The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross does not primarily commemorate the crucifixion of Christ. That saving event is commemorated every year on Great and Holy Friday. Our feast of September 14 commemorates the finding of the Cross in the fourth century, when the bishop of Jerusalem took it in his hands, lifted it up (i.e. elevated it), crying out over and over again with joy, “Lord have mercy!” Until that time the wood lay hidden in a cistern, lost and forgotten amid the other debris of Jerusalem in the decades before and after the city’s destruction in 70 A.D. When the Emperor Constantine (aided and abetted by his mother, Helen) began excavating the site preparatory to building the Church of the Resurrection there over the place where Christ was crucified, buried, and raised, his workmen found the discarded wood in a cistern. After prayer, the story goes, a miracle revealed which bit of wood was the cross of Christ, at which time the bishop lifted it up in joy.
This feast is not simply about the wood, but also about the Church. After years of laying in the dark, the cross was finally lifted up and subjected to honour, veneration, and enrichment. It was kissed and displayed before all the world as the divine weapon of peace. In the same way the Church in those centuries also lay hidden in the dark, dreading and avoiding persecution and death, living in the metaphorical catacombs. Now it could emerge from the darkness of obscurity and fear and stand blinking in the bright sun of a new Constantinian day. Christians would find themselves honoured and their churches subject to veneration and enrichment. Decius and Diocletian were dead. The long day of Byzantium had come, a day which would not see final sunset for a thousand years.
The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross is therefore the feast of Byzantium, a celebration of the Church’s new status under a Christian regime. One can see this from the original words of the tropar hymn for that feast: “O Lord, save Your people and bless Your inheritance, giving victories to the kings over the barbarians and guarding Your citizenry with Your Cross.” The kings of course were the reigning Christian emperors, and the barbarians were the pagan powers next door. The supplicated victories were not spiritual, but military; the hymn prayed for military triumph on the field of battle. The citizenry (Greek politevma) was the Byzantine state. Now that the situation has changed so dramatically, we sing a different version of the tropar, with the kings becoming “Orthodox Christians” and the barbarians becoming simply their “adversaries”. The victories are commonly thought to be spiritual ones, since the adversaries are no longer our national foes, but our spiritual ones, the demons. It is no bad alteration, though others have suggested political alternatives more in keeping with our current political reality.
I love the Byzantine brocade and Imperial-style pomp as well as the next man—or at least I understand why it came to be. But the brocade and the gold and the precious stones now adorning the Cross do not constitute its true glory, nor ours either. Even during Byzantium, the true glory of the Cross consisted not in gold, but in the shame of God, the astonishing divine humility which He would dare to endure even the humiliating death of the cross for our sake. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “Far be it from me that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14). That is, Paul cared no more for the world’s glory, applause, and fame than a dead man would care for it. He was content to share the shame of his Lord, and to hang on the cross with Him, vilified and misunderstood and hated by all, so long as he could do the will of God. That is the true glory of the Cross—and of the Church which kisses the Cross every Sunday, and which lives by its power. Brocade is fine and the applause of the world is wonderful (though it should always make our consciences a little uneasy). But all brocade will eventually rot and the world will one day fall into the fire of the Last Day. Then it will become apparent that our true glory lay in our willingness to suffer with Christ. We surround the Cross with flowers at this feast to honour it, and this is as it should be. Let us take care to also adorn it with our love, and a determination to hang upon it ourselves if God wills, caring nothing for the world, and giving everything to God.