Joy of the Feast, Happy Feast Day! Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the exaltation of the precious and life giving cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What is this feast and why do we celebrate it?
There are actually two reasons that we celebrate a feast on this day, regarding the main reason, The reading for the day tells us that, “The pagan Roman emperors tried to completely eradicate from human memory the holy places where our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and was resurrected for mankind. The Emperor Hadrian (117-138) gave orders to cover over the ground of Golgotha and the Sepulcher of the Lord, and to build a temple of the pagan goddess Venus and a statue of Jupiter. Pagans gathered at this place and offered sacrifice to idols there. Eventually after 300 years, by Divine Providence, the great Christian sacred remains, the Sepulcher of the Lord and the Life-Creating Cross were again discovered and opened for veneration. This took place under the Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) after his victory in the year 312 over Maxentius, ruler of the Western part of the Roman empire, and over Licinius, ruler of its Eastern part. In the year 323 Constantine became the sole ruler of the vast Roman Empire.
In 313 he had issued the Edict of Milan, by which the Christian religion was legalized and the persecutions against Christians in the Western half of the empire were stopped…. The Holy Equal of the Apostles Emperor Constantine, having gained victory over his enemies in three wars with God’s assistance, had seen in the heavens the Sign of the Cross, and written beneath: “By this you shall conquer.”
Ardently desiring to find the Cross on which our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, Saint Constantine sent his mother, the pious Empress Helen (May 21), to Jerusalem. Although the holy empress Helen was already in her declining years, she set about completing the task with enthusiasm. The empress gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem. Searching for the Life-Creating Cross, she made inquiry of Christians and Jews, but for a long time her search remained unsuccessful.
Finally, they directed her to a certain elderly Hebrew by the name of Jude who stated that the Cross was buried where the temple of Venus stood. They demolished the pagan temple and, after praying, they began to excavate the ground. Soon the Tomb of the Lord was uncovered. Not far from it were three crosses, a board with the inscription ordered by Pilate, and four nails which had pierced the Lord’s Body (March 6).
In order to discern on which of the three crosses the Savior was crucified, Patriarch Macarius alternately touched the crosses to a corpse. When the Cross of the Lord touched the dead one, he came to life. Having beheld the raising of the dead man, everyone was convinced that the Life-Creating Cross was found.
Christians came in a huge throng to venerate the Holy Cross, beseeching Saint Macarius of Jerusalem to elevate the Cross, so that even those far off might reverently contemplate it. Then the Patriarch and other spiritual leaders raised up the Holy Cross, and the people, saying “Lord have mercy,” reverently prostrated before the Venerable Wood. This solemn event occurred in the year 326.” (oca.org)
In this feast we are reminded that as Orthodox Christians believe that matter itself can be sanctified because Jesus Christ the Son of God took human flesh and became a man and dwelt in the material world. He sanctified this material world by His presence and of course this extends most powerfully to the wood of the cross upon which Our Lord was crucified. It is a reminder that the crucifixion really happened and really matters for us. Through the Cross is joy given to the world. Through the cross is life given to us through our baptism.
St. Theophan the Recluse wrote: “The Lord accomplished our salvation by His death on the Cross: on the Cross He tore up the handwriting of our sins; through the Cross He reconciled us with our God and Father; and through the Cross He brought down upon us grace-filled gifts and all heavenly blessings.” But he continues by saying something rather striking, he writes,“But this is the Lord’s Cross itself. Each of us becomes a partaker of its salvific power in no other way than through our personal cross. When the personal cross of each of us is united with Christ’s Cross, the power and effect of the latter is transferred to us and becomes, as it were, a conduit through which every good gift and every perfect gift (James 1:17) is poured forth upon us from the Cross of Christ. From this it is evident that the personal cross of each of us is as essential to the work of salvation as the Cross of Christ.”
St. Theophan is telling us that it is not enough to pay attention and venerate the cross of the Lord. He tells us that we also have to respect, almost revere the crosses and struggles that God has given to each of us, because we are sons and daughters of God through our baptism and whenever a son or daughter of God faithfully carries their crosses, multitudes of people are sanctified and saved through such heroic acts. In this way, each and every one of us is given an opportunity to live the life of Christ, to choose the hard way, to deny ourselves and to make our only desire, the will of the Father. St. John Chrysostom writes, “Through the Cross we learn the power of love and we are taught to die for others.” So take stock and inventory of the difficulties and the hardships that have been allowed by God for you and be thankful and trust that through perseverance and faithfulness, God can transform what is difficult and painful in your life into something truly majestic, wonderful and holy.
What are the difficult and painful things in your life? God knows. For some it is struggling through addictions or physical and mental illness. For others it is a struggle with a difficult husband or wife or a marriage that is less than satisfying. For some it is difficult co-workers. For all of us it is the struggle against our disordered passions and our inclinations to sin. God sees your struggle and knows your crosses. Sometimes we are at wits end and we look up to the heavens and say “Lord I cannot do it any longer, I cannot bear this cross!” At this very moment, we are encouraged not to deny our crosses and run away from them, but to have faith and focus our gaze on the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. The cross is a reminder of God’s powerful sign of love and we can ask the Lord for strength to carry our crosses with joy and strength, trusting that even these present difficulties can be used for our salvation and our good.
I want to leave you with another lovely quite from St. John Chrysostom who writes,
“What is more precious than the Cross and what is more saving for the soul? The Cross is the triumph over demons, the armor against sin and the sword with which the Lord has struck the snake. The Cross is the will of the Father, the glory of the Only-begotten, the joy of the Holy Spirit, the ornament of angels, the protection of the Church, the praise of St. Paul, the protection of the Saints, the lamp of all the world.” Joy of the Feast!