the life of nature, grace, and glory that comes from the cross.
In Constantinople a Jew went into the church of Saint Sophia and there looked at an image of Christ. Seeing that there was no one about, the Jew drew his sword and struck the image in the throat. Blood poured out instantly and spattered the Jew's face and head. Terrified, he seized the image, threw it down a well, and fled. A Christian met him and asked: "Where are you corning from, Jew? You've killed a man!" "Not true!" said the Jew. But the man said again: "Of course you've committed a murder and that's why you're spattered with blood!" The Jew: "Truly the God of the Christians is great, and everything confirms faith in him. I have not stabbed a man but an image of Christ, and straightaway the blood gushed out from his throat!" The Jew then led the man to the well and they retrieved the sacred image, and it is said that the wound in Christ's throat can be seen to this day. The Jew became a Christian without delay.
In the city of Berith in Syria, a Christian who occupied a house on an annual rent had hung a picture of the crucified Christ on the wall facing his bed and there regularly said his prayers. At the end of the year, however, he moved to a different house and forgot to take the picture with him. A Jew rented the first house and invited one of his fellow tribesmen to dinner on a certain day. In the course of the festivities the guest looked around the house and came upon the picture hanging on the bedroom wall. Trembling with anger he threatened his host, demanding to know why he dared to keep an image of Jesus Christ the Nazarene. The host, who had not even noticed the picture, declared with all the oaths he could muster that he knew absolutely nothing about the image the guest was talking about. The guest, pretending to be satisfied with the answer, took his leave and went to the head man of his tribe, to make charges against the other Jew regarding what he had seen.
The Jews now gathered and went to the house, saw the picture and belaboured the householder with insults, manhandled him and expelled him half dead from the synagogue. Then they trampled the picture and renewed upon it all the indignities of the Lord's passion. When they thrust a lance into the image of his body, a copious flow of blood and water issued from it and filled a vase that they held under it. They were amazed and took the blood to their synagogues, and all the sick who were anointed with it were cured immediately. Then the Jews gave the bishop of the city a full account of all that had happened, and every one of them accepted the faith of Christ and holy baptism.
The bishop kept the blood in phials of crystal and glass. He also sent for the Christian to whom the picture belonged, and asked him who had painted so beautiful an image. He said: "Nicodemus painted it and at his death bequeathed it to Gamaliel; Gamaliel left it to Zacheus, Zacheus to James, and James to Simon. So it remained in Jerusalem till the fall of the city. Then the faithful took it into Agrippa's kingdom. From there it was brought into my country by my ancestors and came to me by right of inheritance." This happened in A.D. 75O. Then all the Jews consecrated their synagogues, turning them into churches. This is the origin of the custom of consecrating churches: previously only the altars were consecrated.
On account of the above miracle the Church ordained that a commemoration of the Lord's passion be made on 27 November, or, as we read elsewhere, on 9 November. For the same reason a church was consecrated in Rome in honour of the Saviour, and there a phial of that blood is preserved and a solemn feast observed.
There have been many evidences of the great power of the cross, even among those not of the faith. Gregory, in the third book of his Dialogues, records the experience of Andrew, bishop of the city of Fondi. He had permitted a nun to live in his house, and the ancient enemy began to impress the nun's image so vividly on the bishop's mind that it was as if he were seeing her in person. So, lying in bed, he thought of doing things that should not even be spoken of. Then one day a Jew came to Rome, and when, toward nightfall, he had not found a place to stay, he took shelter in the temple of Apollo. He feared the sacrilegious nature of the place and, though he had no faith in the cross, took care to protect himself with the sign of the cross. In the middle of the night he woke up and saw a horde of evil spirits going forward to do obeisance to a potentate, who walked in front of the rest and sat down in their midst. This potentate then began to hear the case of each of the spirits and to discuss their actions, in order to find out how much evil each one had done. For the sake of brevity Gregory does not describe the way the discussion was conducted, but it can be deduced from a moral tale that we read in the Lives of the Fathers. A man had gone into a temple of the idols, and saw Satan seated and his troops standing around him. Then one of the wicked spirits came forward and adored him. "Where have you come from?" Satan asked. "1 was in a certain province," the spirit replied, "and there stirred up many wars, caused much disturbance and shedding of blood; and I have come to report to you." Satan: "How much time did this take you?" The spirit: "Thirty days." Satan: "Why so long?" And he ordered his assistants to beat him with scourges as hard as they could. A second demon came up, adored Satan, and said: "My lord, I have been at sea, rousing up violent storms, sinking many ships, killing a lot of people." Satan: "How long did this take you?" The answer: "Twenty days." Satan: "So much time to do so little?" And he ordered a like beating. A third came and said: "1 was in a city and incited fights at some wedding feasts, and much blood was spilled, and once I killed the bridegroom himself; and I came to report to you." Satan: "How long did it take you to do that?" "Ten days!" Satan: "Couldn't you wreak more havoc than that in ten days?" And whipping was ordered. Now the fourth came forward and said: "1 stayed in the desert for forty years, devoted all my efforts to one monk, and at long last I have got him to commit one sin of the flesh!" Satan rose from his throne, kissed the spirit, took his crown off his own head and placed it on the other's, had him sit beside him, and said: "You have shown skill and courage, and have accomplished more than the others!" That, or something like it, is how the aforesaid discussion went, though Gregory passed over the details. To return to Bishop Andrew....When each of the spirits in the temple of Apollo had reported what he had done, one more leapt into the middle and described the sort of carnal temptation he had aroused in Andrew's mind regarding that nun, adding that the day before, at the hour of vespers, he had got the bishop to go so far as to give the woman a friendly pat on the back. The head spirit exhorted him to finish what he had started, and so to win the palm among all the others, for bringing about the ruin of a bishop.
Satan also ordered his minions to find out who the man was who had had the presumption to sleep in Apollo's temple. By this time the Jew was all atremble, but when the spirits who were sent to seek him out saw that he was signed with the mystery of the cross, they cried out in terror: "He is an empty vessel, indeed, but it's sealed!" At this outcry the horde of malign spirits disappeared. The Jew went in haste to the bishop and recounted the incident in full detail. The bishop groaned with remorse, put all the women out of his house, and baptised the Jew.
Gregory also tells us in the Dialogues that a certain nun went into the garden, saw a fine lettuce, and was so hungry for it that, forgetting to bless it with the sign of the cross, she bit into it avidly. She was immediately seized by the devil and fell down. However, when blessed Equitius came to her, the devil cried out: "What have I done? I was sitting on the lettuce and she came and bit me!" Equitius ordered him out, and the spirit made his exit forthwith.
In the eleventh book of the Ecclesiastical History we read that the pagans had painted the arms of Serapis on house walls in Alexandria. Emperor Theodosius ordered the emblems to be obliterated and signs of the cross to be painted instead. When they saw this, the Gentiles and the priests of the idols asked for baptism, saying: " A tradition handed down by the ancients says that the gods they worshiped would stand until appeared the sign in which is life." And among the characters of their writing, one, which they called sacred and which, they said, stood for eternal life, had the form of a cross.
1 In order that whence death arose, life might rise again (from the preface for the mass of the holy cross).
2 Song of Sol. 1:12 (RSV)