Rewritten from a post by the same title on the Old Athanasius Contra Mundum, 14 September 2009.
Today is the feast of the exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is a distinct feast from the finding of the true Cross by St. Helena, which is commemorated in March. This feast, commemorates the victory of the Eastern Roman Empire over the Persians in the 7th century, and the recovery and return of the cross to Jerusalem. In most Traditional Missals there will be a short description of the event, that Heraclius, the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, could not enter the city with the cross because of some spiritual force which stopped him. When he asked the bishop, he was told that it was because he was dressed in kingly robes. To enter, he had to dress in rags, so as to not carry the cross into Jerusalem in a manner above our Lord who carried it in rags. After that he was able to carry the cross in.
However there is much more to this story, and the background history deserves to be told. In the year 570, the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, Maurice, supported Khusru, or Khusroes II (sometimes written Chosroes in western history books) to the throne in Persia, and gave Roman aid to his cause. (Roman here refers to what scholars call the “Byzantine empire”, but I use Roman generally speaking since it was the accepted term by which the Byzantines called themselves as well as what their enemies called them). Khusroes showed his gratitude by ending the war with Constantinople, and ceded to the Eastern Empire half of Armenia, which had long been disputed. After hundreds of years there was peace between Rome and Persia.
Then something else happened. In the year 602, The emperor Maurice was overthrown, and replaced by Phocas, a centurion who was selected by the troops present. He was little more than a monster, who murdered all of Maurice’s family save a few, was a rapist and a completely inept leader. He was entirely ineffectual against incursions by Avars, Slavs and assorted steppe peoples, emptied the treasury and brought the Eastern Empire to near destruction. He was unable to restore order when Monophysite mobs rose all over Syria and Egypt and killed orthodox bishops, replacing them with heretics.
Theodosius, a surviving member of Maurice’s family, escaped to Persia to Maurice’s friend and ally, Khusroes. What landed in his lap was a sequence of events few leaders could hope for. Politically, he could march on the Eastern Empire as Theodosius’ champion, much as Maurice had done for him. He could also use it to take control of a good chunk of territory, if not destroy the Roman Empire for good and reestablish ancient Persia, and on top of that Phocas was a murderer and a barbarous tyrant which appeared to give him the moral right. Best of all he had a pretender he could place on the throne loyal to him.
Though slow to get started, under Khusroes the Persians invaded the Levant and took every city from Antioch to Alexandria, including Jerusalem in 608. They took the true Cross from the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, and brought it back with them to Persia, and were prepared to march on Constantinople. It appeared as if the Eastern Empire was to be destroyed. However, there was Africa, where St. Augustine lived and preached and which Justinian’s able general, Belisarius, had recovered a century earlier. Its general, Heraclius was a pious man, fully orthodox, and in 610 he set sail for Constantinople with an army, and an icon of Our Lady on the masthead of his flag ship. The coup was almost instant, everyone wanted Phocas gone, and he was killed by a mob.
Heraclius was crowned in the Church of St. Stephen and could now set on the task of saving the Empire. Phocas had ruined the treasury, and sunk the last gold in the Bosphorus to keep Heraclius from getting it. To fight the Persians, who now marched on Constantinople after three years of unbroken victory, Heraclius needed an army. The loss of Jerusalem had inspired temporary reunion of the Monphyistes, and inspired the Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople to offer to Heraclius all the gold available at that time in the Churches for equipping, feeding and transporting an army. For two years the emperor raised this army. Then in 622, he prayed at Hagia Sophia on Easter Monday then embarked with his troops and an image of Jesus Christ as the army’s banner to Asia Minor, where he won victory after victory and drove the Persians back. He made straight for Persia, preparing to devastate it. He made an alliance with a Mongol people, the Khazars, and with their troops and his own (plus reinforcements of troops which had broken a Persian siege of Constantinople when he was away) he swept into Mesopotamia with a huge force, and smashed Khusroes near the ruins of Nineveh. The latter fled and was killed in an uprising while hiding in the mountains. Peace was made with Persia, and the true cross was returned to Jerusalem, which Heraclius brought to Jerusalem himself. That is the principle event which is commemorated in the liturgy today.
