The universal exaltation and elevation of the holy and life-giving Cross of Christ is one of the twelve great feast days of the Orthodox Church. This feast also commemorates events that happened over 300 years after those celebrated in the other great feasts of the Church. While historically significant, its relevance to the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church is even more important.
The feast of the Elevation celebrates the discovery by Saint Helena of the holy Cross upon which our Saviour had been crucified, and of the many miracles it wrought. Yet the significance of this day is twofold. This feast connects the events of the New Testament with the life of the Christian Church after it had become an established institution in the Roman Empire. While the end of Roman persecution was a relief to the Church, many Christians feared that it would lead to spiritual decline and a loss of commitment by the majority of believers. The discovery of the Holy Cross was a reminder to Christians of the great mystery of God’s condescension in becoming human and suffering the agony of crucifixion, in order to sanctify and purify His creation. This sacrifice made the salvation of humanity possible. Christ became a model for a new way of life, free from the weight of the material world and its eventual outcome, which was death. Through God’s taking on of flesh, humans were freed of their slavery to flesh. Humanity’s ignorance of its true nature, which is spiritual, was ended, and eternal life again became possible. Christians were further reminded that it was through the shedding of Christ’s blood on the Cross that the human race was redeemed and freed from the curse of Adam and Eve. It is for this reason that the Elevation of the Holy Cross is observed as a strict fasting day, even if it falls on a Sunday.
Historically the feast has great meaning for the Church. Before the discovery of the Holy Cross by St. Helena, it was not a commonly used Christian symbol. Early Christians used the fish to identify each other as the followers of Christ. As it was a criminal offence punishable by death to belong to the Christian faith in the Roman Empire before the holy Emperor Constantine established its legality in A.D. 313, most Christians were careful to keep their religion a secret. The Greek word for fish – “ichthys” – was a Christian anagram or a word whose letters are abbreviations for other words: I = Isous (Jesus), CH = Christos (Christ), TH = Theou (of God), Y = Yios (Son), S = Sotir (Saviour). Other frequently used early Christian symbols were the lamb (Christ is the Good Shepherd) and the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – alpha and omega (indicating that Christ is God Who is the beginning and end of all things).
The reason that Greek, rather than Hebrew, Aramaic, or Latin terms were used is that Christianity developed in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. This consisted of the eastern Mediterranean region, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and the Middle East, which had been Hellenized by Alexander the Great centuries before Roman domination. Greek had been the international language of the region, making it possible for diplomats, scholars, scientists, philosophers, and merchants to communicate and share ideas. The most effective way for the Christian Church to spread its message and gain converts throughout the Empire was to use the Greek language. It is for this reason that the New Testament, the Divine services, and the Canon (Church) Law were written in Greek.
St. Constantine was also responsible for the introduction of a new Christian symbol – the Cross. According to the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesaria, the Emperor had a vision on the eve of his final battle with his rival Maxentius for Rome in 312. He saw a cross, normally a sign of death to a Roman, but heard a voice saying: “With this thou shalt conquer.” The seemingly contradictory message was understood by him to be a sign of favor from the Christian God. Constantine ordered his troops to paint the first two letters of “Christos” (“Christ or Messiah”) in Greek, the XP, on their shields. This soon became a symbol of the faith, as did the Holy Cross.
Constantine’s subsequent victory gave him a reason to officially legalize the practice of Christianity the following year with the Edict of Milan (313). Being the ruler of a largely pagan empire (Christians constituted no more than 10% of the total population at the time), Constantine himself only converted to Christianity on his deathbed in 337. He did much, however, to assist the new faith in growing. By providing the Church with enormous financial and political support, he established it as a legitimate Roman institution. The Emperor was also responsible for organizing the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325.
In A.D. 326, Constantine sent his mother, the Dowager Empress Saint Helena, to Jerusalem to build up the Church in the Holy Land. She began the building of churches on all the holy sites in Jerusalem. According to Church tradition, St. Helena then had a dream that showed her the location of the Holy Cross in a spot near the site of Golgotha, where Christ had been crucified. The next day the Dowager Empress, accompanied by Patriarch Macarius of Jerusalem, the Roman Procurator, and a large retinue of clergy and soldiers, went to that area. As Saint Helena had seen in her dream, basil was growing on an otherwise barren piece of land. When they dug there, they found three large crosses. It is for this reason that basil is used in churches to decorate the Cross on the feast of the Elevation.
Upon returning to Jerusalem, there was no way to tell which one was the Holy Cross on which Christ had been crucified. However, a dying woman was revived upon touching one of the crosses. Other sick and dying people were also healed by the same cross, while the other two crosses wrought no miracles. Once the Holy Cross was identified, the people worshipped God with great devotion, singing “Lord have mercy.” Since a large crowd had gathered and not everyone could see the Cross, Patriarch Macarius and the clergy raised the Cross high up. This started the tradition of the ceremony of elevating the Cross on the feast of the Elevation.
A portion of the Holy Cross was taken back to Constantinople by St. Helena, while the rest of it was put in a silver reliquary (container for sacred objects) and placed in the newly-built church on the site of Golgotha. Within a few years, the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on the day it was discovered, i.e. September 14th by the old calendar (27th by the new), was established throughout the Christian world.
The feast of the Elevation continues to be a reminder of how Christ’s sacrifice transformed a symbol of fear and death into one of hope and eternal life. In the kontakion for the feast of the Elevation, the Cross is referred to as “the weapon of peace and trophy invincible.” Once the sign of the worst form of execution in the Roman world, it became the chief symbol and true spiritual strength of the Christian faith. This remarkable transformation is also a reflection of the positive impact that Christ and His Church have had on humanity. Most of our modern moral code is the direct result of the establishment of Christianity. The Holy Cross continues to encourage us to follow Christ in faith. As St. Macarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, raised the Holy Cross high, so let us raise ourselves from the material world to the heights of spirituality!