The Great Feasts of the Church


 September 14/27

On the fourteenth of September we commemorate the Universal Exaltation of the Honoured and Life-giving Cross of our Saviour, which for 300 years had been hidden from the faithful.   We know from Saint Luke’s Book of Acts that after Holy Pentecost, the Church in Jerusalem flourished.  The Grace of the Holy Trinity nourished the Church daily.  The Pharisees witnessed this with great alarm and did whatever they could to repress this growth.  One of the actions they took was to fill in the area of Golgotha, where our Lord had been crucified, where our Lord’s Tomb was and where the Cross of our Lord was placed.  They used debris from the city of Jerusalem and in this manner denied the Christians access to these most holy sites.  The faithful, however, never forgot where Golgotha, the Tomb of Christ and the Holy Cross were hidden. 

Almost 40 years after the Resurrection of our Lord, Jerusalem, including the Temple of Solomon, was completely destroyed by the Roman Emperor Titus. Our Lord had foretold this destruction and many Christians had fled (Luke 21:5-9; Matthew 24:1-2).   Jerusalem was then transformed into a Roman military base.  Many of the Christians of Jerusalem remained in the area around Jerusalem and maintained the memory of where the Holy Sites were. 

In 130, the Roman Emperor, Hadrian came to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city.  Eusebius, the Church Historian describes how Hadrian built a pagan temple on the Holy Sites.  These descriptions have been confirmed by the archaeological research carried out in the area.  We know that this pagan temple of Aelia transformed the Holy site into a pagan one by placing the cult of Jupiter (Zeus) on the tomb of the Lord and that of Venus (Aphrodite) on Golgotha.  This tactic, however, did not erase the memory of these holy sites.  The Christians knew exactly where Golgotha and the Tomb of our Saviour were.  They also knew that the Holy Cross of our Saviour was nearby.

 When Saint Constantine the Great became the first Christian Roman Emperor, he sent his mother, Saint Helen, about the year 325, already advanced in years, in search of the Holy Sites. Saint Helen had the statue of Aphrodite destroyed, and the earth removed, revealing the Tomb of our Lord, and three crosses.  Of these, it was believed that one must be that of our Lord, the other two of the thieves crucified with Him; but Saint Helen was at a loss which one might be the Wood of our salvation.  At the inspiration of Saint Macarius, Archbishop of Jerusalem, a lady of Jerusalem, who was already at the point of death from a certain disease, was brought to touch the crosses, and as soon as she came near to the Cross of our Lord, she was made perfectly whole.  Also, Patriarch Macarius alternately touched the crosses to a corpse. When the Cross of the Lord touched the dead one, he came to life. Having beheld the raising of the dead man, everyone was convinced that the Life-Giving Cross was found.  Consequently, the precious Cross was lifted on high by Archbishop Macarius of Jerusalem; as he stood on the ambo, and when the people beheld it, they cried out, Lord have mercy.  A practice which is still enacted at celebrations of this feast.

It should be noted that after its discovery, a portion of the venerable Cross was taken to Constantinople as a blessing.  The rest was left in Jerusalem.  The holy emperor Constantine gave orders to build at Jerusalem a majestic and spacious church in honor of the Resurrection of Christ, also including under its roof the Life-Giving Tomb of the Lord and Golgotha. The temple was constructed in about ten years. Saint Helen did not survive until the dedication of the temple, she reposed in the year 327. The church was consecrated on September 13, 335. On the following day, September 14, the festal celebration of the Exaltation of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross was established.

Another event connected to the Cross of the Lord is remembered also on this day: its return to Jerusalem from Persia after a fourteen year captivity. During the reign of the Byzantine emperor Phocas (602-610) the Persian emperor Khozroes II in a war against the Empire defeated the army, plundered Jerusalem and captured both the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord and the Holy Patriarch Zachariah (609-633).

The Cross remained in Persia for fourteen years and only under the emperor Heraclius (610-641), who with the help of God defeated Khozroes and concluded peace with his successor and son Syroes, was the Cross of the Lord returned to the Christians.

With great solemnity the Life-Giving Cross was returned to Jerusalem. Emperor Heraclius in imperial crown and royal purple carried the Cross of Christ into the temple of the Resurrection. With the emperor went Patriarch Zacharios. At the gates by which they ascended Golgotha, the emperor suddenly stopped and was not able to proceed farther. The holy Patriarch explained to the emperor that an angel of the Lord was blocking his way. The emperor was told to remove his royal trappings and to walk barefoot, since He Who bore the Cross for the salvation of the world from sin had made His way to Golgotha in all humility. Then Heraclius donned plain garb, and without further hindrance, carried the Cross of Christ into the church.

