In the early 4th century, the Roman world hovered on the brink of civil war. Constantine, fighting for control of the empire, looked into the ancient sky and to his amazement saw emblazoned the cross of Christ along with the words in hoc signo vinces, “In this sign, victory.” This became the insignia of Constantine’s army, who went on to secure the empire for him by crushing his rival Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge.
Contrast that to a time centuries later when, during the Second World War, a Nazi official attending a dinner party remarked that he much preferred the ancient pagan gods to the God of the Christians. To him, true godhood was found in the image of the commanding, conquering Zeus; not the suffering, crucified Christ.
It seems that such disparate views remain to this day. On the one hand, the cross is arguably the most popular icon of Christianity; its silhouette dots our landscape, adorns our homes. We enshrine it in jewelry and even trace its outline our bodies. On the other hand the cross conjures up images of humiliation, rejection, suffering, and failure. We use it as a put-down, calling people or things a cross; we complain of the crosses we bear; we pray that they are taken away.
It is a mistake to see these views as opposed; they are in fact two sides of the same coin. On this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, let us contemplate more deeply what the cross signifies.
First, the cross is a sign of obedience. As we read in Philippians, Jesus Christ was glorified, but only by emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, and humbly accepting even death on a cross. Thus, the cross is a sign of defeat, but it is the defeat of self-will through obedience to the will of God; it is the triumph of Christ-like selflessness.
Second, the cross is a sign of love. In fact, the cross combines the greatest commandment – to love the Lord God with our whole heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves – with the greatest love – to lay down our lives for one another. The suffering is obvious; a love so deep requires that we die to ourselves. Yet the triumph is equally obvious: this love is deeper than death and unites us with the Trinity, who is Love itself.
Finally, the cross is a sign of victory. It is the apparent irony seen throughout salvation history that God works for good by turning evil upon itself. It was Pharaoh who pronounced the curse by which his own people would most suffer: the death of every firstborn. In the desert it was the emblem of the serpent, reminiscent of the one whose envy brought death into the world, that would be lifted up on a tree as a sign of healing and life. It was Caiaphas, plotting to have Jesus executed, who unwittingly prophesied that it was better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish. It was the Roman governor Pilate who first asked “What is truth?” and then went on to write the truth fixed to the top of the cross: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Ultimately it was those in power, both nation and empire, who lifted Jesus up on the most humiliating instrument of death only to watch helplessly as he transformed it into the instrument through which death itself would die and by which the truly repentant would, like the Good Thief, receive the gift of eternal life with God.
In hoc signo vinces; in this sign, victory. We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.