It would be remembered - and remembered forever - as the day when the sky above the Holy City of Jerusalem suddenly caught fire.
Incandescent and white-hot, the tongues of flame were roaring across the horizon on that early morning in the Year of Our Lord 351 ... and they were forming a gigantic, blazing cross!
Stunned senseless by the miracle, the terrified residents of the city fell to their knees and beseeched God to spare them from annihilation. Yet one man - the elderly Jerusalem Patriarch Cyril, who had been praying for just such a sign from the Almighty - witnessed the spectacular apparition with a heart full of joy.
For the faithful Cyril (315-386 A.D.), who had spent much of his adult life in a terrible struggle against several dangerous heresies that threatened the theological purity of the Holy Church, the sudden apparition of the flaming cross was a sure sign that God was standing firmly behind the Patriarch in his fateful battle against the false doctrine known as "Arianism."
Based on the assertion that Christ had not been present as part of God throughout all of eternity, but had simply made His appearance at a particular moment in history, Arianism represented a lethal threat to the orthodox faith of the Holy Church. The danger, of course, was that the world might come to see the Holy Redeemer as a mere mortal - no different than many other prophets, such as Moses or Elijah - instead of acknowledging Him as part of the Holy Trinity, and thus as God incarnate.
In his great wisdom, the valiant Patriarch understood the gravity of the threat from Arianism. And yet this utterly false doctrine seemed to be gaining strength by the hour! Already, enraged Church bishops throughout the Holy Land were demanding that the besieged Cyril either accept the Arian creed or resign from his post as the most influential leader in all of Christendom.
A soft-spoken and humble man who had been raised by pious Christians, St. Cyril had been born in 315 and deeply educated in the Sacred Scriptures. A firmly committed Christian, he had served God as a monk, as a priest and as a presbyter ... before being chosen to succeed the Archbishop Maximos as Patriarch of Jerusalem, upon the latter's death in 350. Within a year of his consecration, however, the growing struggle over Arianism would threaten the future of the Church - with the arrival on the throne of the Roman Emperor Constantius (351-363).
Constantius was a passionate adherent of the heretical doctrine of Arianism, and he staunchly supported the unfaithful bishops who were championing this false belief throughout the empire.
What St. Cyril desperately needed at this hour was a sign from God - a miracle that would be obvious to all, and that would underscore the authority of the Jerusalem Patriarch in this crucially important theological dispute. If only the people could be shown the true path by God, the Church would be saved from terrible error!
Although he was a great leader in the Holy Church of the Fourth Century, Cyril was also a humble monk who loved nothing so much as wandering alone across the vast deserts of ancient Palestine, where he could praise God while also performing ascetic acts of self-denial to his heart's content. Perhaps this was why God answered the saint's fervent prayer for a "sign," on the unforgettable morning when the skies above Jerusalem suddenly burst into brilliant flame!
The amazing revelation began quietly enough. After enduring yet another sleepless night, the struggling Patriarch had awakened near, dawn in order to resume his ceaseless prayers to the Almighty.
Kneeling fretfully in his room at the Patriarchal residence on this early morning of May 7, 351, the uneasy Patriarch was reminding himself that today was the Feast of Pentecost - the holy celebration which commemorates the appearance of the Holy Spirit to the Twelve Apostles. (That blessed event had taken place in Jerusalem, soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.)
As he read from the Pentecost liturgy and prayed to God for help in the theological struggle that loomed ahead, the Patriarch suddenly opened his eyes wide. Was he imagining it ... or had the room in which he was praying somehow become much brighter?
Hurrying over to the window, he gasped in amazement. The skies above the city appeared to be glowing with a fiery light! Not only that - the radiance that filled the horizon had formed a clear image, easily discernible and brighter than the sun. A cross! As thousands of city residents would later confirm, the great Christian symbol now stretched from the Mount of Olives all the way to Golgotha, the scene of Christ's death by crucifixion - a distance of several miles!
As many historians have pointed out over the generations, the astonishing apparition lasted for an entire week, during which many pagans and many followers of Arianism alike were inspired to accept the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ and the true, orthodox faith that the Holy Redeemer had brought to mankind three centuries before.
There was no mistaking the fact that the Patriarch's prayers had been answered. All at once, it was evident to everyone in the Holy City that Almighty God favored St. Cyril in the great struggle over the Arian heresy, and that his authority as the leader of Christianity was not to be challenged.
Immensely heartened by this miraculous intervention, St. Cyril the Patriarch sat down almost immediately and began composing a letter that would become a key weapon in the battle against Arianism. Known as the Letter to the Emperor Constantius, this document would describe the miracle of the apparition in vivid detail, while making it clear that the miracle was a sign from God that the false doctrine of Arianism should not be embraced by the Holy Church.
In the end, the Arian heresy would be fully overcome and exiled to the dustbin of history. For his part, St. Cyril would go on to serve God and the Holy Church with great distinction before finally dying at age 71 (while still holding the office of Patriarch of Jerusalem) , in the year 386. For generations of Christians, the Apparition of the Holy Cross at Jerusalem still ranks as one of the greatest - and most spectacular - miracles in the eternal dialogue between humankind and Almighty God.
Through the miracle of the blazing cross, the true faith of Jesus Christ was protected ... forever!