The orthodox celebration of the power of the cross

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The Exaltation of the Cross celebrated on September 14 is one of the twelve great feasts
in the yearly Church cycle. It commemorates two historical events: first, the finding of the
Life-giving Cross in the year 326, and second, its recovery from Persia in 628.
History of the Feast
In the first centuries of Christianity, during the years of persecution, the pagans wished to
destroy all evidence of the life of Jesus Christ, and the Cross on which He was crucified
disappeared. With the conversion of Emperor Constantine the Great, Christians were at
liberty to worship openly and build churches. The emperor’s mother, St. Helen, longed to
find the True Cross of Christ. She traveled to Jerusalem and was told by a very old Jew
that the Cross was buried beneath the temple of the pagan goddess Venus, built in 119
AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.
The temple was torn down, and digging in the earth below uncovered three wooden
crosses. The small board which had hung over Christ with the inscription "Jesus King of
the Jews," had long since fallen off, and there was no way of telling which was the True
Cross and which were the crosses of the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ. A
sick woman was brought and likewise a dead man who was being carried to burial. The
three crosses were laid in turn one by one upon the sick woman and upon the dead man.
Two of the crosses had no effect, but through contact with the third cross, the sick woman
was healed of her infirmity and the dead man came to life. These miracles clearly
indicated which of the three was Christ’s Cross.
Hearing of this discovery, all the faithful desired to see the Cross of the Lord and to
venerate it. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Makarios, took the Cross onto a raised platform
and lifted it on high, "exalting" it, for all to see. The people fell to their knees, bowing down
before the Cross and crying out repeatedly: “Lord, have mercy!”
To house the relic of the True Cross, St. Helen had s church built over the Holy
Sepulchre. The church was consecrated on Sept. 13, 335, an event also commemorated
in the service hymns of the Feast. The finding and exaltation of the Cross was appointed
to be celebrated annually on the following day.
The Life-giving Cross was kept in Jerusalem until the year 614 when the Holy City fell to
the Persians who looted the Church of the Resurrection and took the True Cross back
with them to Persia. Fourteen years later Emperor Heraclius concluded a peace with the
Persians, and the Holy Cross was brought to the imperial capital of Constantinople. The
Emperor, taking off his shoes and his imperial robes, carried the Cross into the Church of
Holy Wisdom (Agia Sophia) where it was once again triumphantly exalted. It was then
resolved that the Feast be celebrated by the Church in all parts of the world, for which
reason it is called the Universal Exaltation.
The Service
The Vigil for the Feast, one of the most moving and impressive services of the year,
contains several distinguishing features. After Vespers the Cross, decorated with flowers
and sweet-smelling herbs, is placed upon the altar. Following the Gospel reading in
Matins, the faithful sing “Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ…” usually sung only
during Saturday night vigils. At the end of the Great Doxology, to the slow singing of the
Trisagion –”Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”– the priest, carrying
the Cross on his head, brings it out from the altar and places it on an analogion in the
center of the church. He censes the Cross on all four sides, and everyone prostrates
before it to the singing of the hymn: “Before Thy Cross, we bow down, O Master, and Thy
holy Resurrection we glorify.” Then the faithful, following the celebrants, venerate the
Cross in turn, making three full prostrations, and receive anointing. The Cross remains in
the center of the church until the Apodosis or “leave-taking” of the Feast on September
In cathedrals and monasteries the adoration is preceded by the ceremony of exalting the
Cross. After the Cross is brought out from the altar, the bishop or archimandrite takes it
up in his hands and raises it on high. Then, as the people chant “Lord have mercy” a
hundred times, he slowly lowers the Cross nearly to the ground and just as slowly raises
it. This is done five times as the celebrant faces first east, then west, south, north and
east again, signifying that “the Cross is the guardian of the whole world” and through it
“the world is sanctified.” In some churches the Cross has rose water poured over it during
these exaltations. The rose water is caught in a basin of flowers held by the acolytes, and
the flowers are distributed to the faithful at the end of the service.
Although it is one of the major Church Feasts, the Exaltation is always kept as a fast day,
because together with the joy of the finding of the Cross, this great “weapon of peace and
sign of victory,” we are also reminded of the sufferings which our Lord endured in being
On the Sign of the Cross
The Orthodox Christian ends his evening prayers with a prayer to the Venerable Cross:
"As wax melts from the presence of fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of
those who love God and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross….”
When properly applied, the sign of the Cross is a most formidable weapon in a Christian’s
The power of the Cross in the unseen warfare with the demons is illustrated in countless
lives of Saints. One of the most strtking examples is found in the life of the holy martyrs,
Sts. Cyprian and Justina (Oct. 2). An expert sorcerer before his conversion, St. Cyprian
was asked by a pagan youth to use his magic in order to seduce the Christian maid
Justina. But even with the help of the prince of demons, the sorcerer was powerless
before the maiden who “fled to the defense of the Cross of the Lord and placed its
honorable sign on her forehead,” causing the demons to depart in shame. This brought
Cyprian to his senses, and he railed at the evil one whom he had served for so long: “O
destroyer and deceiver of all…. Now I have discovered your infirmity. For if you fear even
the shadow of the Cross and tremble at the name of Christ, then what will you do when
Christ Himself comes to you?” Furious at Cyprian’s rebuke, the devil began to beat and
strangle him. Already scarcely alive, Cyprian “remembered the sign of the Cross, by the
power of which Justina had opposed all the demons’ power, and he cried out: "O God of
Justina, help me!" Then, raising his hand, he made the sign of the Cross, and the devil
immediately leaped away from him like an arrow shot from a bow.
The power of the Cross is given to each and every Christian. But just as a soldier must
learn to properly wield his weapons in battle, so a warrior of Christ must learn how
correctly to make the sign of the Cross. A shield has no effect if carelessly waved about in
the air. Likewise, there are many who receive no benefit from the sign of the Cross
because they make it mechanically or haphazardly.
Some time ago we were justly taken to task by one of our readers for an all too common
inaccuracy in describing the making of the sign of the Cross: “We touch the forehead, the
breast…” Our reader pointed out that the first edition of the widely used Orthodox
catechism, Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy’s Law of God, contained the same error
which was corrected in the second edition with the following explanation: in making the
sign of the Cross from forehead to breast and then shoulder to shoulder, “the lower end of
the Cross turns out to be shorter than the upper one; i.e., the Cross comes out upsidedown.” Man thereby inverts the Cross of Christ “to which only the demons rejoice.” The
Holy Fathers taught that the sign of the Cross should be made by touching first the brow
(the forehead), marking the upper part of the cross, secondly the womb (the stomach),
marking the lower part of the cross, thirdly the right frame (shoulder) and fourthly the left
frame, representing from end to end the horizontal bar of the cross.
This is not to say that the correct external formation of the sign of the Cross of itself
carries the power to wound demons, it must be made with faith. St. John of Kronstadt
cautions: “In order that the unbelieving heart should not think that the sign of the Cross
and the name of Christ act miraculously by themselves, apart from, and independently of
Christ Himself, this same Cross and name perform no miracles until I see Jesus Christ
with the eyes of my heart…and believe with my whole heart all that it has has
accomplished for our salvation.”
The Cross, once a tool of death, has become a means to life, an instrument of our
salvation; it gives strength to resist temptation, to refrain from gossip or harsh words; it
dispels fear. If we learn to use the Cross effectively, we shall come through experience to
understand the Apostle’s words:
"But God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."

"Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"

Mathew 28:19