Today's feast commemorates the exposition of the (supposed) True Cross at Jerusalem in the year 629 by the Emperor Heraclius. He had just recovered the True Cross from the Persians, who had captured it in 614. The exposition actually happened in the spring, but our celebration of September 14 is the result of confusing this incident with an earlier commemoration kept in Jerusalem on this date: the dedication of Constantine's basilica of the Holy Sepulcher (which had been destroyed by the Persians in 614). So, in a way, this is a feast in honor of an event and in honor of an object, the True Cross.
The idea that the True Cross still existed was important to many people over the centuries, and many people searched for this relic. The Emperor Constantine's mother, St. Helena, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and, amazingly, almost three hundred years after the crucifixion, discovered the True Cross. It is a powerful and attractive relic, and pieces of the True Cross were popular souvenirs in the Holy Land for centuries. From what I understand, if all the pieces of the True Cross were assembled together, we would have a giant cross, probably big enough for Oral Robert's 900 foot Jesus. And some people are still finding the True Cross. I have always been interested in the way religion is portrayed in supermarket tabloids; in fact, I wrote a paper on Tabloid Eschatology when I was in seminary. This all started when the Lovely Mona bought me a copy of the (late lamented) Weekly World News which had a fascinating article on the cover. The True Cross had been discovered in Jerusalem! Those who found it knew it was the True Cross not because a bishop had told them so, and not because it was emanating healing rays from the wood. No, they used science to determine its authenticity. The scientists compared the DNA from the blood stains on the wood of the cross with the DNA from the blood stains on the Shroud of Turin! AND THEY MATCHED!!! However, I have yet to hear of this discovery from any Theological Review or even BAR.
In reality, a cross is a terrible thing. It is a means of execution, it is a device of death, and a device for a slow and painful death. Yet this device for executing criminals has become an object of art, a piece of jewelry. It is also a symbol of victory. The procession in many churches is led by a bejeweled cross, and many of us wear highly ornate crosses around our necks. How could this terrible object become a thing of beauty? In the gospel attributed to John, Jesus, in conversation with the Twelve, told them that the Son of Man would be glorified when he was lifted up from the earth and drew all people to himself. It can be difficult to understand how allowing oneself to be executed can glorify God, but I think it is explained well in the hymn found in the letter of Paul to the Christians in Philippi. Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. He took on the form of a slave, he was born in human likeness. God because a human being and lived among us and did human things, such as being born, going to school, eating and drinking with people like us, eating and drinking with sinners like us. God became human and did human things, even the human act of dying. But he didn't take an easy death; Jesus allowed himself to be executed and died a terrible, painful death on a cross. He was humble and obedient to the point of death on a cross. Jesus said that there is no greater love than to give one's life for one's friends, and Jesus gave his life for all. There are times in our lives when we experience pain and suffering, in fact, some people experience pain and suffering daily, and it can be hard to believe that anyone, including God, can understand this pain. But God, as a human being, did experience pain and suffering, just as so many of us do. It was at that dark moment of suffering, that dark moment of loneliness, of darkness, that God, as one of us, experienced the pain and suffering of humanity. It was then that God's love for humanity was fully expressed. God suffered pain and death, even death upon a cross, to show love for all of humanity. This great love, expressed through death on a cross, is what makes this Holy Cross, this device of execution, something of great beauty, a symbol of salvation, a symbol of victory. That is why this Holy Cross is a symbol of the greatest love there is.