Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Iconography of Exaltation of the Holy CrossSeptember 14

This feast was instituted to commemorate a specific historical event.  Pius Parsch, in his “Church’s Year of Grace” makes the following remark:  “In all such instances a distinction must be made between the event occasioning the feast and its mystery or theological content.  The occasion is dependent upon the historical circumstances in which it was originally embedded; it is only more or less interesting, or could even be legendary.  But the mystery is supra-temporal, affects all, is of universal benefit” (Vol. V, p. 190).  This is true of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  The historical occasion, which could be incorrect or even legendary, was the finding of the true cross.  But on this day the Church is really stressing a mystery: our love and reverence for Christ’s Cross as the sign of our redemption.

On this day, therefore, the Church celebrates the finding of the cross upon which our Lord died.  In the year 326 the mother of the Emperor Constantine, St. Helena, than about 80 years old and having received some private revelations, journeyed to Jerusalem with the intention of discovering the Savior’s tomb and His cross.  Excavations were started under the direction of the bishop of Jerusalem., Macaruis, later honored as a saint.  It was said that Jews had hidden the cross in a well or a ditch and covered it over so that Christians might not find it and venerate it.  Only few Jews knew the place of its burial.  One of them, Judas by name, was moved by divine inspiration to inform the excavators of the spot.  He later became a Christian and is honored as St. Cyriacus.  On the site indicated, three crosses were found.  These were carried, one after the other, to the bedside of a worthy woman who was at the point of death.  The touch of two crosses was of no avail, but upon the touch of that which Christ had died, the woman suddenly recovered.

After this happy discovery, St. Helena and St Constantine erected a magnificent basilica over the Holy Sepulchre, which had been found close by.  This basilica was solemnly blessed September 13, 335, and on the following day the cross of our Lord was triumphantly carried to the new building where bishop Macarius himself raised it into public view.  The people made prostrations before it and sang again and again: “Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy.”

St. Helena divided the Cross into three parts, enclosing each part in a silver reliquary, sending one part to Rome, one to Constantinople and keeping the third part in Jerusalem.

On September 14, moreover, the Church celebrates not only the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, but also its second finding.  In 614 A.D, Chosroes, king of the Persians, having captured Jerusalem, seized the cross and carried it off to Persia.  This incident took place when Phocas was emperor of Byzantium.  His successor, Heraclius, defeated Chosroes on several occasions and in 628 A.D. the unfortunate king was assassinated by his own son, Siroes, who then returned the cross to Heraclius.  The priceless relic was first carried in triumph to Constantinople, then, in the spring of the following year, back to Jerusalem by Siroes, upon his own shoulders.  He found it extremely heavy.   But when at the suggestion of Patriarch Zachary he laid aside his crown and imperial robes, the sacred burden became light and he was able to carry it into the city.

The feast of the Exaltation thus dates back to very early times in Jerusalem and was gradually introduced into other churches, becoming general around the year 720.

During matins, after the Great Doxology, the priest incenses the cross, specially decorated for this occasion, which is placed on the altar.  Raising it above his head, he makes a procession around the altar and, standing before the royal doors, sings “Wisdom stand up!”  Then while the people sing the troparion of the Holy Cross, he incenses the cross once more and, raising it toward the east, sings the first petition of the Insistent Litany.  The people answer, “Lord have mercy,” 24 times.  Then the priest turns to the north and sings the second petition of the same litany.  The people again answer twenty-four times “Lord have mercy.”  The priest then turns west and south singing the next two petitions, after each of which the people repeat the twenty-four fold “Lord have mercy”.  Following this, the priest places the cross on the tetrapod and sings: “We bow to Your cross, O Lord, and we praise Your holy resurrection.”  The people then repeat the same words twice.   The cross remains on the tetrapod for veneration for seven days.

The feast of the Exaltation has a one day pre-festive period and a post-festive period of seven days.  On the feast itself, the Church prescribes fast.

Next Feast Days

September 8 Nativity of the Mother of God
 September 14 Exaltation of the Holy Cross
 October 1 Patronage of the Mother of God
 October 26 Feast of St. Demetrius

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