Friday, April 12, 2024

HOLY WEEK: A Good Friday Story of St Helena and the Cross

(Published as part of my book Dear John, released in 2020)

10 APRIL 2020

Good Friday.

Today will hurt because I want it to hurt. This day should not be about celebrations. It should be about unifying our human fallenness to Christ and honoring his suffering and crucifixion.

I wrote a prayer in November of 2019, Thanksgiving week, that embodies the spirit of Good Friday. I share it with you here:

Thank you, Jesus, for staying awake to pray for God’s will, even though you knew what that meant. Thank you for agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane, bringing your pain and requests to your Father. You have given us an example of how to ask things of God but to ultimately say, “Thy will be done.”

Thank you, Jesus, for taking blow after blow at the pillar. It must have killed you to know that your mother had to watch as they scourged you with those terrible lashings. I would have wanted to die right there. But you kept standing up, taking more and more for us.

Thank you, Jesus, for sitting quietly as they mocked your kingship by driving three-inch thorns into your head. You could have shown them exactly what kingly power you had. You could have erased it all, all the pain and all the mockery. But you didn’t. You kept focused on God’s will, even through the blood in your eyes.

Thank you, Jesus, for carrying the cross, which had to have torn an awful gash in your shoulder already opened by the scourging at the pillar. Thank you for continuing to get up after you fell, for giving us an example of what it means to absorb our trials in life on our feet. Your Mother was there and you saw her. How much she loved you. How much she wished she could take that pain upon herself. But you took it. You took it for her. You took it for all of us.

Thank you, Jesus, for hanging on the cross for three hours, barely able to breathe, watching as very few of your friends stayed around to be with you. Thank you for these last few hours of your life, at least your first one, for it shows us that we too can die to ourselves with dignity if we just keep our eyes on you.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Amen.

It is yet another day to stay put in the waters of his mercy, to practice the excruciating virtue of waiting.

Ironically on this most solemn day, I am reminded of a fascinating story that does involve the theme of waiting, but not in the sense of long-suffering. It isn’t even a human story, not directly. A few weeks ago on St Patrick’s Day, I read the incredible account of an LSU-themed hard-hat that had been accidentally dropped in the Mississippi River in 2015. After five years, the hard-hat resurfaced, quite literally….

In Ireland.

The hat had travelled more than 4,300 miles around the globe before it finally found human hands. What a metaphor for what it means to wait. If we pray, if we stay close to God and trust him, eventually the hard-hats will start resurfacing for us too. Our prayers will begin to manifest.

I noted the number of years. Five. It was New Year’s Day of 2015 that I started a very urgent novena to St Joseph I knew would take years to fulfill. The hard-hat was lost in 2015. Could 2020 be the year the answer to my prayer pops up on the coast of Ireland? It is one of the anchors I hold strong to in my waiting.

Today, of all days, I can certainly offer up this trial to Christ on the cross. It is the least I can do as I stay at his feet today.

Yesterday’s encounter with Abraham is an eerie reminder to me that his story in the Old Testament prefigures God’s sacrifice of Christ in the New. The Father stayed Abraham’s hand with his son, yet he did not do the same with his own. As the infamous John 3:16 states, “God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.”

We honor that ultimate sacrifice today, a most good Friday in our faith.

I was sitting on a bench by the lake this morning, trying to clear my mind to listen to God, when a woman stepped out of her Jeep and started walking toward the trash bin with a bag. I looked away, thinking nothing else of it. Then I saw her come back twenty minutes later and move toward a table closer to the lake with a similar bag. I made very little connection between the two, and again looked away.

Minutes later, I walked across the street to my car, backed out, and was set to drive off, when I saw the first bag again. She hadn’t thrown it away as I guess I’d assumed. Nor had I even seen it when I just walked to my car. As I said, I hadn’t thought anything of what the woman was doing earlier.

But now I did.

I parked and went to see what the bag was.

