Tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Cross, also called the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Creating Cross. This holy day is truly universal, celebrated across the world in the traditions of both Western and Eastern Christianity, but its roots are deeply historical and come from specific places and events. The first event this feast hearkens back to is the vision of the cross that Constantine saw in the sky just before winning the battle which would win him the Roman Empire. Until the time of Constantine, Christians were persecuted in the empire because they refused to acknowledge the pantheon of Roman gods and because they acknowledged a true Lord who was above the Cesar. After Constantine’s vision, he attributed his victory to the God of the Christians and passed the edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity and bringing it to the forefront culturally.
The second event this feast day recalls also occurred during the reign of Constantine. When his own mother, Helena — who had long been a Christian herself — made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and sought out the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, she discovered that the old Christian holy site had been covered up and a pagan temple had been built on top of it. The order was given for this temple to be torn down, and upon excavating the site, three Roman crosses were found. Unsure of which cross was the Lord’s, the bishop of the city had all three brought to a woman nearby who had been sick for a long time and was at the point of death, anticipating the healing power of the true cross. From The Ecclesiastical Histories of Socrates and Sozomenus: “…for the two crosses having been applied which were not the Lord’s, the woman still continued in a dying state; but when the third, which was the true cross, touched her, she was immediately healed, and recovered her former strength. In this manner then was the genuine cross discovered.” There in Jerusalem the wood of the True Cross was enshrined and venerated, and pieces of it were also sent to other places to be venerated as well. From St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “He was truly crucified for our sins. For if thou wouldest deny it, this place refutes thee visibly, this blessed Golgotha, in which we are now assembled for the sake of Him who was here crucified; and the whole world has since been filled with pieces of the wood of the Cross.”
Three hundred years after the discovery of the true cross, the Persians attacked Jerusalem and carried off the case containing the cross, as well as the city’s bishop, back to Persia with them. After more than a decade of battles, in 629 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius brought back the cross, unmolested, to Jerusalem where it was elevated publicly for all to see. It’s from this third event that the feast gets its fuller name, The Exaltation (or Elevation) of the Cross.
But before the rescue of the cross from the Persians by Heraclius, before the excavation of the cross in Jerusalem by Helena, and before the battlefield vision of the cross seen by Constantine, there was the mounting of the cross by Jesus of Nazareth. This primary, paradigm shifting event transformed the Roman symbol of terror into that of peace, the icon of death into that of life. It was the voluntary death of the author of life which destroyed the power of death itself, which of course is why he rose again. The original cross event is the very definition of subversion. By entering death and disarming it from within, the God-man Jesus robbed it of its finality; he took away its venom. Sure, it still bites and squeezes everyone, and we all will find our way to the grave. But starting with St. Stephen the proto-martyr, generations of Christians have learned that they can play their part in the defeat of death by (paradoxically) following their Lord right into it, confident also in their Lord’s resurrection. It’s the early Christians, still under persecution, who appropriated the symbol of the cross as their own symbol of joy. That’s the power of the true cross: to subvert and reverse the intentions of terror and death.
Christians across the world today continue to follow their Lord straight into the venom-less jaws of death. The minions of death, the messengers of terror, go on raging, unaware of the secret defeat of their master, and still terrified of it themselves. They invent new symbols of terror and intimidation, like the “N” or nūn, written as the arabic letter “ن “, placed on the houses of Iraqi Christians marked for death. This “N” stands for Nazarene, identifying these Christians with their Lord, Jesus the Nazarene. Like the symbol of the cross, though, this symbol meant to intimidate has been appropriated by Christians as a symbol of solidarity. Even as N’s are being painted on the houses of Christians as threats, N’s are being willingly displayed elsewhere by fellow Christians to raise awareness and support. And even as crosses are being torn off the tops of steeples in the path of terrorists, the Cross will be raised up in exaltation across the world tomorrow on the feast of The Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Creating Cross.
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 of the day).