Icon, Part 2: The Elevation of the Holy Cross

 

The second Great Feast of the Orthodox liturgical year is on September 14, and marks two related events: first, the finding of The True Cross by Saint Helen, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, and secondly, the recovery and restoration, by the emperor Heraclius, of the cross to Jerusalem after its theft by the Persian Empire in its last major war against the Romans. This feast day is notable for being the only Great Feast day that is not commemorating any Biblical or Biblically-implied event. It is also the last such Great Feast day until mid-November.

It is also a profound story of imperial conquests, defeats, and cycles of losing and re-finding, played out over 1700 years. It involves the Christianization of the Roman Empire, a brutal war for the very survival of that empire, coups, assassinations, the elevation of the Cross itself as the single prevailing symbol of the faith, and many figures who loom large in our histories even today. Its story begins even before the finding of the Cross, with a commoner named Helen, who son Constantine would fundamentally reorder the Roman world. The story echoes even today in rural Ohio, in small but ornate wooden box, where a tiny fragment of wood, almost too small to be worth noticing, carries with it the arc of Christian history.

The History

Helen’s biography is somewhat murky and it was likely she was a commoner, but at some point, she either was married to or at least a concubine of Constantius Chlorus, one of the generals eventually appointed by Diocletian as a Caesar to govern a region of the empire. During this time she gave birth to Constantine, but little else is known of her except that Constantius separated (or divorced) from her in roughly 289-292, when he became Caesar, to marry Theodora, the daughter of Maximian, another Caesar. Until Constantine himself came of age and then defeated the other rival emperors and caesars, there is little to be said of Helen. Surviving histories of the time argue that she was not necessarily a Christian herself, and may have only converted after Constantine’s final victories.

When Constantine was secure on his throne and looking to bolster both himself and the position of Christianity, it is said that he asked his mother, Helen, to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to discover Christ’s tomb and the cross, in about 326. It was said that the emperor Hadrian, in an effort to squelch the then-nascent Christian faith in his own day, had built a temple to Venus and Jupiter over Golgotha, and that at Helen’s direction, with the aid of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Macarius, this temple was demolished so that the area could be excavated. The accounts do vary, but the story, as it was later told, is that Helen made inquiries of the locals for old lore about the location of Golgotha and the tomb, and that this, along with other signs, directed her to the tomb wherein were laid 3 crosses. The crosses were tested to determine the genuine one (it is said that a man, newly dead, was touched by each of them in turn, and at the touch of the correct one came back to life, thus revealing Christ’s cross). With the True Cross thus discovered and restored, a great church, The Church of the Resurrection (sometimes called The Temple of the Resurrection, now, much expanded, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre) was built on the place and consecrated by Macarius in the year 335 (well after Helen’s death in 327). The Cross was enshrined therein, though pieces of it were also taken back to Constantinople.

Historians today do dispute many aspects of this account, and some argue that Helen’s presence in the region was merely coincidental to the finding of the cross, and that her specific role in finding the cross may have been written in later as an embellishment. Nevertheless, this cross is directly referred to in surviving writings of the decades immediately following, regardless of its exact origins.

What is not in dispute is that in the early 600s, the Roman (Byzantine) empire, then under the emperor Phocas, was in a war to the death with the Persian empire under Khozroes II (spelling here varies). Khozroes’s armies initially inflicted massive defeats on the Romans, leading to a civil war alongside an existential war, and Heraclius and his father (also called Heraclius) eventually overthrew Phocas in 610. But repairing the imperial army was a long-term project, and Khozroes meanwhile captured the city of Jerusalem in the year 614, removing the cross and taking it back to Persepolis. Heraclius, when he was ready, fought a long war of attrition against Persia, initially to regain the lost Syrian and Egyptian provinces, then to drive into Persian territory itself. Heraclius in victory secured the cross and returned it to Jerusalem, where it was again elevated in 629.

Was this the real cross? Was it even the same cross found three centuries earlier? At this remove, it is impossible to say. Some have argued that what Heraclius got back from the Persians was already a replacement. Does its being the original cross necessarily matter? Probably not. Again, in Father Thomas Hopko’s words:

The holy day of the Elevation of the Cross, although it has an obviously “political” origin, has a place of great significance in the Church today. It remains with us as a day of fasting and prayer, a day when we recall that the Cross is the only sign worthy of our total allegiance, and that our salvation comes not by “victories” of any earthly sort but by the only true and lasting victory of the crucifixion of Christ and our co-crucifixion with him.

When we elevate the Cross and bow down before it in veneration and worship to God, we proclaim that we belong to the Kingdom “not of this world,” and that our only true and enduring citizenship is with the saints in the “city of God” (Eph 2.19; Heb 11.10; Rev 21–22).

