At the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the intrepid Indiana Jones—a scientist and religious skeptic—finds himself in a life-or-death confrontation between “myth” and “fact.” His father lies wounded, and the movie’s villain insists that Jones retrieve the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, from its hiding place. Jones can use his father’s lifetime of knowledge (collected in his “Grail diary”) to retrieve the cup and save his father’s life.
“It’s time to ask yourself,” the villain says menacingly, “what you believe.”
The final challenge of three, a “leap from the lion’s head,” almost proves his undoing. But perhaps his whispered exclamation, “Oh, jeez”—a minced oath for Jesus—might be seen as an anxious prayer. In the movie, it’s answered by a plea from his injured father: “You must believe, boy. You must believe!” He steps out at last and finds himself on solid ground, and then he hurries to the Grail’s grotto.
There, he meets the Grail’s guardian, an ancient knight who’s ready to receive his replacement. After all, as Jones realizes, the old man has been guarding the Grail for seven centuries. A miracle or two more, including the rescue of Jones’s father, and the band returns from the land of myth to the firm ground of modern reality.
When it comes to the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Christians find themselves on this borderland between truth and myth. Christians—especially Western Christians—encounter the tension between belief and the sort of “righteous doubt” that our society has made of skepticism. If we push past our doubt and distrust, we may find ourselves on the firmer ground of faith in the “true myth” of the Cross, where the one true King transforms the notorious instrument of his own torture and death into a tree of everlasting life.
History and Celebration of the Feast
The feasts related to the cross arise from particular historical events. The August 1 remembrance of the Procession of the Precious Wood of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord, for instance began in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). It focused on the physical healing promised by the Cross, as the wooden relic was removed from the imperial treasury and carried to the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). It was then carried through the city for healing prayer.
The second feast, one of the 12 Great Feasts, is the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, or the Elevation of the Cross. The feast recalls two events, the finding the Cross by St. Helen in 326 and the recovery of the cross from the Persians who sacked Jerusalem nearly 300 years later.
In our obsession with fact, we have tended to misunderstand tradition. At its simplest, both tradition and history are what someone has handed down (Latin: tradere, “to deliver, hand down”). Our entire knowledge of Jesus’ life depends on tradition. We place our faith in God, who delivers that knowledge to us. As Paul says of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” Notice: Paul wasn’t present at the Last Supper; those who were there had told him what occurred. In an important sense, then, tradition and history can be synonyms.
According to tradition, then, Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helen, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326. She planned to visit the holy sites of Jesus’ life, and she determined to find the site of the crucifixion and the Cross itself. Some accounts of the story picture her interrogating Jewish leaders, threatening them with torture or death to learn the resting place of the cross. She and Makarios, the bishop of Jerusalem, worked together in the search. And when they learned the site was covered by a temple to Venus, the emperor ordered the temple razed. Underneath it, Helen found not one but three crosses, along with four nails. Some accounts say the inscription—”Jesus, King of the Jews”—identified the Cross of Christ; others say it healed the sick and/or raised the dead. In any case, Helen returned to Rome with the relics, and Constantine had a basilica (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) built on the site. It was dedicated on September 14, 335.
To modern ears, most of this sounds incredible. But the story certainly captured the hearts of the early Christians. Just 25 years later, Cyril of Jerusalem (ca 313-386) wrote, “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. … His Passion then was real: for He was really crucified, and we are not ashamed thereat; He was crucified, and we deny it not, nay, I rather glory to speak of it. For though I should now deny it, here is Golgotha to confute me, near which we are now assembled; the wood of the Cross confutes me, which was afterwards distributed piecemeal from hence to all the world.”1 In more modern times, John Henry Newman (1801-1890) suggests that St Helen “seems to have been animated by a hope, surely not presumptuous, that she was under a guidance greater than human.”2
Historical origins of the feast aside, the worship puts most in view the meaning of the Cross, and it does so before the feast even begins. The heart of Galatians 6:11-18, one of the previous Sunday’s readings, contains one of St Paul’s best-known statements about the Cross: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (vv. 14-15). Further, the Gospel reading points to the Cross as a fulfillment of Old Testament events: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). The Vespers reading from the night before continues and expands this look at the Old Testament with Exodus 15:22 – 16:1, which includes the account of bitter water made sweet by “a log” (v. 25).
