Exaltation of the Precious Cross
14 September 2021
Today’s feast of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross has its origins in a great event in Church history: the finding of the Holy Cross by St Helen, the mother of St Constantine the Great. As you know, the Roman Empire, the great enemy of the People of Israel and persecutor of the Christian Church, had been defeated with the religious conversion and repentance of its Emperor, Constantine, after he saw the sign of the Cross in the sky, along with the words “In this sign conquer” (Εν τούτω νικά / In hoc signo vinces).
Among the first acts of the newly Christian emperor was to transfer the capital of the empire from old Rome, which had become synonymous with idolatry, to Byzantium, on which he founded the city of New Rome. St Constantine then proceeded to build churches at all the various sites in the Holy Land connected to the life of Jesus.
As Christ had prophesied, the Romans had destroyed the Jewish Temple and had banished the Jews from Jerusalem. They changed the name of the city, changed the name of the area – calling it Palestine, after the Philistines who were the enemies of the Jews – and built pagan temples on the various holy sites, including Christian ones. On the site of Golgotha stood a temple to Aphrodite, over the cave of Bethlehem, a temple to Adonis.
St Constantine therefore ordered that all of these pagan temples be destroyed in order for Christian churches to be built in their stead, and his mother St Helen had travelled to the Holy Land to oversee the works. When they began to dig near the hill of Golgotha, they found three crosses: the Lord’s and the two theives’. Which of the three crosses was the Lord’s was revealed by a miracle, when a dying woman was healed of her illness and raised when she came into contact with the third cross. With great joy, St Helen handed the cross over to St Makarios, the Bishop of the Holy City, who exalted it for veneration, as a sign of the victory and power of our Crucified Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Cross was thus the weapon with which the Lord conquered death (and “him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” – Heb. 2:14), and the weapon with which the Church conquered the Romans and their idols.
Likewise for us, the Cross is the weapon with which we are able to conquer the passions. Because we have turned the temple of our bodies into a temple of idols, and we have turned the City of the Lord, the spiritual Jerusalem which is the human heart, into the dwelling place of sin. And the only way in which we are able to conquer the passions, to reclaim the Holy City, and to cleanse the holy places of idols, is by the weapon of the Cross; that is, with self-sacrifice, humility and obedience.
For since the passions come from pride and a false desire for self-sufficiency, the antidote can be nothing other than the Cross. If someone attempts to cast out the passions with nothing but stubborn pride, he is “casting out demons by the ruler of demons” (Matt. 9:34), and is just replacing the lesser evil with a greater one.
The demons, like us human beings, fell through pride. However, unlike man, the pride of the demons is absolute. The only thing the demons cannot do, is to humble themselves. Thus, when man descends in humility, he goes where the demons cannot follow him. Only there, then, does man find his freedom, only there can man throw off the heavy burden of sin, allowing God to exalt him and raise him up to glory. This is what the Lord means when he says, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). This is the paradoxical way of the Cross, which is the source of joy and our hope.
Let us pray, then, using the words of the Orthodox wedding service: “May that joy come upon [us] which the blessed Helen had when she found the Precious Cross”. Amen.
Fr Kristian Akselberg