The political origin of the feast day was as a dedication of the Roman Empire to Christianity. Prior to Constantine, the cross was rarely used as the symbol for Christianity, given that crucifixion was still actively used as a means of execution in the empire. After the finding of the One True Cross, however, the cross is seen around the empire, worn as a sign, or fixed atop churches and other buildings, much as it still is affixed to churches today.

The Icon

The traditional iconography of this Great Feast day always has three elements in common: Saint Macarius of Jerusalem holding up or elevating the cross, Saint Helen (or Helena, as she is sometimes called) at the foot of the cross, and some element indicating The Church of the Resurrection itself. The church can be depicted in a variety of ways, from a lofty Orthodox-style domed cathedral in the background, a roofed-over open-air pavilion (holding to the traditional convention that all events in icons are depicted out of doors), or a sort of pulpit in which Macarius stands. Some later medieval departures from iconographic traditions may, however, depict events inside a church.

Other saints may be present in some icons. Constantine is often depicted alongside Helen (though he was not present either at the finding or at the elevation in the newly consecrated church), as is Saint Judas, who was said to have been one of the locals who assisted Helen in the finding. Other anonymous imperial officials and church deacons may be present too, as will other saints.

The icons are not meant to be actual depictions of the historic event itself, but to instead present the centrality of the Cross itself. The eyes of all present are gazing at the cross in adoration and veneration.

The Festal Observance

This Great Feast is, contrary to the notion of being a feast day, actually a day of strict fasting for the Orthodox (no food for those who physically can abstain) until sundown. Different churches, depending on their schedules, mark it slightly differently — some with a vesperal Liturgy the night before (the Orthodox liturgical day actually runs from sundown to sundown, and thus begins at sundown on the 13th), some with a morning liturgy on the calendar day itself (and often this may depend on the day of the week – if the Feast is already on a Sunday, for instance). The Liturgy itself has some alterations too, including prostrations.

The normal antiphons are replaced by special verses from the psalms 22, 74, and 99, which have direct reference to Christ’s crucifixion on the Cross. A special hymn replaces the Trisagion hymn, as it is sung, the faithful prostrate. (source)

The gospel readings include the entire Passion account from the Gospel of John.

Of historic note, for the Feast’s origins in the Roman Empire, is the Troparion of the day, which had in its original form special blessings for the emperor, and for victory over barbarians:

O Lord, save Thy people,And bless Thine inheritance.
Grant victory to the Emperor [or “Thy people” or “the Orthodox Christians”]
Over the barbarians, [or “their enemies”]
And by the power of Thy CrossPreserve Thy commonwealth. [or “estate” or “habitation”]

What happened to the True Cross?

As soon as it was found in Jerusalem, reliquaries containing splinters or pieces of it were made, so even then it did not remain in its entirety in Jerusalem. When the Arabs captured the city for Islam, it was hidden, and later revealed (under threat and torture) to the Crusaders when they captured the city. Further fragments were then taken and put into reliquaries and sent abroad. What was once in the city was lost permanently when Saladin captured the city from the Crusaders. After Saladin, there is no reliable record of where it went.

And yet, small pieces and fragments of what is claimed to be the True Cross are to be found in many different Catholic and Orthodox churches to this day. There is an Orthodox monastery near where I live. Over the summer I spent a weekend there, and at the conclusion of the services of the Hours, just before the start of Orthros, the abbot brought out two small but ornate reliquary chests for veneration. One by one, the monks took their turns venerating the relics before returning to their places, at which time we lay folk in attendance proceeded forward to make our own venerations. In the first box were six relics of saints (I think one was of St. Anthony the Great), but in the second were some 20 small clear containers, each with a hand-written label. The one that caught my eye contained a small brown square of wood, perhaps only 2mm by 2mm. Its label read: The True Cross.

Was this the same that Helen may have found? The same elevated by Macarius? The same kept safely in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for centuries? The same stolen by the Persians and regained by Heraclius 14 centuries ago? I crossed myself twice, kissed the reliquary, made a metania, and returned to my place in the back, wondering.

Sources:
Orthodox Wiki
GOArch
Orthodox Wiki, on St. Helen
OCA, on St. Helen
http://www.roman-emperors.org/helena.htm
Father Thomas Hopko
Tertullian
http://www.theologic.com/oflweb/feasts/09-14.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraclius
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Cross

There are 13 comments.

  1. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    Part 1 can be found here:  Icon, Part 1: The Nativity of the Theotokos

    • #1
    • September 11, 2018, at 9:18 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  2. Joseph Stanko Member

    My (Catholic) bishop, Bishop Barber of Oakland, in response to recent scandals in our Church has called for a day of prayer on Sept 14th:

    On Sept. 14, the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, I call all of us in the diocese to a Day of Prayer, Penance and Reparation for the sins members of the Church have committed against innocent children.

