In 614, the Holy City of Jerusalem fell to the Sassanians, the Persians, and the True Cross venerated in the Holy Sepulchre was carried off as plunder. It was a devastating blow for the Christian people, and for the Byzantine – east Roman – empire. But in 627, the Romans got their revenge. Under the emperor Heraclius, they invaded Mesopotamia and defeated the Sassanians at Nineveh. An ensuing peace treaty led to the return of the Cross, which the emperor himself brought back to the holy city. As he approached the gates of Jerusalem, however, he was halted by an angel. For it was not fitting that he should enter in majesty, where the Lord had gone in humility. Therefore, he dismounted from his horse and laid aside his costly garments and took the cross upon his shoulders and so entered into the city.
The recovery of the Holy Cross was a wonderful victory; it ensured the survival of the Roman empire and of Orthodox Christianity; as Heraclius’s modern biographer Walter Kaegi expresses it, it ‘marked the end of a moment in which the empire and the church were in great jeopardy’ – which is why this feast is marked with such great solemnity in the Byzantine rite. The return of the cross marked the triumph of Constantinople and of Orthodoxy.
And yet the victory of Heraclius was nothing to the victory which long before was gained upon the cross, the victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who there trampled down death and blotted out the condemnation that was decreed against us, and gave to us salvation and eternal life.
That above all is what we are celebrating today. As we sing in a hymn for today: ‘Hail Cross, our only hope!’ In it we find salvation and eternal life. It is the ladder which raises us up to heaven to reign for ever in eternal glory.