The Feast of Holy Cross Day (14 September) is a relatively recent addition to the church calendar for most Lutherans. It was introduced to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod with Lutheran Worship in 1982. Perhaps it remains unfamiliar to many Lutherans in our day. Nevertheless, Holy Cross Day is actually a rather ancient observance in the history of the Christian Church, and there were some Lutherans who retained its observance in the centuries following the Reformation.
The origins of this festival are found in the early decades of the fourth century, when St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, undertook an archeological search for the cradle of Christianity within the city of Jerusalem. That holy city had been rebuilt under the Roman Empire following its destruction in the first century (as our Lord Jesus had prophesied). While some of the details, including the precise nature and extent of St. Helena’s involvement, cannot be established with absolute certainty, there are various reliable witnesses to the basic facts of the case. The presumed sites of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial were uncovered, dug out from under the rubble of Jerusalem’s destruction and rebuilding. Tradition says that three crosses were discovered in this process, and one of these three was presumed to be the cross on which Christ Jesus Himself had been crucified. This was in September of a.d. 320. When basilicas had been erected on these holy sites and were dedicated fifteen years later, in mid-September, a.d. 335, the remnants of that "true cross" were housed within the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. In subsequent years those remnants of the cross were used ceremonially in annual commemoration of these several events, that is, the uncovering of the sacred sites of our Lord’s death and burial, the discovery of the cross, and the dedication of the churches.
A few hundred years later, after the cross had been stolen away to Persia and later recovered under Emperor Heraclius, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the 14th of September celebrated its restoration as well as all of the above historical events. This was an Eastern festival, to begin with, but one that was adopted in the West in due time. In western practice, Holy Cross Day determined the autumn "ember days," the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the feast, when prayers were offered for the fruits of the earth. Thus, the Cross of Christ, by which He redeemed His creation from the curse of sin and death, was raised against the approach of winter.
The Feast of the Holy Cross has similarities to Good Friday in its focus on the Passion of Christ and His death by crucifixion. Celebrated, though, outside the penitential solemnity of Holy Week, the focus of this festival day is more exuberant in its exaltation of the Cross as the instrument by which our Lord has achieved His victory over all the enemies of God and His people. Here He is raised as the ensign of the nations, by which He draws all people to Himself (as He declares in the Holy Gospel of the day). One of the chief hymns appointed for this feast, "Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle" (LSB 454), is also used on Good Friday, but there it is restrained by the reverent sobriety with which we deeply mourn and bewail our sins and iniquities, for which the Lord of Glory was crucified. Here on Holy Cross Day, the same hymn enables us to sing the keynote of the feast: We hail the "faithful cross" as a "true sign of triumph." It is "the noblest tree," excelling all others in foliage, blossom and the abundant fruit of Christ (stanza 4). Thus do we exhort ourselves and others: "Now above the cross, the trophy, sound the loud triumphant lay; tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer, as a victim won the day" (stanza 1).
Although there will always be some question concerning the origins of Holy Cross Day, this festival invites an appropriate and salutary focus on the Cross as the means by which our Lord Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the world, defeated death and the devil, reconciled the world to God, obtained our salvation and glorified the Father’s name. Though His Cross is a foolish scandal to the world, to us who are being saved it is the power and wisdom of God, unto salvation. Thus, with St. Paul, we know nothing but the Cross, preach nothing but the Cross, and boast in nothing but the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. For it is by His Cross that we are crucified, dead and buried with Him in Holy Baptism and in daily repentance, and from the same Cross that we receive the absolution or forgiveness of all our sins, by which we also rise with Christ unto newness of life. This Cross is exalted in our lives by self-sacrificing love for our neighbor, as it is lifted up for us by the preaching of the Gospel, by which we are drawn to Christ in faith and through Him, our great High Priest, brought into the holy of holies made without hands, to our Father in heaven.
Holy Cross Day is another opportunity for the Cross of Christ to be portrayed before our very eyes, preached into our ears, planted in our hearts, and proclaimed with the very lips that have received His Body and His Blood, sacrificed for us upon the Cross, given and poured out for us in the Feast by which His holy and life-giving Cross is commemorated, and by which this holy day is celebrated.