Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
Dr. Alexander Roman firstname.lastname@example.org
The Calendar of the Orthodox Church is unlike other calendars. For one thing, the Calendar does not always follow a linear progression of events.
Its sole purpose is to present to us the Mystery of Christ and His Salvation to our great spiritual benefit.
Only a few days ago, we celebrated the beginning of our Salvation with the Nativity of Her from whom the Son of God would take flesh. Today, as if to skip a number of intervening events in salvation history, the Church bids us to glorify Christ Crucified and exalt His precious and life-giving Cross.
For me, the closeness of these two Feasts teaches that all history is related to its central focus which is Christ Crucified and Resurrected.
Every Feast, every event in the life of the Church has this as Her main and ultimate focus.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross underlines the role of the Most Holy Theotokos as agent of our Salvation through Christ, and we, who yesterday shared in the joy of her parents, Joachim and Anna, at the birth of their Daughter, today remember how She stood beneath the very same Cross we celebrate.
The Orthodox theology of the Cross is called, "Stavrology" from the Greek, "Stavros" for "Cross." It is very rich and symbolically mystical and the Church's services for this day provide its outline. After all, Orthodoxy unites both worship and belief in one composite spiritual experience.
We exalt the Cross today because, by the Suffering of Him Who was crucified on it, we are ourselves exalted. Thanks to the sacrifice of the Cross, the Gates of Heaven are opened to us. We are invited to participate in the great salvation of Christ by participation in His Body through the means of sanctification and divinization offered us by the Church. Having fallen through sin, humanity is exalted, lifted up in Christ. Having eaten the forbidden fruit of the Tree in Adam, we are saved through the Tree of the Cross and are enabled to eat of Its Fruit, which is Christ in Holy Communion.
The moving and beautiful services in honour of the Cross refer to Christ Crucified as the "Cluster of Grapes from which exudes the Wine of gladness."
There is a special emphasis in the role of the Holy Trinity in our salvation in today's services as well. Christ is said to be seen by us in "The cedar, the pine and the cypress."
This is an allusion to the Isaiah 60:13: "The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together to beautify the place of my sanctuary, and I will make the place of my feet glorious." There is a tradition that three types of tree grew together in one spot. An Icon of the Orthodox Church celebrates this and has St Lot, the nephew of Abraham, watering the trees. It was from these trees (different translations refer to different types, but pine, cedar and cypress have the longest tradition) that the Cross of Christ was made.
The Cross of Calvary in the Orthodox Church, East and West, had three tiers or bars: The title where the charge against Christ was written by Pilate, the cross-bar to which Christ's hands were nailed and the (slanted) foot-rest. Some have commented that three types of wood referred to above were reflected in these different parts of the Cross.
Isaiah and the Psalms speak of the "Place of the Feet" of God. The Church today celebrates the fulfillment of this prophecy in Her veneration for the Cross and the slanted Foot-rest of Christ which is "Made glorious." As it is mentioned in the Lenten Ninth Hour, the foot-rest is a kind of scale whereby the Good Thief, through his confession and defence of Christ, is brought upwards and the other, through his blasphemy, is brought downwards. The Prayer of the Good Thief figures prominently as a pre-Communion prayer in the Orthodox Church. ("Thieves" were not common robbers, but political insurgents against Rome.) There is also the beautiful service whereby the Priest faces the four corners of the Earth, in cross-wise fashion, and slowly lifts up or exalts a Cross as he recites, "Lord Have Mercy" 100 times for each direction. Bishops perform a similar ceremony during Pontifical Divine Liturgies. The Celtic tradition has another rite performed the same way where the Our Father is recited three times facing each direction.
"Lord have mercy," in Ukrainian, is based on the word for "Oil" as it is in Greek, ("Eleison"). Through the Cross, we now have access to the Oil of God's Mercy which is the Holy Spirit, like the Wise Virgins and their lamps. The Mount of Olives, favoured by Christ, represents this and at the foot of that mount was an actual olive press to make oil. As one Saints said, "At the end of time, we won't be able to say long prayers, but we will always have time to say, 'Lord have mercy!'" There are many traditions associated with the Cross in history. One well-known one is the "Touch wood" saying which refers to the tradition of touching a nearby Cross with one's fingers in thanksgiving. Bread is still divided up cross-wise. And Orthodox Christians use the Sign of the Cross, on themselves and on other things, much more than any others.
We should bless everything with the words, "This (food or bed or whatever) is being blessed with the Sign of the Holy Cross + in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
We wear the Cross around our necks on a cord as the symbol of our Covenant with Christ. We should use it to bless ourselves as well. Our whole life is signed in the Cross because in it we are save, sanctified and divinized.
It is our banner, our protection and the ensign of Christ the King, as well as our shield and the terror of the Evil One.