Butler’s Lives of the Saints – The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

detail from 'Saint Helena' by Cima da Conegliano, c.1495Article

A.D. 629.

The miraculous appearance of the cross to Constantine, and the discovery of that sacred wood by Saint Helen, gave the first occasion to this festival, which was celebrated under the title of the Exaltation of the Cross on the 14th of September, both by the Greeks and Latins as early as in the fifth and sixth ages, at Jerusalem from the year 335. The recovery of this precious instrument and memorial of our redemption out of the hands of the infidels, in the reign of Heraclius, in the seventh century, was afterwards gratefully commemorated on the same day: and the feast of the Invention or Discovery of the Cross has been removed in the Latin church to the 3d of May ever since the eighth century. The history of the recovery of this sacred relic from the Persians is gathered from the continuation of the Paschal Chronicle, Theophanes, Cedrenus, and other historians.

Chosroes II, the most barbarous and perfidious king of Persia, availing himself of the weakness of the reign of the cruel and covetous usurper Phocas, broke peace with the empire, upon the specious pretext of revenging the murder of the Emperor Mauritius and his family, whom Phocas had most inhumanly massacred; but the conduct of this barbarian showed how opposite his views were to those of public justice, and that his aim was merely to gratify his ambition, and his implacable hatred of the Christian and Roman name. The Persians, meeting with no opposition, plundered Mesopotamia and part of Syria. Heraclius, prefect of Africa, being pressed by the chief statesmen and senators to assume the purple, and rid the empire of a usurper, went with his forces by sea to Constantinople, after a successful battle made Phocas prisoner, and put him and his children to death in the year 611, the tyrant having reigned eight years and four months. The new emperor, by suppliant entreaties, begged a peace of Chosroes, with the proffer of an annual tribute; but the haughty barbarian dismissed his ambassadors without an audience, and in the first year of the reign of Heraclius the Persians took Edessa and Apamea, and advanced as far as Antioch; in the second they took Cæsarea, in Cappadocia; in the fourth Damascus, and in the fifth (which was the year 614), in the month of June they possessed themselves of Jerusalem, filling that city with outrages which cannot be mentioned without horror. Many thousands of clerks, monks, nuns, and virgins were cruelly massacred, ninety thousand Christians were sold for slaves to the Jews, and afterwards many of them were tortured and slain. The churches, even that of the holy sepulchre, were burnt, and all the rich moveables were carried away, among which were an infinite number of consecrated vessels, many precious relics, and that part of the wood of the true cross, which had been left there by Saint Helen. The patrician Nicetes found means, by the help of one of the friends of Sarbazara, the Persian general, to save two holy relics, namely the sponge with which the soldiers gave our Saviour vinegar to drink; and the lance which pierced his side; both which he sent to Constantinople. The sacred sponge was exposed to the view of the people in the great church, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, on the 14th of September, the same year. The sacred lance was brought thither on the Saturday, the 26th of October: it was publicly venerated in the great church on the following Tuesday and Wednesday by the men, and on Thursday and Friday by the women. The patriarch Zachary was carried away captive into Persia, with a great multitude of other persons. During his absence the abbot Modestus took care of the city of Jerusalem, and began to rebuild several churches and monasteries that had been destroyed. The next year the Persians took Alexandria, and plundered all Egypt; and in the year following they conquered Carthage. These losses and calamities forced Heraclius again suppliantly to beg peace of the victorious tyrant, who laughed at his request, and blasphemously declared: “That he would never let those men rest, so long as they should adore one who had been crucified by other men, and should refuse to worship the sun.” Heraclius depending wholly upon the Saviour of the world, whose glory he was to assert, in the extreme poverty of the state, borrowed the gold and silver which was found in the churches, and coined it into money, to raise an army for the protection of his subjects. Saez, lieutenant-general to the Persian king, took Ancyra, pillaged all Galatia, and being advanced as far as Chalcedon, offered to treat of peace. Heraclius sent to him seventy noblemen of great worth to negotiate with him; but the perfidious infidel put them all in chains, and carried them into Persia. When he arrived there, his master caused him to be flayed alive, because he had not brought with him Heraclius himself, whom he had once seen, and had received presents from.

