In Hoc Signo Vinces (‘by this sign shalt thou conquer’):
It’s one of the great turning points of history. In one of the many struggles for supreme power that divided the later Roman empire, a contender named Constantine prevailed at the battle of Milvian bridge, in 312, and went on to assume the imperial diadem. According to the historian Eusebius, the night before his victory, Constantine had seen a vision of the cross in the skies, bearing the inscription, in Latin, In hoc signo vinces, ‘by this sign shalt thou conquer’. What Constantine actually saw has been disputed; what can’t be disputed is that the crucified king of the Jews was adopted as the savior of the Roman Caesar and people. The Roman empire became a Christian empire. And it was Constantine’s mother, the empress Helena, who discovered in Jerusalem the cross on which he was crucified, the trophy of Christ’s victory; a relic housed in the great basilica built by her son over the Holy Sepulchre and the rock of Calvary.
A century and half later, the western empire succumbed to barbarian invasions, but the eastern empire, centered on Constantine’s “New Rome”, the city of Constantinople which he built and named after himself on the Bosphorus, endured, and even reclaimed control of the city of Rome. Constantine had relocated the center of Roman power in the east, partly because Rome’s greatest adversary was Persia; and in 607 AD that ancient rivalry broke out once again. At a time when the Christian Roman empire was convulsed by internal crisis, Persian armies occupied the empire’s rich eastern provinces, and in 614 carried away as a trophy of their victory the relics of the True Cross from Jerusalem. A new Roman emperor, Heraclius, fought back with a daring strategy. Leaving his capital Constantinople to the protection of the walls of Theodosius and of the Roman navy, in 623 he launched a counter-attack, not against the occupied provinces, but against the heartland of the Persian empire itself. It took several years, but he brought the Persian empire to its knees. A coup overthrew the shah, and in 629 his successor made peace with Heraclius, restoring the lost provinces and the True Cross.
The festival of the Holy Cross, on September 14th, has its origin in that restoration. When the emperor carried the sacred relics into the holy city on his own shoulders on this day in 629, he did so with the utmost pomp. At the entrance to the holy places, however, he stopped, as if prevented by unseen forces – and at the prompting of the patriarch of Jerusalem laid aside his splendid vesture and crown, put on simple clothes, and entered the city barefoot, carrying the cross in its silver case on his shoulders.
The humility was not unfitting; for Heraclius’ victory was short-lived. In 636 the Roman army of Syria was decisively defeated by an army of the Arab tribes, united by the teaching of the prophet Mohammed; and Heraclius lived long enough to see the provinces he had won back with such difficulty lost again, and permanently, to the armies of Islam. It’s true that the Christian Roman empire survived, barely, while the Persian one did not; survived and even flourished albeit in diminished form. Only in 1453 – almost a thousand years after Constantine – did Constantinople fall to the Ottoman Turks, and became the capital of that huge Muslim empire. Yet for much of a thousand years, it was the primary bulwark against Muslim expansion into Europe, protecting the nascent Christian civilization that developed there, out of which emerged our own modernity.
What then, In hoc signo vinces? Despite the triumphalism of earthly empires, there is but one kingdom that stands forever, and it is not of this world. Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast out; and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. What we celebrate in the victory of the cross is our deliverance from pride and vainglory, in the triumph of God’s inscrutable providence. At a demoralizing time in our own country’s history, we might do well to renew our faith in the cross:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.
(Image: The altar at St. John’s)