It was a pile of Easter goodies packed in individual plastics bags for the homeless, with a Scripture passage attached for all to read: John 20:19.

Since today is Good Friday, I wanted to spend most of it in silence and fasting with Jesus. I just want to be at the foot of the cross with Mary and Mary Magdalene today. But I will tell this quick story….

Last night I watched a program on the sacred sites of Golgotha and Christ’s tomb in the Holy Land. The narrative brought up Rome’s persecution of the Jews for centuries after Jesus’ death, but that Constantine, who was the emperor of Rome in the early fourth century, became the first Roman ruler to convert to Christianity. He would legalize the faith with the Edict of Milan, which of course helped the faith explode all over Europe.

This is where one of my friends, St Helena, comes in. I have prayed to her since my mission trip to Puerto Rico last year, when an old forgotten prayer card, a missed flight, and a chapel named in her honor all converged during one of the most powerful weeks of my life. It is a week I explore in my spiritual memoir The Green Family, a quasi-prequel to this book.

The beautiful Helena was the mother of Constantine. She converted to Christianity, according to the great early Church historian Eusebius, when she was about 63 years of age. With both the blessing and the authority of her son, she journeyed to Palestine to search for the sacred sites of Jesus.

Helena was motivated with the zeal St Louis de Montfort discusses on Day 1 of this retreat. Her spiritual posture is also reminiscent of St Anthony, and many saints, for that matter. Eusebius described her as follows:

“Especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and unprotected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing; she liberated some from imprisonment, or from the bitter servitude of the mines; others she delivered from unjust oppression, and others again, she restored from exile…. In short, this admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct” (The Life of Constantine, XLIV, XLV).

Eusebius here testifies to Helena’s true devotion to the poor and destitute, to the fact that even if she hadn’t discovered what she would soon discover, she would still be considered great in the eyes of the Lord. This burning to help those in need was the soul of her faith, the crux of her love for Jesus, the substance that sustained her on her pilgrimage to do what would turn out to be miraculous….

During this time, Jerusalem was still being rebuilt after Emperor Titus’ destruction of the city in 70 A.D. Pagan temples had been among the structures built, including one dedicated to Venus that was placed over the site of Jesus’ death.

Helena had this temple destroyed.

There is a delicious irony here. The mocking, pagan Romans, by building these temples to stop early Christians from praying at known sacred places, especially where their “Savior” had died, had inadvertently preserved those exact places for later discovery. Helena’s destruction of the temple simply unearthed what the Romans had so derisively tried to hide, in this case, the very place where Christ was crucified.

In search of the true cross of Christ, Helena had the area excavated. The search had subsisted for days with no fortune, when their prayers were finally answered. Helena said it was then that “With sweet smelling dust and a flash of lighting [she] pointed to the place where.”

The diggers went straight to the spot. After all of that hard work and waiting, and likely frustration, God suddenly illuminated the answer.

It is a lesson on the physics of waiting all unto itself.

But there was still a problem for the diggers and Helena. Not one, but three, crosses were found.

Tradition says that Helena, moved by the Holy Spirit, brought a woman near death to the crosses, and she had her place her hand on all three. When nothing happened after she touched the first two crosses but she suddenly recovered after touching the third, Helena knew—she had found the cross of her Lord and Savior.

Constantine would order the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be built there, one of many churches attributed to his mother’s work. Pilgrims pay their homage there to this day, which was the crux of the EWTN programming I caught last night.

That prayer card I rediscovered right before my mission trip last July is now the bookmark for my consecration to Mary book. I read the short prayer on it every day. May your love for Christ and his cross, St Helena, burn in me an even deeper love for the crosses I too must carry, especially now as I yearn for the desire of my heart and struggle through the loneliness brought on by this quarantine. May I continue to dig for the Lord, for his joy and glory, even as the visible blessings of my toil remain hidden.

May you have a holy and blessed Good Friday, one filled with Christ’s mercy.

If you’d like to support my writing, the link to the book is here: