Friday, 1 October 2010

September 14 Elevation of the Holy Cross

The Elevation of the Holy Cross is the first feast of the Master in the ecclesiastical year.
Let us begin with the Synaxarion.  The Synaxarion records the vision of St Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles, before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312.  St Constantine had a vision of a cross above the sun in the midday sky and around the cross a legend in Greek, ‘In this sign conquer’.  St Constantine had a standard made according to the vision, which standard led his troops into the battle.  St Constantine’s troops won a decisive victory.
Subsequent to this, St Constantine’s mother, St Helen went to Jerusalem to find the Cross of Christ.  She found the Cross and also the crosses of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ, but only the Cross of Christ did a miracle, raising an old widow from the dead, and so the thieves’ crosses were discarded.  St Helen and her retinue venerated the Holy Cross.  The Christian population of Jerusalem also wished to venerate the Cross but were unable to because of their number. Therefore the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Makarios, standing in the pulpit raised the Cross up with his two hands before the people, who responded by repeatedly chanting ‘Lord have mercy’.  Since then the elevation of the Holy Cross has been celebrated every year in the Orthodox Church.  Part of the Cross was brought to Constantinople, along with nails of the Crucifixion, while part of the Cross remained in Jerusalem.
St Constantine granted toleration to Christianity in 313 by the Edict of Milan and St Constantine himself certainly favoured Christianity but it was Theodosius the Great who made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, in 380. The Byzantine Empire was a Christian empire, indeed an Orthodox Christian empire, until it fell in 1453.  Similarly the Russian Empire was an Orthodox Christian empire until it was overthrown in 1917.
In 614 the Zoroastrian Persians sacked Jerusalem taking the Cross as booty.  The Persians then ransomed the Cross back to the Greeks.  (In those days there was no reason to destroy someone else’s relic—it was worth money.)  Then in 628 Heraclius invaded Persia and achieved victory.  When he returned to Constantinople he had the Cross raised before the people in the main church of St Sophia the way it had been raised in Jerusalem three hundred years before.
This historical background helps us to understand the Apolytikion and the Kontakion of the feast:
Save, O Lord, your people and bless your inheritance, granting victories to the Kings against barbarians and guarding your nation by means of your Cross.
                                       (Apolytikion of the feast.)
O Christ God, you who have voluntarily been raised on the Cross, grant your mercies to the society called by your name.  Make our faithful Kings glad in your power, dispensing to them victories against the enemies.  May they have your alliance in battle, which alliance is the weapon of peace and the unconquerable standard.
                                       (Kontakion of the feast.)
Let us now look at the deeper meaning of the feast on the basis of a number of hymns from the service.
When you were raised on the Cross, O Master, you raised together with yourself all the fallen nature in Adam.  Therefore raising up your spotless Cross, O Lover of Mankind, we ask for your power from on high, crying: ‘Save us, O Most High, showing mercy as God to those who honour the reverend and light-bearing elevation of your divine Cross.’
                                       (At Lord have I cried in Small Vespers.)
As we can see, the Church does not lose sight of the central mystery of the Christian religion: when Christ was raised on the Cross, all of Man’s fallen nature was raised with him.  In what sense did Christ raise with him on the Cross all of Man’s fallen nature in Adam?  In two senses.  First Christ died for our sins—for the sins of all men.  Salvation is open to all men and women without exception.  No one is predestined to damnation.  There is a second sense, however, in which on the Cross Christ raises the fallen nature of Adam.  As we have learned from the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos of Photiki, Baptism restores the image of God in us, cleansing us from all sin and all influence of the Devil in our innermost self, and granting us in our innermost self the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  It is of course for us after our Baptism to work with the Holy Spirit to restore in ourselves the likeness to God.  As St Paul puts it, if we have died with Christ in Baptism we shall surely share in his Resurrection.  Here is how the service puts it:
The Cross when it is raised calls the whole creation to praise the spotless passion of him who was raised on the Cross.  For he revived and beautified those who in the Cross kill the one who kills us, those who had been put to death; and as compassionate because of exceeding goodness he made us worthy to live a life in Heaven.  Whence, having rejoiced, let us elevate his name and magnify his extreme condescension.
                                       (At Lord have I cried in Great Vespers.)

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