For the Jews, the cross was a tree of shame and for the Romans it was an instrument of execution. But for the Christians the cross became the symbol of victory and salvation, an object of special veneration. The Primitive Church provides us with sufficient and definite evidence of the veneration of the Holy Cross. With the granting of peace by Constantine I and the discovery of the true Cross of Christ (about A.D. 326), the veneration of the Holy Cross became public and very popular.
1. The true Cross of Christ was discovered during the excavating operations, supervised by Archbishop Macarius of Jerusalem (314-335), of the holy sites chosen for the erection of two basilicas.
These magnificent edifices were commissioned by Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337). The one, called Martyrion, was to be built on the hill of Calvary and the other, known as the Church of the Resurrection or Anastasis was to be built over the Holy Sepulchre. During this time, the Emperor’s mother, St. Helena, was visiting the Holy City. Thus tradition credits her with the discovery and first veneration of the true Cross of Christ. (cf. St. Ambrose, Oration on Theodosius, 43-46) After recovering the Holy Cross, St. Helena sent a considerable portion of the Holy Wood to her son, Emperor Constantine the Great, in Constantinople.
Another part of the Holy Relics was sent to Rome which was later deposited in the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. But the greatest part of the True Cross was enclosed in a silver case and was placed in the Chapel of Cross, especially erected for this purpose between the Martyrion and the Anastasis.
There is no doubt that the True Cross of Christ was discovered at the beginning of the fourth century. Twenty years later, in 348 A.D., St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386), while serving as a preacher of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Anastasis), mentioned the Holy Relics several times in his famous Catecheses. (cf. Catechesis IV, 10; X, 14; XIII, 4) After being consecrated the Bishop of Jerusalem, he informed Emperor Constantius II, in his letter of May 7, 351 that “the salutary tree of the Cross was discovered in Jerusalem during the reign of his pious father, Constantine of bl. m.”. (cf. Migne, P.G., vol. 33, col. 1168) A detailed description of the finding of the True Cross of Christ is given to us by the Monk of Crete, Alexander, (VI century) in his encomium, On the Finding of the Venerable Cross. (cf. P.G., 87, 4015-4074) And St. Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (d. 638) exclaimed during one of his sermons: “Behold the sepulcher – a clear proof of Christ’s resurrection; behold His Cross being adored! They both are the trophies of our own salvation!” (cf. P.G., 87, 3305)
2. After separating the historical facts from the legendary elements, it is most probable that the first public veneration of the Holy Cross took place in Jerusalem on September 14, 335, at the time of the solemn dedication of the two Constantinian Basilicas, the Martyrion on Calvary and the Anastasis over the Holy Sepulchre. The pious pilgrim Eteria, who visited the Holy Places in 380 A.D., wrote in her Diary of a Pilgrimage: “The dedication of these churches is observed with great solemnities, since the Cross of the Lord was also found on that day.” (cf. Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 38, ch. 48)
The annual observance of The Dedication of the basilicas together with the exposition of the Holy Cross attracted a great multitude of pilgrims.
Because of the great number of people, all were not able to venerate the Relics of the True Cross individually. This prompted them to petition the Bishop to have the Holy Relics elevated so that they would be able to at least see them if they were unable to personally venerate them. (cf. St. Sophronius, Life of St. Mary of Egypt, ch. 21-24)
It was then that the Bishop decided to elevate the Relics of the Holy Cross for the benefit of the pilgrims who spontaneously fell on their knees and, with compunction in their heart, cried out ” Lord have mercy!” incessantly. (cf. Greek Menologion in Migne, P.G., 117, col. 48)
This was the beginning of the feast of The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which the “Fathers under the Emperor’s order established to celebrate on the fourteenth of September.” (cf. Alexander the Monk, in Migne, P.G., 87, 4072)
3. The feast of The Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross (Gr. Hypsosis; SI. Vozdvizenije – elevation, lifting up) was shortly after introduced in Constantinople from where it was brought by St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) to Rome. Thus, at the end of the 6th century the feast became ” Universal,” being celebrated in the East and the West. (cf. Ibid., col. 4072)
In 614, the Persian king Chosroes II sacked Jerusalem and took, along with the spoils, the Relics of the True Cross which were enclosed in a gold-plated box. However, they were soon recovered by Emperor Heraclius II (610-641) who defeated the Persians and in the spring of 629 personally carried them back to Jerusalem. The return of the True Cross to the Church of Jerusalem by the Emperor considerably enhanced the veneration of the Holy Cross.
It was about this same time that, in Jerusalem, the week of the Third Sunday of Lent was also dedicated to the Veneration of the Holy Cross.