The emperor resolved at length to carry the war into Persia itself, to oblige the infidels to return home for the defence of their own country. That he might not leave any enemies behind him, he concluded a peace with the chan of the Turci Avari, who had attacked him on the side of Thrace, and in the year 622, the twelfth of his reign, began his march towards Persia immediately after Easter. When he put himself at the head of his army, holding in his hand a picture of Jesus Christ, he protested to his soldiers, that he would never abandon them till death, and set before them how the enemies of God had overrun their country, rendered their cities desolate, laid the countries waste before them, burnt the sanctuaries, profaned the holy altars with blood, and defiled the sanctuary of the most holy places by their brutal lusts and debaucheries. With this army he defeated the Persians the same year in Armenia, and in the ensuing summer took the city of Gazac, in Persia, and burnt in it the fine temple, and the palace of Chosroes, in which was a rich statue of that prince, sitting under a dome, which, represented the heavens with the sun, moon, and stars, and round about it angels holding sceptres in their hands, with machines to make a noise like thunder. Leading his army back to take winter quarters in Albania, he there, out of compassion, released fifty thousand Persian captives he had brought with him, and supplied them with necessaries; which act of humanity made them all to pray with tears for his success, and that he might deliver Persia from a tyrant, who by his cruelty and exactions was the destroyer of mankind. The emperor’s campaigns in 624 and 625, were still more successful against numberless armies of the enemy. Sarbazara, a Persian general, arrived with a strong army before Chalcedon, and was seconded by the perfidious chan of the Avari, who, having broken the truce, attacked Constantinople on the European side of the Straits. They were, however, both repulsed by the Christians in July, 626, and in their disorder slew one another. This deliverance was looked upon as miraculous, obtained by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, as the Paschal Chronicle, Theophanes, and particularly Cedrenus relate.

On the 12th of December, in 627, Heraclius gave the Persians an entire overthrow, almost without any loss on his side, near the ruins of the ancient city of Ninive, under the command of Rezastes, who was himself found among the slain, with his shield and armour of massy gold; and with him fell most of the field officers and the greater part of the Persian army. The proud Chosroes was driven from town to town, yet continued obstinately deaf to all proposals of peace. Heraclius, in his pursuit, burnt down all the king’s houses of pleasure, but often released prisoners without a ransom, though the barbarian detained even his ambassadors. The disdain with which Chosroes rejected all means of peace, even though Heraclius was master of the greater part of Persia, extremely exasperated his subjects; and his general, Sarbazara, who was near Chalcedon, upon information that his master had condemned him to die, openly revolted from him to the Romans. Chosroes locked himself up with his wives and children in the strong city of Seleucia, on the Tigris, and being there seized with a dysentery, declared Mardesanes or Medarses, his son by Sirem, the most beloved of his concubines, his successor, and ordered preparations to be made for his coronation. His eldest son, Siroes, provoked at this injustice, appealed to the nobles, took up arms, released the Roman prisoners, whom he sent back to Heraclius, seized on his father, bound him in chains, and threw him into a strong dungeon which Chosroes had lately fortified to keep his treasures in. Exasperated more and more at his father’s arrogance, even though the tyrant saw himself in his power, Siroes set no bounds to his rage, allowed him only a small quantity of bread and water for his subsistence, and bade him eat the gold which he had amassed by the oppression of so many innocent people. He sent his satrapes and his enemies to insult him, and caused Mardesanes, whom he would have crowned, and all the rest of his children, to be murdered before his eyes. In this manner was the old king treated for five days together, during which time he was frequently shot at and wounded with arrows, but not mortally, that his death might be the more lingering. He expired on the fifth day of these wounds. Thus, by God’s just judgment, perished Chosroes II by the hands of an unnatural son, having himself mounted the throne by imbruing his hands in the blood of his father, Hormisdas, and filled not only his own kingdom, but all the East, with murders and desolation, during a reign of thirty-five years. Siroes concluded a firm peace with Heraclius, released all the Roman prisoners, and among the rest, Zachary, patriarch of Jerusalem; restored the provinces which the Christians had lost, and, among other spoils, the true Cross, which had been carried into Persia fourteen years before by Sarbazara, when he took Jerusalem.

The emperor brought this precious relic with him to Constantinople, where he made his entry with a most splendid triumph. In the beginning of the spring of the following year, 629, he embarked to carry the cross again to Jerusalem, and to return thanks to God in that holy place for his victories. He would carry it upon his own shoulders into the city, with the utmost pomp; but stopped suddenly at the entrance of the city, and found he was not able to go forward. The patriarch Zachary, who walked by his side, suggested to him, that his pomp seemed not agreeable to the humble appearance which Christ made, when he bore his Cross through the streets of that city: “You,” said he, “walk in your gaudy imperial robes; he was meanly clad; you have on your head a rich diadem; he was crowned with a wreath of thorns; you go with your shoes on: he walked barefoot.” Hereupon the emperor laid aside his purple and his crown, put on mean clothes, went along barefoot with the procession, and devoutly replaced the Cross where it stood before. It still continued in the silver case in which it had been carried away, and the patriarch and clergy finding the seals whole, opened the case with the key, venerated it, and showed it to the people. The original writers always speak of this portion of the Cross in the plural number, calling it the pieces of the wood of the Cross, 5 which shows that it consisted of different pieces. This solemnity was performed with the most devout thanksgiving, and honoured with miraculous cures of several sick persons. The ceremony of exposing this sacred relic, as the most lively memorial of the sufferings of our Divine Redeemer, to the veneration of the faithful, on this and several other days, was very solemn, and is often mentioned both before and after the recovery of this part of the Cross from the infidels. With what pomp and respect the like was done with the part of the Cross that was kept at Constantinople, and with what devotion and order the emperor, his court, the clergy, and all ranks among the people assisted at this religious act, is described at length by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogeneta, both on this feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and on certain other solemn days:

