At this Mass this morning, for the feast of the Holy Cross, we had veneration of a relic of the True Cross. It was a most moving ceremony because all of us know what the cross is like, to some extent, in our lives. In these difficult times it seems the shadow of the cross has fallen on Ireland and we must carry it in the midst of many trials and much bitterness
That, however, is the call of the disciple of Christ; Jesus tells us we must take up our cross and follow him if we wish to be his disciples. When Jesus said these words his followers must have been shocked - for them the cross was a horrible method of execution, one which symbolised not only terrible suffering and disgrace, but one which also signified damnation (A curse on him who hangs on a tree: Deut 21:23, Gal 3:13). They would have been at a loss to figure out why Jesus said this: they understood later after the crucifixion and resurrection. But for them it signified something awful and indeed for many when the cross comes it is awful, so we need to look at it and see Christ himself. That is why we Catholics leave the figure of Christ on the cross - when we look at a crucifix our eyes are drawn to the One who hangs upon it and so we do not feel that we are alone - we are there with Jesus - he is with us.
I love this feast because it is so rich - and consoling. I have always been fascinated with the story of St Helena heading off to the Holy Land when in her late seventies/early eighties to look for the Holy Places and relics. She must have been one great lady. She had it tough in life, she knew what the cross was like, so perhaps this made her strong and kept her active at what then would have been a very advanced age. Her husband divorced her to marry the daughter of the emperor and improve his chances of getting the Imperial throne for himself. Constantine her son, however, did not forget her and made her Augusta (empress) when he won the throne, but I imagine he was a tough cookie and Helena may have had her own problems with him: perhaps there was a Monica-Augustine dynamic there too. Some Christian traditions regard Constantine as a saint.
Contrary to what some say, today's feast does not commemorate the finding of the cross - that event was marked by another feast on the old calendar on May 3rd. This feast today originally commemorated the rescue of the relic of the True Cross once preserved in Jerusalem, but carried off as booty by Persian forces in the 7th century. The recovery of the relic reminded the Church of the victory Christ won for us on the cross, and so this feast, the Exultation of the Holy Cross was instituted. Blessed Pope John XXIII combined the two feasts into one in 1960.