The Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church, and is celebrated on September 14. It commemorates the finding of the True Cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by Saint Helen, and also celebrates how an instrument of a shameful death ultimately became an instrument of salvation and eternal life.
Preparing for the start of the Sunday School year, we created a small printable package for an introductory lesson on the Feast. It can be used in conjuction with a previous page on the Holy Cross that we created during Great Lent. Both this and our previous page contain printable activities and fun interactive ideas for a lesson on the Cross of our Lord.
Click HERE to go to our previous Holy Cross page.
The discovery of the Life-Creating Cross occurred in the early 4th century, AD 325. The Emperor Constantine sent his pious elderly mother, Saint Helen, to Jerusalem, with a letter for the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Saint Macarius. She was searching for the site of the Holy Sepulchre and of the Cross of Christ. After a long investigation, Saint Helen discovered the precious Cross.
According to tradition, she reached the site by following the scent of sweet basil (Vasilikos, royal, belonging to a King), an aromatic plant that had grown over the spot where the Cross was buried. The Cross was found together with the crosses of the two thieves who were crucified with our Lord, and Saint Helen could not tell which of the three crosses was the True Cross of Christ. Patriarch Macarius touched a dying woman with each of the three crosses. Nothing happened with the first two crosses. When he touched her with the third cross, she was healed immediately. Thus, the True Cross of Christ was identified. In another version of the story, a dead man was resurrected when St. Macarius placed the Holy Cross on his body.
Patriarch Macarius climbed on the pulpit and lifted up the Cross. Saint Helen, her court, and the large crowd who had gathered venerated the Cross crying out “Lord have mercy”. In this way, the celebration of the Exaltation of the Cross was established.
Also commemorated on that day is another historical event that occurred almost three centuries later: in AD 628 another pious Byzantine Emperor, Heraclius, defeated the Persians who had captured the Precious Cross and the Patriarch of Jerusalem for fourteen years. After the retake of the Precious Cross, Emperor Heraclius and Patriarch Zacharias of Jerusalem had another glorious procession for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
On the day of the Feast, a special service is held. The Cross, standing on a field of sweet basil sprigs, is taken in solemn procession through the church while the Troparion (hymn) of the Feast is being chanted. The priest then takes the Cross and offers petitions facing the four directions of the compass. This represents the universal nature of the life-giving sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross. The priest raises and lowers the cross, and the people respond by chanting “Lord have mercy”. At the end of the service, the people venerate the cross and receive sprigs of basil from the priest.
The day of the Feast is similar to Holy Friday with a strict fast. The Gospel readings refer to the Lord’s Passion.
In anticipation of the Feast of the Holy Cross, it is a tradition to plant sweet basil, sometime during the previous spring, so that by the Feast of the Holy Cross the plant will have enough sprigs to bring over to the church for blessing.
Another tradition with the blessed basil sprigs is to prepare leavening (prozymi) in order to make the prosphoron (see also Preparing the Gifts) and homemade bread.
19th century Russian icon, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
In the center of the icon we can see St Macarius, on the pulpit, holding the True Cross of Christ ‘with fear and trembling’. On the right, and at a lower level, there is the Empress Saint Helen facing the Cross and motioning in petition. A smaller or larger group of clergy and lay people is also shown, depending on the icon. They are all attending the magnificent event. In some variations of the icon, on the left side, there is also the glorious Church of the Resurrection, constructed ten years later. In other variations, on the right side of the icon, we can see the miraculously resurrected man in his bed.
Troparion of the Feast (Tone 1)
O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries; and by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation.
Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 4)
As Thou wast voluntarily 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.
The Exaltation of the Cross – Exploring the Feasts of the Orthodox Christian Church, video by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America:
- The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, online article by the Orthodox Church in America.
- The Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross, online article by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Special thanks to the Department of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America for allowing us to embed their video into our web page.