    I ask our priests to hold a Holy Hour with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in each parish at a convenient time, to pray in reparation, for healing for the victims, and for the cleansing and reform of the Church and her ministers.

    I invite us all to do penance that day, especially my brother priests: to fast and make other personal sacrifices in reparation for the pain suffered by the innocent.

    • #2
    • September 11, 2018, at 9:38 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. Joseph Stanko Member

    SkipSul: This Great Feast is, contrary to the notion of being a feast day, actually a day of strict fasting for the Orthodox (no food for those who physically can abstain) until sundown.

    It does seem a bit of a misnomer to call it a feast. Is there a feast after sundown, or no feast at all?

    • #3
    • September 11, 2018, at 10:20 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    SkipSul: This Great Feast is, contrary to the notion of being a feast day, actually a day of strict fasting for the Orthodox (no food for those who physically can abstain) until sundown.

    It does seem a bit of a misnomer to call it a feast. Is there a feast after sundown, or no feast at all?

    After sundown.

    • #4
    • September 11, 2018, at 10:21 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Gary McVey Contributor

    What a wonderful post. Skipsul writes so well that even those with an intermittent, stubborn, faded faith can be stirred by something calling out, something behind the skilled words that’s too vivid to hide. 

    Or, heck, maybe it is just the skilled words. But an inspiring reason to think, Skip. It’s hard to imagine a more important issue. Thanks. 

    • #5
    • September 12, 2018, at 12:00 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  6. danok1 Member

    @skipsul does a great job here. Love this series.

    From the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s website, a few more details of the service:

    On the day of the Feast at the conclusion of the Matins or of the Divine Liturgy, a special service is held. The Cross is placed on a tray surrounded by branches of basil and is taken in solemn procession through the church to the chanting of the Hymn of the Feast. The tray is placed on a table, and the priest takes the Cross and offers petitions from each side of the table, the four directions of the compass. This represents the universal nature of the offering of Christ upon the Cross. As the people respond by chanting “Lord have mercy”, the priest raises and lowers the cross, a commemoration of its finding and exaltation. At the conclusion of the service, the people come and venerate the cross and receive the basil from the priest. The basil is used and offered, as it was the fragrant flower growing where the Cross was found.

     

    • #6
    • September 12, 2018, at 5:43 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    When you venerate a relic, what exactly are you doing? Is it like a focus for prayer to a saint? A commemoration of the saint’s life?

    I figure you aren’t actually worshiping it or doing magic with it. (I am not sure about all the people buying saint candles at the grocery store…)

    • #7
    • September 12, 2018, at 8:01 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    When you venerate a relic, what exactly are you doing? Is it like a focus for prayer to a saint? A commemoration of the saint’s life?

    I figure you aren’t actually worshiping it or doing magic with it. (I am not sure about all the people buying saint candles at the grocery store…)

    I’ll answer this when I can. It’s not a short answer, though, so it may be later today before I have time to write it all out.

    • #8
    • September 12, 2018, at 8:39 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Scott Wilmot Member

    These are really great posts. Thanks.

    • #9
    • September 12, 2018, at 11:40 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    When you venerate a relic, what exactly are you doing? Is it like a focus for prayer to a saint? A commemoration of the saint’s life?

    I figure you aren’t actually worshiping it or doing magic with it. (I am not sure about all the people buying saint candles at the grocery store…)

    First the dictionary definitions:

    venerate |ˈvenəˌrāt| verb [with object] regard with great respect; revere: Mother Teresa is venerated as a saint.

    Veneration (Latin veneratio or dulia, Greek δουλεία, douleia), or veneration of saints, is the act of honoring a saint, a person who has been identified as having a highdegree of sanctity or holiness.[1]

    In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, veneration is shown outwardly by respectfully bowing or making the sign of the cross before a saint’s icon, relics, or statue, or by going on pilgrimage to sites associated with saints.

    From Orthodox Wiki:

    Veneration (gr. doulia) is a way to show great respect and love for the holy. It is to treat something or someone with reverence, deep respect, and honor. Veneration is distinct from worship (gr. latreia), for worship is a total giving over of the self to be united with God, while veneration is showing delight for what God has done. There can be confusion because one may venerate what one worships as well as venerate others. Veneration is part of worship to the Orthodox faithful, but they show love and respect to more than the God they worship.

    Act of Veneration: 

    Kiss

    The kiss is an action firmly rooted in Orthodoxy. When they enter into the church, it is customary that Orthodox Christians venerate or kiss the icons. This shows love and respect. The faithful may also kiss the Priest’s right hand from time to time. This, too, is an act of veneration. The people are venerating the High Priesthood of Christ, of which the parish priest is simply a participant.

