The aromatic basil is the official plant of the Orthodox Church, used in services for blessings and purification. The association of the plant with the Church has its roots at the story of the discovery of the Holy Cross by St. Helen in A.D. 325. According to Church tradition, the Emperor Constantine sent his pious elderly mother to Jerusalem, to search for the site of the Holy Sepulcher and of the Cross of Christ. After a long investigation, St. Helen discovered the precious Cross, following the scent of sweet basil that had grown over the spot where the Cross was buried. The plant was therefore named “vasilikos” (βασιλικός), meaning “royal” in Greek, and has been associated with the Holy Cross ever since.
In Greece, basil is so strongly connected to religion that, in contrast to neighboring countries such as Italy, and despite its proliferation (basil plants are grown everywhere – in pots, homes and gardens), it is never used in traditional Greek cooking or baking. Its only traditional culinary use is in the preparation of the sourdough for baking prosphora, which is done once a year using the blessed basil from the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.
The project we are discussing on this post focuses on the connection of this blessed and beloved plant to the Holy Cross, while at the same time encouraging Bible study and exploration.
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The printable packet contains the templates for making the decorated pot as well as helpful pages and Bible verse cards for completing the project.
Click to download (3 MB)
ORGANIZING THE PROJECT
This year we ended our Sunday School season with a planting activity: the children planted basil seeds to grow over the summer, planning to bring their grown plants to church in September, to be blessed on the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. It was a cool project that our director suggested, taking the group from the spring (Feast of St. Helen on May 21) to the fall (the Elevation of the Cross on September 14), and inspired by a longtime Orthodox tradition of growing a basil plant to offer on the Feast of the Cross.
Preparing for our Sunday School project, we got inspired to create templates and accompanying activities that are included in our printable packet above. We also came across some helpful online resources that we have collected at the end of this page. We hope you will get to do this project with your own children or students, spending the summer growing not only a basil plant, but also the children’s Scripture awareness and their faith.
The activity we are suggesting consists of the following parts:
- Decorating a planting pot and preparing a label
- Planting the basil seeds
- Taking care of the growing plant
- Logging the plant’s development
- Weekly Scripture exploration of a series of plant-related passages that cover the span of the Bible, from the Old Testament to the Epistles
- Learning the troparion of the Elevation of the Cross
To help the child in carrying out this long-term activity we created a visual guide, found in the printable packet.
Decorating the pot, planting the seeds and caring for the basil plant
The decorative templates we designed are planned to fit either a regular plastic drinking cup, or, if you would like a fancier and more appropriate container, the nursery pots we used for our own class project (they can be found on Amazon HERE. *Note: we receive no financial compensation for mentioning this link*).
You will need
- Our printable template
- A nursery pot or plastic cup (if you are using a plastic cup, punch some holes on the bottom)
- Potting soil and basil seeds
- A craft stick
- Tape and glue
- Colored pencils or markers
What to do
- Cut out the templates.
- Color the pot template. Tape or glue it around the pot.
- Color the label pieces and fill in the feast dates. Glue the label pieces back-to-back, sandwiching the craft stick between them.
- Add soil into the pot, then sprinkle a few seeds on top. Cover lightly with a bit of extra soil.
- Stick the label into the soil.
- Place the pot in a sunny spot and water it daily. Once the plants start to grow, separate them and transplant them individually to larger pots. Keep them in a sunny spot and water daily, occasionally trimming the edges to encourage growth. By September, you should have one or more fully grown basil plants!
Logging the basil plant’s development
We created a log for recording the basil plant’s growth weekly. We included a space for also recording the explored Scripture reading. The child can additionally draw a picture – of either the plant or the discussed theme.
Weekly plant-related Bible verse exploration
Scripture verse list with commentary
To make it easy for the adults organizing the project and for the children carrying it out, we compiled a collection of plant-related Bible verses in our printable packet that we felt cover important areas of Orthodox teaching. It is not an extensive compilation; the Bible contains many more plant-related passages, and you – and/or the children – are encouraged to do your own searching to locate additional ones. To facilitate a fruitful discussion, we are accompanying these verses with short comments/explanations; however, we, again, encourage you to do your own additional research for a more complete approach. Some of our passages may be a little tough for the youngest children to grasp – you can pick and choose the ones that are appropriate for the children you are working with.
The Old Testament Scripture passages in our packet were taken from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint, © 2008, and the New Testament Scripture passages were taken from BibleGateway.com, New King James Version, © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. These Scripture texts are the ones used in the Orthodox Study Bible, on the commentary of which we based our discussion points.
Bible verse cards
In the printable packet, we are also offering decorated Scripture verse cards. They include the plant-related-passages that are discussed in the list, and they are meant to help the child organize his/her reading. They can be printed out on sturdy paper, cut out and optionally laminated, then used in different ways:
- Punch a hole through each card’s corner and tie them together to make a booklet (we also provided a cover card for this use).
- Store them in a bag, basket or box to randomly choose one for each week’s reading.
- Use a binder with loose-leaf paper to record each week’s reading: Onto a blank page, glue the Scripture card that was explored, then accompany it with your own comments, thoughts, pictures and related findings. The additional printed material for the planting project (visual guide, logs, troparion) can be stored in the binder as well.
Learning the troparion of the Cross
We are including a decorated page in the printable packet containing the Troparion (Apolytikion) of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. It can be printed and stored in the project binder for easy reference. Another idea would be to laminate and place it in the icon corner for the duration of the project. The child can practice reciting or chanting the troparion weekly, possibly at the end of the reading session. When the Elevation of the Cross comes, s/he will have learned it by heart.
BACKGROUND and EXTRA RESOURCES
- Explore our own resources on St. Helen and on the Elevation of the Cross.
- Constantine and Helen – equal to the Apostles, Greek Orthodox Church of America.
- Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Greek Orthodox Church of America.
- Basil for the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, printable PDF by Jennifer Hock on the blog “Illumination Learning”, containing a lesson on basil and St. Helen, connections, and additional resources (we definitely recommend this very carefully prepared printable file).
- On the Beauty of Nature: Noticing God’s Handiwork, article on the blog “Orthodox Christian Parenting” of the Antiochian Archdiocese.
- The Meaning of Basil at the Elevation of the Cross, by Joanne Jamis Cain, Orthodox Christian Network.
- Basil, article on the blog “Living Orthodox Traditions”.
- Troparion of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, audio recording by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
- Troparion of the Holy Cross for children (English, Arabic and Greek), music video by Kh. Gigi Baba-Shadid: