The True Cross
God forbid that I should glory in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Galations 6: 14
The phrase ‘the true Cross’ has passed into the English language. What does this mean, and what should it mean for us today?
The Emperor Diocletian divided the government of the expanding Roman Empire between himself and Constantius, the Governor of Britain, who had a Christian wife named Helena. But owing to unforeseen circumstances, their son Constantine became Emperor of both east and west. Before a major battle against the last of his rivals Constantine had a vision of a cross in the sky, with the words “In this sign conquer” above it. Ever afterwards, Constantine encouraged the church as an ally of a united Empire and the Cross became a popular symbol, though it is doubtful whether Constantine knew what the Cross meant in his own experience.
His mother Helena, however, became ever more devoted to Christ. Christians had as yet no written Gospels and they no longer had the test of persecution as a focus for their devotion. Helena went on journeys to the Holy Land to find, as a focus for devotion, a fragment of the Cross on which Christ had been crucified. The fragment she believed she found did indeed excite the devotion of many.
The story of Helena and her discovery of the True Cross became the subject of an epic medieval English poem. Some have attributed this to Cynewulf, the eighth century Bishop of Lindisfarne. But Celtic Christians realised that the ‘true’ Cross does not consist in the externals, but in the the experience of total self-giving and sacrifice: that is what Christians have to prize and adopt as their own way. Millions are confused about this. Muslims, for example, think that the Cross stands for the sword, which Christians used in the Crusades in order to re-capture the site of ‘the True Cross’.
The Celts loved another poem about the Cross, The Dream of the Rood. In this poem (which some also attribute to Cynewulf) the poet imagines that the cross-beam on which Christ was nailed (the Rood) could express its feelings. When the Rood has finished speaking the poet dreamer concludes: ‘This is my heart’s desire, all my hope waits on the Cross’. That is ‘the true Cross’.
Lord, make this my heart’s desire also.