    Honorific bow

    Bowing can be a sign of worship as when bowing to Christ at his icon, or his cross. More often bowing is veneration as when bowing to each other, or to the saints at their icons.

    Veneration of icons

    Icons are images. The reverence and veneration shown to icons, however, is not directed to mere paint, wood, or stones, but towards the saints depicted. Even when a miracle-working icon is highly venerated, it is the true source of the miracles (God, through the intercessions of that specific saint) that is respected.

    If you remember your Old Testament, objects like Aaron’s staff could be imbued by God with something ineffable. So it is with saints, or objects they may have handled or possessed. So too with the cross. We are created beings, and God, who is uncreated, works through us and sometimes through things we in turn have created (see Acts 19: 11-12). We do not worship such people or objects, but do them honor for what God has wrought through them, or for what they represent or symbolize.

    When the monks were venerating the relics, or when we venerate the Cross during this feast or during Lent, we cross ourselves, bow (sometimes a bow, sometimes a metania, which is a low bow where you touch the ground with your hand, sometimes a prostration where you go down on your knees and even touch your forehead to the ground), and kiss the cross – not for what that object is (which is created symbol, fashioned by human hands), but for what God, through Christ, wrought on the Cross on Golgotha.

    • #10
    • September 12, 2018, at 2:42 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Joseph Stanko Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    SkipSul: This Great Feast is, contrary to the notion of being a feast day, actually a day of strict fasting for the Orthodox (no food for those who physically can abstain) until sundown.

    It does seem a bit of a misnomer to call it a feast. Is there a feast after sundown, or no feast at all?

    After sundown.

    So if you’re hungry, how do you know if the sun has gone down yet? Is there an official time, or do you just go outside and look?

    • #11
    • September 14, 2018, at 6:59 PM PDT
    • Like
  12. SkipSul Moderator
    SkipSul Post author

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    SkipSul: This Great Feast is, contrary to the notion of being a feast day, actually a day of strict fasting for the Orthodox (no food for those who physically can abstain) until sundown.

    It does seem a bit of a misnomer to call it a feast. Is there a feast after sundown, or no feast at all?

    After sundown.

    So if you’re hungry, how do you know if the sun has gone down yet? Is there an official time, or do you just go outside and look?

    The fasting guidelines are monastic in origin, and so mostly only fully kept by the monks and nuns as they live in such a way that their meals are scheduled anyway. As I heard one cradle Orthodox put it, in advice she was giving to converts “Don’t play monk!” You fast as well as you are able, and worrying about the exact time would defeat the purpose of fasting as a spiritual tool for prayer and self discipline. “Sundown” is more of a guidepost in that regard. Some people schedule their fasting differently – some do midnight to midnight, some do sundown to sundown, some don’t strictly fast but just cut back a lot. My own priest is a full time school teacher (our parish is too small to support him as a full time priest), and a strict fast with a bunch of school kids would be madness – he needs all the energy he can get during the day. So you do what your able to do, in such a way as is an aid to prayer and self discipline.

    • #12
    • September 15, 2018, at 7:24 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  13. danok1 Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    SkipSul: This Great Feast is, contrary to the notion of being a feast day, actually a day of strict fasting for the Orthodox (no food for those who physically can abstain) until sundown.

    It does seem a bit of a misnomer to call it a feast. Is there a feast after sundown, or no feast at all?

    After sundown.

    So if you’re hungry, how do you know if the sun has gone down yet? Is there an official time, or do you just go outside and look?

    The fasting guidelines are monastic in origin, and so mostly only fully kept by the monks and nuns as they live in such a way that their meals are scheduled anyway. As I heard one cradle Orthodox put it, in advice she was giving to converts “Don’t play monk!” You fast as well as you are able, and worrying about the exact time would defeat the purpose of fasting as a spiritual tool for prayer and self discipline. “Sundown” is more of a guidepost in that regard. Some people schedule their fasting differently – some do midnight to midnight, some do sundown to sundown, some don’t strictly fast but just cut back a lot. My own priest is a full time school teacher (our parish is too small to support him as a full time priest), and a strict fast with a bunch of school kids would be madness – he needs all the energy he can get during the day. So you do what your able to do, in such a way as is an aid to prayer and self discipline.

    And just to clarify, in the Orthodox church a “strict fast” doesn’t mean you eat nothing (that would be a “total fast”). Rather, we avoid meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, wine, and oil. I’ll also note that “fish” doesn’t include shellfish. So there are a number of foods one may eat while keeping within a “strict fast.”

    • #13
    • September 15, 2018, at 8:34 AM PDT
    • 3 likes