The Elevation of the Cross

Celebrated September 14/27

Each year on this day we celebrate the finding of the Cross of our Lord. But what happened to the Cross? St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, in a letter written around 350 AD to Emperor Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great, states that the true Cross was found in Jerusalem during the reign of Constantine. From the beginning of the fifth century, church writers and historians attribute the finding of the true Cross to St. Helena, the mother of St. Constantine. In his Catecheses, theological discourses which Cyril delivered in Jerusalem beginning in 347 AD, he frequently mentions the sacred Cross. St. Cyril briefly describes a tradition that was followed in Jerusalem on the morning of Holy Friday. The bishop, the clergy and the faithful would gather in the Chapel of the Cross which had been constructed by Constantine near Golgotha, and there they would venerate a large relic of the true Cross which was kept in a beautiful silver and gold reliquary.

St. Cyril is the first writer to comment on the fact that relics of the true Cross had been distributed all over the world. By the beginning of the fifth century, fragments of the true Cross were found in churches, monasteries and even in homes. In fact, St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) observed that many individuals in his day wore small gold reliquaries containing particles of the Cross around their necks. The expression "knock on wood" comes from the time Christians touched their reliquary crosses in times of trouble.

[Editor's Note: On the altar of the Chapel of Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, MA stands a large silver cross containing a relic of the true Cross, a gift of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. During my years as a student I remember the feeling of awe that would overcome me when the Cross was brought out each year on the feast of the Elevation of the Cross.]

Styles of Crosses

There are many crosses used throughout the world, but two stand out among the Orthodox. The equilateral "Greek Cross" has been used since the fourth century when a cross and the following appeared in the sky to the Emperor Constantine: "In this sign conquer." Constantine had the cross and the initials "IC XC NIKA" - "Jesus Christ Conquers" - emblazoned on the shields of his soldiers.

The "Three-Bar Cross" is also ancient, appearing in early Byzantine art, and is found today in Churches of the Slavic tradition. It was the custom to nail to the cross a placard describing the crime for which the criminal was being so shamefully executed. The top bar is the title board which Pilate hung on the Cross to identify the one crucified as "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" in Greek [INBI], Latin [INRI] and Hebrew. The second bar is the bar on which the Lord's hands were nailed.

On the slanted bottom bar were nailed our Lord's feet. In the prayers of the ninth hour the Church compares the Cross to a type of "balance of righteousness". "In the midst of two thieves, Your Cross was revealed as a balance-beam of righteousness; For while the one was led down to Hades by the burden of his blaspheming (the balance points down), the other was lightened of his sins to the knowledge of things divine (the balance goes up), O Christ our God, glory to You!"

© 1997 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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