“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 – of the 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 con-secration, 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 capti-vity. 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. Beginning 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.
The Rite of Exaltation or Elevation of the Holy Cross
A peculiar trait of the feast of the Exaltation is the solemn public veneration of the Holy Cross by a separate rite of elevation during the Matins service. In the course of the ages, the Eastern Church developed various rites for the elevation of the holy Cross. Here we mention a few of these and their more significant aspects.
- The Rite of St. Athanasius at Mount Athos
This rite is recorded in the Book of Epistles of the tenth-eleventh century of this Lavra. It is very simple. The patriarch standing on the ambon (at that time the ambons stood in the middle of the church) raised the holy Cross while the people sang “Lord, have mercy.” After that five troparions were read: “Save your people, O Lord..”, “The Life-giving Cross of your goodness..” which is the troparion of the pre-feast; “No sooner had the wood of Your Cross been set up…” and “Today the word of the prophet is fulfilled…” — both troparions from the Sessional Hymns in the Matins service of the feast; and the Kontakion “Willingly raised upon the Cross, O Christ…”
- The Rite performed at Mount Sinai
This rite is found in the Sinai Kanonarion of the tenth century and was performed in the following manner: At the beginning, the above mentioned troparions are taken. After-wards, the archbishop ascends the ambon, takes the holy Cross, turns to the East, makes the sign of the cross with it three times and silently executes the first elevation by slowly raising the holy Cross above his head starting from his breast.
While he is raising the holy Cross, the people sing “Lord, have mercy” fifty times, and as many times as he lowers the holy Cross. In the same manner the second elevation is performed facing the south, the third facing the west, and the fourth facing the north. At each elevation the people sing altogether one hundred times “Lord, have mercy.” After the last elevation, a bow is made before the holy Cross while the kontakion of the feast “Willingly raised upon the Cross…” is being sung.
- The Rite of Elevation at Constantinople
This rite is given in the Constantinopolitan Typicon of the Evergetes Monastery from the twelfth century, and is similar to the Sinai rite with the exception that, before the elevation, only the troparion “O Lord, save your people…” was sung, The Patriarch raised the holy Cross not four times but five times, that is toward the four corners of the world, and at the fifth time again toward the East. At each elevation “Lord, have mercy” was sung.
- Rite of Elevation in our Native Land Rus-Ukraine
This rite was already mentioned in the thirteenth century in the documents of our Church. In ancient times the elevation of the holy Cross took place only in the cathedrals where there was a bishop and many priests. The Patriarchal Synod of 1276 permitted this rite to be performed in all the churches.
Metropolitan Cyprian (1381-1382 and 1390-1406) in his “In-structions for the clergy of Rus” writes: “As regards the elevation of the Venerable Cross, the Cross is raised for glory of the venerable and life-giving Cross” in every church throughout the land where Christians live, even though there is only one priest. Our documents of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries give a description of the rite of exaltation or elevation. The carrying out of the Holy Cross during the Great Doxology in the Matins service and the petitions of the Fervent Ektenia during the elevation – are the same as today. There were five elevations at each side of the tetrapod, and the last elevation was made again toward the East. During each elevation the people sang “Lord, have mercy” one hundred times. The rite ended with a bow and the kissing of the holy Cross while the kontakion “Willingly raised upon the Cross…” and the threefold “O Lord, we honor your Cross, and glorify your holy Resurrection”‘ were sung.
Father I. Dolnytsky’s Typicon gives the rite of elevation according to the tradition of our Church with only this difference — that in Galicia (Western Ukraine), at each elevation of the Holy Cross, they sang “Lord, have mercy” not one hundred times but twenty-four times.
The service of the feast of the Exaltation or Elevation of the Venerable Cross is, strictly speaking, one glorious hymn in honor of the Cross. Here the holy Cross is continuously praised and glorified as the sign of victory, power and salvation: “Hail, O life-giving Cross,” exclaims the stichera at the Aposticha in the Vespers service of the feast, “invincible victory of religion, gate to paradise, fortress of the faithful, defense of the Church. Through you, corruption is utterly destroyed, the power of death is swallowed up, and we are raised up from earth to heaven. You are an invincible weapon, subjugator of demons, glory of the Martyrs, true ornament of the Saints, the refuge of salvation, – grant the world great mercy.” The feast of the Exaltation, by placing the holy Cross before our eyes, reminds us of our obligation to venerate, love and confess the holy Cross. “Do not be ashamed of the Cross of Christ,” admonishes St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his fourth catechesis, “even if some hide it, nevertheless, you trace it clearly upon your forehead so that the demons, seeing the royal sign, may tremble and flee far away. Make this sign when you eat and drink, when you sit, lie down, rise or walk, in a word, at every occasion.”
St. John Chrysostom, in a sermon on the Cemetery and the Cross, speaks of the significance of the Cross for us: “The Cross is a trophy against the demons, a weapon against sin, a sword with which Christ pierced the serpent. The Cross is the will of the Father, the glory of the Only-begotten One, joy of the Spirit, ornament of the angels, fortress of the Church, the glory of Paul, stronghold of the Saints, the light of the whole world.”
Katrij J, A byzantine rite. Liturgical year, Detroit-New York 1983, 219-225