It is worth noting, that in 625, while Heraclius was pursuing his strategy of going straight at the enemy to draw them off from the difficult to defend heart land of Anatolia, the Persians and a Steppe tribe called the Avars, jointly besieged Constantinople. With the army away in Persia, it looked disastrous, and the people prayed to the Blessed Virgin, carrying on vigils and prayers, Liturgies, and processions, and composing a hymn which remains in the Eastern Tradition even today, the Akathistos (Akathist) hymn. Suddenly a hurricane appeared and scattered the Persian fleet, while at the same time creating havoc in the Avar camp and led to their retreat. With the siege being broken, more Roman troops could join Heraclius in the East.
The Tradition is that the Emperor, upon arriving with the cross at Jerusalem, attempted to enter but found himself prevented by an invisible force. He could not enter the city. St. Zacharias, the patriarch of Jerusalem, informed him that he could not carry the cross which the king of kings carried in rags, while he wore kingly robes. Therefore Heraclius divested himself of his royal garments, and wearing a simple tunic he was able to bring the true cross into Jerusalem without any further obstruction.
Pope St. Leo the Great, in a sermon, wrote a marvelous Latin prose which is used in the Breviary today:
O admirabilis potentia Crucis! o ineffabilis gloria passionis, in qua et tribunal Domini, et judicium mundi, et potestas est Crucifixi! Traxisti enim, Domine, omnia ad te, et cum expandisses tota die manus tuas ad populum non credentem et contradicentem tibi, confitendae majestatis tuae sensum totus mundus accepit. Traxisti, Domine, omnia ad te, cum in exsecrationem Judaici sceleris, unam protulerunt omnia elementa sententiam, cum, obscuratis luminaribus coeli, et converso in noctem die, terra quoque motibus quateretur insolitis, universaque creatura impiorum usui se negaret. Traxisti, Domine, omnia ad te, quoniam scisso templi velo, Sancta sanctorum ab indignis pontificibus recesserunt, ut figura in veritatem, prophetia in manifestationem et lex in Evangelium verteretur.
If your Latin is a bit week I have rendered it here:
How amazing is the power of the Cross! O how unutterable is the glory of the Passion, in which is the Lord’s judgment-seat, and the judgment of the world, and the might of the Crucified one! You have drawn all things to yourself, o Lord! and although you spread out your Hands all the day unto an unbelieving and opposing people, nevertheless, the world has felt and owned your Majesty! Lord! You drew all things unto yourself when all the elements advanced one opinion on the curse of the Judaic crime, when the lights of the firmament were darkened, day turned into night, earth quaked with strange tremblings, and all God’s work refused itself to be of use to the impious. You drawn all things unto thee O Lord, because the veil of the Temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, the Holy of Holies itself slipped away from unworthy Priests, that the figure might be changed into truth, prophecy into realization, and the Law into the Gospel.
However, there is one more important facet to this story. Heraclius had returned to Constantinople, and the patriarch Sergius, bowing to pressure from those who thought Church riches ought not to have been given for worldly ends (no matter how necessary), demanded repayment of all the Church’s wealth in full. No man could have seen the firestorm about to come from Arabia, it appeared as if no enemy remained for the Romans to fight, with Persia having been completely laid low and reduced to a conquered nation which sent tributes to Constantinople. Thus it seemed wise to reduce the military apparatus to the same level of weakness it had prior to the Persian assault. There is a tradition, which the Muslims have preserved in the Al-Hadith, that Mohamed had written to Heraclius encouraging him to make the Romans subject to Islam, but all historians, including Islamic ones, agree that it post dates Mohamed and could not be genuine. Whatever the truth of that, no one expected the Arabs to break out of Arabia, and when they did do so, the Eastern Roman Empire was woefully unprepared. To make things worse, Heraclius in later life developed a phobia for water, and refused to cross the Bosphorus, but he did send a decent army to Syria which was subsequently defeated by the Arabs, when a sandstorm rose up. The rest, is another story.