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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.
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 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.
Orthodox Wiki, on St. Helen
OCA, on St. Helen
Father Thomas Hopko