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Elevation of the Cross

The Ele­va­tion of the Cross, cel­e­brat­ed on the four­teenth of Sep­tem­ber, com­mem­o­rates the find­ing of Christ’s Cross by Saint Helen, the moth­er of the Emper­or Con­stan­tine in the fourth cen­tu­ry; and, after it was tak­en by the Per­sians, of its recov­ery by the Emper­or Her­a­clius in the sev­enth cen­tu­ry at which time it was “ele­vat­ed” in the Church of the Res­ur­rec­tion in Jerusalem. From this lat­ter event the “uni­ver­sal ele­va­tion” of the Cross was cel­e­brat­ed annu­al­ly in all of the church­es of the Chris­t­ian Empire. 

The day of the Ele­va­tion of the Cross became, as it were, the nation­al hol­i­day of the East­ern Chris­t­ian Empire sim­i­lar to the Fourth of July in the Unit­ed States. The Cross, the offi­cial emblem of the Empire which was placed on all pub­lic build­ings and uni­forms, was offi­cial­ly ele­vat­ed on this day by the bish­ops and priests. They blessed the four direc­tions of the uni­verse with the Cross, while the faith­ful repeat­ed the chant­i­ng of “Lord have mer­cy.” This rit­u­al is still done in the church­es today after the solemn pre­sen­ta­tion and ele­va­tion of the Cross at the end of the Vig­il ser­vice of the holy day fol­low­ing the Great Dox­ol­o­gy of Matins.

The tropar­i­on of the feast which was, one might say, the “nation­al anthem” sung on all pub­lic occa­sions in the Chris­t­ian Empires of Byzan­tium and Rus­sia, orig­i­nal­ly peti­tioned God to save the peo­ple, to grant vic­to­ry in war and to pre­serve the empire “by the virtue of the Cross.” Today the tropar­i­on, and all the hymns of the day, are “spir­i­tu­al­ized” as the “adver­saries” become the spir­i­tu­al­ly wicked and sin­ful includ­ing the dev­il and his armies, and “Ortho­dox Chris­tians” replace the names of rul­ing offi­cials of the Empire.

O Lord, save Thy peo­ple and bless Thine inher­i­tance. Grant vic­to­ries to the Ortho­dox Chris­tians over their adver­saries; and by the virtue of Thy Cross, pre­serve Thy habi­ta­tion (Tropar­i­on).

As Thou was mer­ci­ful­ly cru­ci­fied for our sake, grant mer­cy to those who are called by Thy name; make all Ortho­dox Chris­tians glad by Thy pow­er, grant­i­ng them vic­to­ries over their adver­saries, by bestow­ing on them the invin­ci­ble tro­phy, Thy weapon of peace (Kon­takion).

The holy day of the Ele­va­tion of the Cross, although it has an obvi­ous­ly “polit­i­cal” ori­gin, has a place of great sig­nif­i­cance in the Church today. It remains with us as a day of fast­ing and prayer, a day when we recall that the Cross is the only sign wor­thy of our total alle­giance, and that our sal­va­tion comes not by “vic­to­ries” of any earth­ly sort but by the only true and last­ing vic­to­ry of the cru­ci­fix­ion of Christ and our coÃ?crucifixion with him. 

When we ele­vate the Cross and bow down before it in ven­er­a­tion and wor­ship to God, we pro­claim that we belong to the King­dom “not of this world,” and that our only true and endur­ing cit­i­zen­ship is with the saints in the “city of God” (Eph 2:19; Heb 11:10; Rev 21–22).

The first Old Tes­ta­men­tal read­ing of the Ves­pers of the day tells of the “tree” which changes the bit­ter waters into sweetness—the sym­bol of the Tree of the Cross (Ex 15:22–16:1). The sec­ond read­ing reminds us that the Lord chas­tens and cor­rects those whom he loves and that Divine Wis­dom is “a Tree of life to those who lay hold upon her and trust in her, as in the Lord” (Prov 3:11–18). Again the ref­er­ence is to the Cross which is, as the epis­tle read­ing of the day pro­claims, “to those who are called… the pow­er of God and the wis­dom of God” (1 Cor 18–25).

The third Old Tes­ta­ment read­ing is from the Prophe­cy of Isa­iah which tells of the “city of the Lord” where both Jews and Gen­tiles will live togeth­er and “shall bow them­selves down” at the place of God’s feet and “shall know that I the Lord am Thy Sav­iour and Thy Redeemer, the mighty One of Israel” (Isa­iah 60:11–16). Here we have the direct ref­er­ence to God’s city where men shall wor­ship at his feet; and togeth­er with the psalm line repeat­ed con­stant­ly dur­ing the ser­vices which calls us to “bow before his foot­stool,” we have once again the ref­er­ence to the Holy Cross (Ps 99:5, 110:1, et al.).

Before the Cross, we bow down in wor­ship, O Mas­ter, and Thy holy res­ur­rec­tion, we glo­ri­fy (Hymn of Ven­er­a­tion before the Cross).

This cen­tral hymn of the Ele­va­tion of the Cross which lasts for eight days in the Church is sung many times. It replaces the Thrice-Holy of the Divine Litur­gy. The nor­mal antiphons are also replaced by spe­cial vers­es from the psalms which have direct ref­er­ence to Christ’s cru­ci­fix­ion on the Cross (Ps 22, 74, 99). At the Matins, in the gospel read­ing from St John, Christ says that when he is ele­vat­ed on the Cross he will draw all men to him­self (Jn 12:28–36). The long gospel read­ing at the Divine Litur­gy is the pas­sion account from this same gospel. 

Thus, at the Ele­va­tion of the Cross the Chris­tians make their offi­cial reded­i­ca­tion to the cru­ci­fied Lord and pledge their undi­vid­ed alle­giance to him by the ado­ra­tion of his holy feet nailed to the lifeÃ?creating Cross. This is the mean­ing of this holy day of fast­ing and repen­tance in the Church today.