"We extol you, O Lifegiver Christ, and honor your venerable Cross, by which you saved us from the
slavery of the enemy."
(Hymn of Praise in the Matins Service of the Feast)
"The veneration of the Holy Cross of the Lord," - says the Servant of God Andrew Sheptytsky in his pastoral letter on the Holy Cross — "is one of the most significant aspects of the worship of the God-Man... Signing ourselves with the sign of the Cross is one of the oldest customs of Christians."
The Holy Cross is an ever living symbol of God's everlasting love toward us sinners, a symbol of Christ's total self-sacrifice, a symbol of our redemption and salvation, a symbol of Christ's victory over death and Satan. By venerating the holy Cross we honor Christ's sacrifice, passion and death. Whenever we sign ourselves with the sign of the holy Cross, we profess our faith in our Savior.
The Eastern Church holds the veneration of the holy Cross in such high regard it has dedicated several feasts during the year to its honor. The greatest of these is the feast of the "Universal Elevation of the Venerable and Life-giving Cross". Let us consider the history of its institution and the various rites connected with it.
History of the Institution of the Feast
The feast of the Elevation of the Venerable Cross is a very ancient feast. However, like the history of the finding of the Holy Cross of the Lord, the history of the institution of the feast has been obscured by various legends and it is not easy to separate historical fact from pious legend.
One must remember that in celebrating this feast, we are not concerned with the ordinary veneration of the Holy Cross, which takes place on the third Sunday of the Great Fast, but with that aspect of the feast which is expressed in the name of the feast itself-EXALTATION or ELEVATION Cross, that is, a special solemn rite connected with the veneration and glorification of the Holy Cross.
Historians of the Eastern Church generally agree that two particular events gave rise to the institution of this feast: the finding of the Holy Cross of the Lord in the fourth century and its recovery or return from Persian captivity in the seventh century.
The institution of the Feast of the Exaltation was first preceded by the discovery or the finding of the sacred wood of the Cross upon which Christ died. Christian tradition has transmitted to us several different legends about the finding of the Holy Cross, three of which are attributed to St. Helena (†330), the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. The finding of the Holy Cross is believed to have taken place in 326.
Historians who mention the finding of the Holy Cross say nothing about its first exaltation immediately after its discovery, nor does pious tradition give any account of it. The Greek Church celebrates the finding of the Holy Cross on the 6th of March. In the Prologue, this church feast has the title: "The Finding of the Venerable Cross which was discovered by Blessed Helena". The Latin Church celebrated this event on the 3rd of May, but after the reform of the feast days during the reign of Pope John XXIII in 1960, this festival was excluded from the Church Calendar.
The feast of the Exaltation owes its origin to the consecration of the Church of the Resurrection of the Lord, which was erected on Golgotha, in Jerusalem, by Emperor Constantine the Great. This consecration was celebrated very solemnly during the time of Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, on the 13th of September in the year 335. On the day following the consecration, the solemn exaltation or elevation of the sacred wood of the Cross took place. During its elevation, the people exclaimed "Lord, have mercy" many times. Since that time, the Eastern Church each year has celebrated the consecration of the Church of the Resurrection of our Lord on the 13th of September, and the feast of the Exaltation of the Venerable Cross on the 14th of September.
The second important event, which rendered the feast universal in the East as well as in the West, was the return or recovery of the sacred wood of the Cross from Persian captivity. The Persian King Chosroes in 614 had captured Jerusalem and had carried off the Lord's Cross to his capitol in Ctesiphon. Fourteen years later, the Emperor Heraclius (610-641), after his victory over the Persians, recovered the sacred Cross and had it brought back to Jerusalem where, on the 14th of September, a second solemn celebration of the exaltation of the Holy Cross took place. From that time on, the feast bore the name "The Universal Exaltation (Elevation) of the Venerable and Life-giving Cross". Since the feast of the Exaltation called to mind the crucifixion and death of Christ and was given equal rank with Good or Great Friday, it had become a custom of the Church, from the earliest times, to observe a strict fast on this day.
The feast of the Exaltation is one of the twelve great feasts of our Church and has a one day pre-feast and a seven day post-feast. The Saturday and Sunday before and after the Exaltation, carry the name of "The Saturday and The Sunday before or after the feast of the Exaltation", because on those days the Epistle and Gospel speak of the Holy Cross.
Besides the feast of the Exaltation, our Church also pays honor to the sacred Cross on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. On this day, as on the feast of the Exaltation, the Holy Cross is carried out during the matins service and veneration is paid to it, but without the rite of exaltation, i.e., elevation (being raised up), a rite which is only carried out on the feast of the Exaltation.
On the 7th of May the Eastern Church commemorates the "Apparition of the Sign of the Venerable Cross in the sky in Jerusalem". At the time of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, during the season of the Pentecost in the year 351, the Holy Cross appeared in the heavens, extending from Golgotha to the Mount of Olives.
In our Church Calendar, we have still another feast celebrated on the 1st of August, the feast of the "Procession or March with the Sacred Wood of the Cross." That means, there was a procession with a piece of the wood of the Cross which on that day was carried from the royal palace in Constantinople to the Church of St. Sophia. Here special veneration was given to the Holy Cross, similar to the reverence paid it on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. Begin ning on the first of August, every day for two weeks the sacred wood of the Cross was carried throughout the city. while God was asked to bless it and to avert all sicknesses. This feast was instituted in Constantinople in the ninth century on account of the various sicknesses and epidemics which usually occurred in the month of August.