A Fast is observed today, whatever day of the week it may be.  This is one of the two feast days which is held as a strict fast. The other is the commemoration of the Beheading of Saint John the Forerunner on August 29.

Teachings from the Service of the Feast

When we elevate the Cross and bow down before it in veneration we proclaim our belief that through the Holy Cross, which today we venerate, salvation from the tyranny of Satan is granted to the Universe. This is chanted throughout the whole service of the Feast.  The Glory of Great Vespers summarizes the teaching of this Feast::

Come, all ye nations, let us worship the blessed Tree, through which was wrought the everlasting righteosness.  For he that by a tree beguiled our forefather Adam, is himself ensnared by the Cross; and he that by tyranny gained dominion over the creation of the King, is by faith overthrown in utter ruin.  By the Blood of God, the serpent’s poison is washed away; and the curse of a just condemnation is loosed by the unjust judgment passed against the Just One. For it was fitting that the wood should be healed by wood; and that the sufferings of him who was condemned because of the tree should be done away through the Passion of Him Who is passionless. But, O Christ our King, glory to Thy dread dispensation toward us, whereby Thou hast saved us all, since Thou art good and the Friend of man.

The Cross is hymned as the weapon of Christ that slew him that slew us.  Satan used the tree in Paradise to ensnare mankind but our Saviour used His Cross to ensnare Satan and set us free. Death was overcome by the Tree of true life.  The Cross of our Saviour overcame the tree of disobedience which brought death into the world and healed the mortal wound inflicted by Satan’s poison.

The Old Testament prefigurations of the Holy Cross are brought out by the services.  The odes of the Canon, which begin A Cross did Moses inscribe, are especially noteworthy for their teaching on the prefiguration of the Holy Cross in the Old Testament.

The first Old Testament reading of the Vespers of the Feast tells of Prophet Moses and his rod which changed the bitter waters into sweetness and was a prefiguration of the Tree of the Cross (Exodus 15:22-16:1).

The second reading from Proverbs 3:11-18, 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.  This is reference to the Holy Cross which we are called to embrace.

The third Old Testament reading is from Isaiah 60:11-16 which is a prophecy 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. Here we have the direct reference to the Church of Christ, where men shall worship the Saviour’s Cross.

In the reading from the First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians (1:18 - 24), Saint Paul teaches us that the Extreme Humility of the Crucifixion of our Saviour can not be understood by those outside the Church.  Those who have not been called consider the Cross of our Lord as foolishness.

The Holy Gospel of the Feast is John 19:6-11; 13-20; 25-28; 30, which contains the account of the Crucifixion of Christ.

The historical elevation of the Holy Cross is commemorated just after the Great Doxology with a special service during which the Holy Cross is carried by the clergy on a tray covered with Basil.  The Holy Cross is brought to the centre of the Church and is elevated while Lord Have Mercy is intoned 500 times.  When the people are blessed and while they are venerating the Holy Cross, the following is chanted:

come, 0 ye faithful, let us worship the life-creat­ing Wood, whereon Christ, the King of Glory, stretching out His hands of His own will, lifted up to the ancient blessedness us whom the enemy had aforetime despoiled through pleasure, making us ex­iles from God. Come, 0 ye faithful, let us worship that Wood whereby we have been deemed worthy to crush the heads of our invisible enemies. Come, all ye kindreds of the nations, with hymns let us honour the Cross of the Lord. Rejoice, 0 Cross, thou perfect redemption of fallen Adam. In thee do our most faithful sovereigns boast, since by thy power they have mightily subjected to themselves the Ishmaelite peoples. As we Christians now venerate thee with fear, we glorify God, Who was affixed to thee, and we say: 0 Lord, Who wast crucified thereon, have mercy on us, since Thou art good and the Friend of man.

Dismissal Hymn

Save, O Lord, Thy people and bless Thine inheritance; Grant Thou unto the faithful victory over adversaries.  And by the power of Thy Cross do Thou preserve Thy  commonwealth.

Icon of the Feast

Icons of the Feast usually portray St. Macarius in the center of the Icon, elevating the Holy Cross and showing it to the people. This elevation or uplifting of the Cross shows its prominence as the sign of victory. Hence the name Elevation of the Holy Cross.  St. Constantine the Emperor, and St. Helena, his mother, are frequently shown, although some icons depict only St. Helena .  Gathered about the Cross with St. Macarius and St. Helena are bishops, priests, and hymnographers.  With them, too, we are joined in oneness of mind and purpose as we sing: "We bow to Your cross, O Lord, and we praise Your holy resurrection."



The Menaion - Volume One, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005
The Great Horologion, 
Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts,1997