St. Sophronius (d. 638), the saintly Patriarch of Jerusalem, testified to this in a sermon delivered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He gave the following reasons which inspired this mid-Lent devotion to the Holy Cross: 1. To encourage the faithful in their spiritual efforts during Lent; 2. To assure them of the remission of their sins; 3. To join their sufferings to the redeeming sufferings of Jesus Christ, that they also become the partakers of His glorious resurrection. (cf. Migne, P.G., 87, 3309-3316)
After the VII Ecumenical Council, which convened in Nicaea in 787 A.D. and approved the veneration of icons and, particularly, the veneration of the crucifix, the exposition of the Holy Cross on the Third Sunday of Lent was introduced in Constantinople. It was liturgically enriched by the compositions of St. Theodore Studite (d. 826) and his brother, Joseph Studite (d. 833). The Book of Ceremonies, compiled by the order of the Emperor, Constantine VII, in the middle of the 10th century, describes the manner of the exposition of the Holy Relics of the Cross for Mid-Lent Sunday which is referred to as the “Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross.” (cf. Migne, P.G., 112,1017-1020)
4. In 637, the Arabs, led by Calif Omar, occupied Jerusalem causing it to lose its significance as a liturgical center. Consequently, the further evolution of the Byzantine Rite and of the Veneration of the Holy Cross depended on Constantinople.
The Arab expansion and the Moslem threat to the Byzantine Empire at the time did indeed greatly enhance the devotion to the Holy Cross for it became for the Christians a symbol of victory and defense.
Until the XIII century, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was reserved to the Cathedral churches since they usually had the Relics of the True Cross. It was only in 1276 that the Ritual of the Exaltation was permitted to be introduced into all churches, even in those in the small villages.
Thus, by natural development, in those churches where they had no Relics of the True Cross, they used an ordinary wooden cross, a crucifix, for the ceremony. Being a symbol of victory-Christ’s victory over the devil and over sin and death, the cross was crowned or decorated with laurels, garlands and flowers and accompanied by lighted candles during the exposition .
According to liturgical custom, the Cross used for veneration in our churches should be a wooden cross, since it is a symbol of the ” life-giving tree.” The decorations should have branches of basil or some other fragrant herbs to symbolize the sweet fragrance of the spiritual life secured for us by the Cross. In cases where the periwinkle wreath is used, some live flowers should be inserted into the periwinkle to provide the sweet fragrance. Covering the tetrapod or table where the exposition will take place with a red aer or vozduch, the Cross is placed on a golden plate which symbolizes the high spiritual value of the Cross, referred to in the Greek as timios – Precious Cross. The burning of candles by the cross reminds the faithful that the Cross of Christ rather “enlightens than obscures” the life of Christians on their way to salvation. (comp. St. Theodore Studite, P.G., 88, 691) The red liturgical vestments used symbolize the precious blood of Christ paid as a ransom for our redemption. (comp. I Pet. 1 :18-19) In honor of Christ’s passion, the Fathers prescribed a strict fast for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross even if the Feast coincided with Sunday.
5. The ceremony of the exposition of the Holy Cross takes place during the Great Doxology of the Matins. The celebrant, vested in full priestly vestments, incenses the Cross which had been previously placed on the altar and then, lifting it over his head, carries it in procession around the altar to the Royal Doors. When the faithful complete singing the Great Doxology and the Trisagion, he lifts up the Cross and intones: “Wisdom, be attentive!” to which the people respond with the singing of the troparion of the Holy Cross:
” Save Your people, O Lord . . . ” The celebrant then goes to the prepared tetrapod where he places the Cross and incenses it from all four sides.
After the incensing, the celebrant, standing in front of the tetrapod, elevates the Cross over his head and intones the first petition of the Litany of Supplication: “Have mercy on us, O Lord . .. ”
As the faithful respond singing the twelve “Lord have mercy!” in a descending scale, the celebrant bows deeply with the Holy Cross; as they begin to sing the same in ascending tones he rises to an upright position and blesses three times with the upheld Cross toward the East. This same ceremony is repeated from the four sides of the tetrapod taking a different petition from the Litany each time, i.e. for the Pope and the Government, for the Bishops and the Clergy, and finally for all the people, imparting a triple blessing each time – to the four corners of the earth.
Completing this ceremony, the celebrant places the Holy Cross on the tetrapod and intones the hymn of veneration: “We bow to Your Cross, O Lord, and we praise Your holy resurrection!” during which all the faithful make a profound bow. The faithful repeat the hymn twice, each time making the profound bow. The singing of the Sticheras for Kissing the Cross follows during which the individual veneration of the Cross takes place. The faithful come from their pews one-byone and go to the tetrapod where they make a deep bow and gratefully kiss the Holy Cross, mindful of the words of St. John Chrysostom: “There is no greater sign of God’s love for us than the Holy Cross!” (cf. Homily on /I Tim., 2, 1), and of St. Theodore Studite: “Blessed are the lips which kiss this most precious sign (of our salvation).” (cf. P.G., 99, col. 694).
The Holy Cross remains on the tetrapod for public veneration throughout the entire week during which the hymn of veneration: ” We bow to Your Cross, O Lord, …” is sung at the Divine Liturgy in place of the Trisagion.