[no_toc] MANY OF THE FEASTS we celebrate each year have a special rite connected with them. The Great Sanctification of Water on the Theophany, the hajme service on Pascha and the veneration of icons on the Sunday of Orthodoxy are perhaps the best-known examples of these festal observances.
There is also a special rite proper to the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross (September 14) called, appropriately, the Exaltation of the Cross. During the Great Doxology at Orthros the cross, adorned with flowers and herbage is brought in procession to the center of the church where it is placed on a table or analogion. Everyone then makes three prostrations before the cross. After this, the priest raises the cross high and, facing East, intones a petition. The chanters respond by singing Lord, have mercy one hundred times as the priest blesses the East with the holy cross. He does the same successively facing North then West then South and then East again as he circles the table. He intones the kondakion of the Holy Cross and blesses the people. The cross is placed on the table and everyone makes three prostrations before it, singing “We bow in worship before Your cross, O Master, and we sing praise to Your holy resurrection.” Then everyone in turn venerates the cross. In some churches this rite of exaltation is performed after the Divine Liturgy.
The Discovery of the Cross
This rite is a reenactment of something that happened spontaneously when the cross was first discovered at the excavation for the Church of the Anastasis during St Helena’s expedition to the Holy Land in AD 326-328. The fourth-century Church historian Socrates Scholasticus described what took place in his Historia Ecclesiastica.
The site of Christ’s death and resurrection had been covered over by a pagan temple during the Roman persecutions of the Church. St Helena had the temple destroyed to uncover the sacred site. Three crosses were discovered buried near the Lord’s tomb. The title placed on the Lord’s cross (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) was lying with the crosses but it was not clear on which of the three crosses the Lord had been crucified. The Bishop of Jerusalem, Makarios, had each of the crosses placed in turn on a terminally ill woman. When this woman was healed at the touch of the third cross, it was taken as a sign that this was the cross of Christ.
When local Christians heard of this discovery, they all wanted to see the Lord’s cross of the Lord and to venerate it. Bishop Makarios, took the cross onto a raised platform and lifted it on high, ‘exalting’ it, for all to see. The people fell to their knees, bowing down before the cross and crying out repeatedly: Kyrie eleison!
As Theodoret of Cyr (393-457) described it in his Ecclesiastical History, Chapter 17, St Helena “… had part of the cross of our Savior conveyed to the palace. The rest was enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be transmitted uninjured to posterity.”
Veneration of the Cross
We know from the journal of the Spanish pilgrim-nun Egeria that the cross was venerated on Holy Friday, despite an unusual risk:
“Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the [liturgical] Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and [the wood] is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it.
“It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest anyone approaching should venture to do so again.
“And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring.”
Recovery from the Persians
In 602 the Persian Sassanian Shah began a 26-year long war against the Byzantine/ Roman Empire. In 614 Sassanian troops conquered Jerusalem and appointed two prominent Jews as its rulers. After only a few months Christians in the city rebelled, but the uprising was quickly crushed. The Persians retaliated by seizing the holy cross and taking it to their capitol as spoils of war.
In 628 a new Shah made peace with the Byzantines. Palestine was returned to Roman control and on March 21, 630 the Emperor Heraclius marched triumphantly into Jerusalem bearing the precious cross. The Emperor, taking off his shoes and his imperial robes, carried the cross into the Anastasis where it was once again triumphantly exalted. It was then resolved that the Feast of the Cross be celebrated throughout the empire, for which reason it is called the Universal Exaltation.
All the Earth Glorifies the Cross
When St Helena found the crosses at the site of Christ’s tomb she noticed a fragrant plant, then unknown in Rome, which she named basil, the royal plant. In the Middle East the cross is adorned with basil leaves at the ceremony of the exaltation. The basil is then distributed to the worshippers.
In the Slavic Churches the ceremony of the exultation is generally performed only by the bishop in his cathedral or an abbot in his monastery. During the ceremony the cross is often showered with rose petals which are then dipped in rose water and given to the faithful.
While the clergy and people are venerating the holy cross, the following is sung:
Come, you people, and look on this marvelous wonder! Let us venerate the power of the cross. In Paradise a tree brought forth the fruit of death, but life is the blossom of this tree on which the sinless Lord was nailed. Reaping incorruption from it, all the nations cry: “You, who through the cross has laid Death low and set us free – glory to You!”
The sayings of the prophets foretold the holy wood by which Adam was set free from the ancient curse of death. Today, at the exaltation of the cross, all creation raises its voice, asking of God plenteous mercy. O Master, who alone are boundless in Your compassion, be our atonement and save our souls.