The Cross. The instrument of torture made salvation. The very wood which Christ submitted to as He trampled down death by death. Today in the Church we celebrate the Exaltation of the Cross.
Hail, O Cross of the Lord
Through you, mankind has been delivered from the curse
Shattering the enemy by your exaltation
O venerable Cross, you are a sign of true joy and our help
You are the strength of kings, the power of the righteous
The majesty of priests, the weapon of the peaceful
You are the rod of strength under which we, like sheep, are tended
You are the divine glory of Jesus Christ
Who grants the world great mercy
~ Vespers of the Feast
Twice a year I walk into our church and find the Cross laid out in the center, adorned with flowers and fragrant herbs, elevated for our veneration. It happens smack in the middle of Great Lent, a not-so-subtle reminder amongst a season of reminders, of what it is exactly that we are approaching. And it happens also on September 14th, today, the Feast of the Exaltation, or the Elevation of the Cross. Two weeks into the new Church Year, another reminder of our destination and our journey.
And every time I catch my breath just a little.
In place of the usual flow of worshippers on their way into Liturgy and venerating the festal icons and the icons of Christ and His Mother, on these days of the Cross there are clogged aisles. The flow is sluggish as each person stops a bit more reverently than the week before, takes in the sights and scents of the Cross, and makes the time for three full prostrations around their bows and prayers and kisses.
It seems over the top. Showy. Maybe even a bit silly. But from the first time I witnessed it, the sight of the Cross tenderly placed among greenery, literally hidden among the flowers, elicited an inexplicable joy within me. The care. The slowness of the veneration of so many people. How very deliberate these actions are, and how very holy. Hits you in the gut even before you’ve partaken yourself. And once you have, it’s dang-near addictive.
As Christians, we surround ourselves with crosses. They’re everywhere: around our necks, behind the altar, on our walls and hanging from our rear-views. And if we are honest, familiarity can breed apathy. And so we have seasons. Thank God for seasons. Thank God for the changing of the guard. The weather, yes, but also the other essentials of our lives. Thank God for seasons of grace and abundance and seasons of dryness and hunger. Thank God for the seasons of the Church that bring every facet of our faith back afresh, just when we need it most.
Tradition holds that in or around the fourth century, Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helen, found the true Cross upon which our Lord hung. There are all manner of legends surrounding its finding, from prophetic dreams and fields of wafting basil to bodily resurrection at the touch of the Cross. In 347 began the annual Feast on September 14th, wherein the Bishop would hold up a holy relic—a piece of wood taken from the Cross of salvation–to be venerated and celebrated. There were processions and probably a good deal of general revelry.
To this day, we hold the day in our hearts, and exalt the Cross in our churches, a beacon for all to come back to the true faith and the bearing of their own crosses with renewed strength and patience, and hopefully a fresh dose of pee and vinegar. Every year the Cross comes out again and is given a special attention to remind us that it should always be surrounded by flowers. That it should always be approached fearfully. This wood is always worthy of our awe and affection.
I can smell the basil now,