Readings of the Old Testament like this shouldn’t surprise us. The Church Fathers understood that just as Jesus’ birth and life were prophesied and prefigured in the Scriptures, so was his death. And they saw the wood of the Cross everywhere in the Old Testament. Cyril of Jerusalem saw it in paralleled in the Tree of Life in Eden: “The tree brought ruin to Adam; the tree [of life] shall bring you into paradise.” 3 Gregory of Nyssa saw it throughout the binding of Isaac: The whole mystery of faith can be seen in the story of Isaac. The lamb is fixed to the tree, suspended by its horns: the first-born carried upon him the wood for the sacrifice. He, then, who upholds the universe by the word of his power, is the same who bears the burden of our wood, and is hung up on the wood, upholding as God, and carried as the lamb.”4 Justin Martyr saw it prefigured in the ministry of Elisha: “Elisha threw a piece of wood into the stream of the Jordan. By this means, he retrieved from the water the iron of the axe with which the sons of the prophets wished to cut the wood to build their house. So our Christ has ransomed us at Baptism from our heaviest sins by His crucifixion on the wood and Baptism in the water.” 5
In addition to a focus on Christ’s suffering, the liturgy draws attention to the humility of the way of the Cross. In Eastern churches that celebrate the feast, the priest carries the cross out of the sanctuary by a side door, rather than the central or royal door. The priest blesses the four corners of the compass, then bows with the cross as the choir sings 50 times “Lord, have mercy,” reaching the lowest point on the 50th time. Then he rises as they continue to sing, lifting (exalting) the cross as the kyrie is sung 50 times more.
The Meaning of the Feast
What are we to make of this ceremony, this collison between history and tradition, myth and fact? How will we see the Cross exalted in our own lives? Faced with a similar collision of myth and fact on his own journey to Christian faith, C.S. Lewis told his childhood friend Arthur Greeves that, while he was “nearly certain” of the historicity of the Gospels, he still couldn’t understand “how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us here and now—except in so far as his example helped us.” He found the idea of Jesus’ unjust death “either silly or shocking,” especially as it was explained with sacrificial language that he found at best “very mysterious.”
What finally helped him make sense of this was a series of conversations with Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien. He ultimately concluded that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”
And the “myth” works on us in part through the Scriptures. The week after the feast, the readings conclude their work on us with Galatians 2:16-20 and Mark 8:34 – 9:1. The first passage follows Paul’s confrontation with Peter, the one where he checks Peter’s hypocrisy when Jews visit the church at Antioch. Paul explains that the law cannot justify sinners, but faith in the crucified Christ can. He continues, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (verse 20). Peter has trouble letting go of his Jewish identity, the answer is a denial of self and identification with Jesus alone. This is the way of the Cross.
When Jesus explains this way to his disciples, it’s also in response to Peter. Just after his confession of Jesus as Messiah, Peter rejects the future humiliation that Jesus describes. Peter doesn’t have a category for this kind of suffering, even if resurrection waits on the other side. Jesus answers by rebuking Peter, and then he calls his disciples to follow him.
Some have seen in these words a universal call to severe asceticism, to suffering for its own sake. But from its earliest years, the Church has heard in Jesus’ words not only a call to self-emptying, to surrendering one’s ego to the crucified and risen Savior, but a promise that true life comes to those who will follow this way. Eugene Peterson translates Galatians 2:20 in a way that reflects this call and promise:
I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
“The life you see me living is not ‘mine.’” Paul understood that “taking up the cross” meant allowing the King to live his kind of life, the eternal kind of life, in and through him. We face the same choice, have the same opportunity. “Each one of us must take up his own cross,” writes the Monk of the Eastern Church, “not the cross of his choice, but the cross – that is to say, the portion of suffering and trial – that God has assigned to him especially, and which is one of the aspects of the cross of Jesus himself.”
And when we take up our cross, it is our way of elevating the Cross, and the means of execution becomes a means of exaltation. And as St Andrew of Crete said, “The Cross is exalted, and everything true is gathered together.
–The Stations of the Cross, sometimes called the Way of the Cross, is a traditional devotional cycle practiced since at least the 16th century. Christians visit and pray at each of 12-14 “stations” (from Latin statio, “a standing”) that represent events during Jesus’ Passion. It’s commonly practiced on Fridays (fast days in the Roman Catholic Church) and during Lent. Consider visiting a church in your area with an installation, or view an online version like this one.