St. Helena was the mother of the emperor Constantine, the emperor who made it legal to practice Christianity.
In the 300s, Helena traveled to the Holy Land to find relics from the life of Jesus. When she arrived there, she found a Roman temple on the traditional site of Jesus' burial and had it torn down so that a church could be built there.
In the course of the excavation, three wooden crosses were found at the site. Thinking that one of them might be the cross of Jesus, Helena came up with a test. A woman who was close to death was brought from the city. Nothing happened when she touched the first two crosses, but when she touched the third one, she was healed. Helena believed that she had found the true cross of Christ and brought pieces of it back to Rome where it was venerated. The Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher was built on the spot and was dedicated on September 14th. That is why we are celebrating this feast day and wearing red vestments, something pretty rare for Ordinary Time.
We continue the veneration of the cross like St. Helena. Every year on Good Friday before Easter, we reverence a bare cross on the night when we remember Jesus' passion and death.
Crosses are found throughout Christian art; we wear them as jewelry around our necks; we make the sign of the cross before we pray. For the Church, the cross has become a sign of hope and life.
For the Jews of Jesus' time and for the very first Christians, it symbolized something very different. The cross meant torture; it meant oppression - a sign of the way the Romans kept the people they conquered under control. The cross was the most notorious way to die.
Jesus died on a cross. He lowered himself to that horrible death. As St. Paul wrote in our second reading, "he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross."
Jesus had humbled himself in becoming one of us. He humbled himself even further by suffering and dying like one of us. But to die on the cross was to embrace the lowest state he could choose. All the cruelty, hate, violence, and selfishness of humanity was on display at the crucifixion. To save us from that, Jesus embraced the cross.
And he transformed it.
Just as the the people of Israel were healed by looking at the image of the very serpent that had poisoned them, we are healed by the very destruction brought about by our sins.
When we stand before the cross, we acknowledge our weakness. In the face of Jesus' humble sacrifice, all of our rejections of his love are shown for what they are.
For the past few weeks, I've been listening to this band from Columbus, Twenty One Pilots. The bridge of one of their songs is the same line repeated over and over: "We're broken people." Imagine a whole concert hall of young people singing that together: "We're broken people."
That is what we do at the beginning of the Mass when we say the Confiteor and "Lord, have mercy." We come before God and say, "Yes, we're weak and imperfect" and he still embraces us. Jesus suffered on the cross out of love and that same love accepts us even though we're not perfect yet.
We are broken people; but Jesus comes into our brokenness, our weakness, and our sinfulness, and makes us sons and daughters of God.