Dear Friends in Christ,
Saint Helena (born around 248 and died around 330) was the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, and the end of the persecutions that followed Constantine’s conversion made it possible for Christians to worship publicly and without fear throughout the Empire. This new freedom led to two important developments in Christianity: the construction of churches and pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Constantine declared his mother to be Augusta Imperatrix, gave her access to the imperial treasury, and then sent her on a mission to Jerusalem to find and mark all of the places associated with the life, death, and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Helena left Rome early in 326, and on first arriving in Jerusalem she arranged for the construction of new basilicas in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. Then her team began excavations at the site believed to be Golgotha, and on 14 September they discovered three wooden crosses buried at the place of the crucifixion. A woman who was near death was asked to touch these three, and she was completely healed on touching the last one which was then acclaimed as the Holy Cross of Christ. Before leaving Jerusalem, Helena ordered the digging to continue with a view to building churches at the locations of the death and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. She returned to Rome in 327, taking with her significant portions of the Holy Cross and large quantities of earth from the Holy City, both of which she placed in the chapel of her personal residence, a building that became after her death the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
Excavations continued in Jerusalem until both the place of the crucifixion and the tomb in which the Lord Jesus was laid were clearly identified, at which time construction began of three separate buildings of great magnificence. The Calvarium was built over the spot of Christ’s death, the Anastasis was built over the tomb from which the Lord Jesus rose to new life, and between them was built a connecting basilica called the Martyrium. In glorious liturgies over two days in 335, these three places of worship were dedicated to God, and the celebrations concluded on September 14th – the anniversary of the date on which Helena first found the Holy Cross nine years before. From that day to this, 14 September has been kept in the sacred liturgy as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Those three buildings were destroyed by the Persians in 614, rebuilt in 626, and then destroyed again in 1009 by Muslims. Finally, in 1149 a new Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated (and still stands) which includes under one roof both the place of Christ’s death and the place of His Resurrection. This Wednesday is 14 September, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and all are encouraged to attend Mass. But if you can’t make it to Mass, at least pause during the day and give thanks for our salvation with this acclamation: We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.