“About seven days before the 1st of August, the holy Cross, (i. e. that large portion which Constantine the Great deposited in the imperial palace at Constantinople) was taken out of the holy treasury in which it was kept with other precious relics and rich holy vessels, between the third and sixth ode of matins then singing. It was laid on the ground that the Protopapa or chief priest of the palace might anoint it all over with balsam and precious perfumes. Then it was set up in the church of the palace of our Lady of the Pharos, or opposite to the Pharos, exposed to the veneration of the people. After matins, the clergy of the palace assembled before it, singing hymns, in praise of the Cross, called Staurosima, or, of the Cross. Then the princes and lords came to venerate it before they assisted at the Sunday’s procession, in which they attended the emperor every Sunday and holiday to the divine service in the church of the palace, or on certain great festivals to some other principal church in the city. The chief priest then took up the Cross on his head, having on a purple cassock, and over it a rich Scaramangium, (or great cope which covers the whole body,) and, attended by the clergy and others in procession, carried it through the golden hall, before the oratory of Saint Basil, placed it to be venerated by all the senate; then proceeded to the palace of Daphne, and exposed it in the church of Saint Stephen. On the 28th of July the priests began to carry the Cross through all the streets and to all the houses, and afterwards round the walls of the city, that by the devotion of the people, and their united prayers, God would, through the Cross and merits of his Son, bless and protect the city and all its inhabitants. On the 13th of September it was brought back to the palace, and placed on a rich throne in the Chrysotriclinium, or golden hall, where the clergy sung the hymns in praise of the Cross during its Exaltation there. It was afterwards carried through all the apartments of the palace; then deposited in the chapel of Saint Theodoras. In the evening it was delivered back to the keeper of the sacred treasure. Next morning it was carefully cleansed by the Protopapa and the keeper, and again deposited in the rich case in the treasury.” See the emperor Constantine Porphyrogeneta. In the 11th chapter he writes with what devotion and pomp the three great crosses kept in the great palace were taken out in the third or middle week of Lent, and exposed to veneration; one in the new church of this great palace, another in the church of Saint Stephen, in the palace of Daphne; the third in the patriarchal church of Saint Sophia. All were brought back on Friday in the same week with a procession, torches, adoration of the princes, senate, etc. hymns, etc. as above.

Our Divine Redeemer is the spiritual King of our souls; and it is by the love and spirit of his cross that he must reign in them. By this happy instrument he has rescued us from the power of sin, and conquered death and hell. But do not our sloth and malice still hold out against him? Have the boundless excess of his love, and the omnipotent power of his grace, yet triumphed over our hearts? Is his holy cross planted there? does it daily grow and spread itself in our affections? The spirit of the cross, or of Christ crucified, is the spirit of that perfect humility, meekness, charity, patience, and all other virtues, which he preaches to us by his cross. So long as self-love, pride, sensuality, or impatience find any place in us, we are so far strangers to this spirit of Christ, and enemies to his cross. We justly glory in this holy instrument of our salvation, in this adorable and sweet mystery of love, in this most tender and precious memorial of our infinitely amiable God and Saviour, and of the price by which he has redeemed us, and made us, by so many new strict titles, his own. But can we look on a crucifix, or form the cross on our foreheads, without being pierced with grief, and covered with shame and confusion to see ourselves so little acquainted with it, and its happy fruits; so filled with the contrary spirit of the world? Let us most earnestly and assiduously conjure our loving Saviour, by his holy cross, and by his infinite love and mercy, to subdue our obstinacy, to extinguish in us whatever opposes his sweet reign, perfectly to form his spirit in our hearts, and entirely to subject all our powers and affections to himself. He promised that when he should be exalted on his cross he would draw all things to himself. Is it possible that the malice of our hearts should be able to resist so wonderful a mystery of Love? Let us beg that he fulfil his gracious word to us, and that his spirit of humility, meekness, and pure love may at length triumph in us. Then we shall begin to taste the most sweet hidden manna that is found in the cross, that is, in the devout remembrance and contemplation of that mystery, and in the participation or imitation of it by patient suffering. Then shall we understand the glory, the happiness, and unspeakable advantages and treasures that are its portion.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 September 2013. Web. 23 November 2017. <>