Reflecting on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Augustin Sokolovski, Priest, Doctor of Theology 

Orthodox Christians look forward to, greet and say farewell to each of the great feasts as if they were dearly beloved human beings. Now we bid farewell to the Feast of the Exaltation of the Lord in the year 2021. This is the first year of the third decade of the third millennium. The Church, as a Society of the Faithful and a Communion of the Interpreters, tries to understand the scriptural readings that, according to the Lectionary, were read on the festive days.

Thus, during the Divine Liturgy of the Sunday after the Exaltation, according to the lectionary, a passage from the Apostle Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, dedicated to the Cross of the Lord, is read. The essence of Paul's words is the truth that salvation is only possible through the Cross of Christ. Salvation is the life of God in me, salvation is when I am no longer alone forever. "By the law I died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And what I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal.2:19-20).

In the Gospel reading, the Mark quotes the words of the Lord Jesus: "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him take up his Cross and follow Me. "Let him take up his Cross" and only his own. For he who fraudulently declares himself capable of taking up another's cross is the Antichrist. It is he, the substitute for Jesus, and the Anti-Christ, who will declare all the troubles of human being finished. "For when they say, 'peace and safety,' then suddenly hell will befall them" (1 Thess. 5:3).

So, the Exaltation is one of the twelve most significant feasts of the liturgical year in the Orthodox Tradition. To us, and especially to people of the "Pre-pandemic Era," such a large number of celebrations may have seemed excessive. However, for a person of the time of the Ecumenical Councils, when our liturgical circle was actually formed, every day was a gift. No one knew what the coming day would bring. This was a genuine confession of the fragility, the vulnerability, the “unbearable lightness of one's own being”. Is not the same thing actually happening today? In this is a sign of the times, an incredibly authentic opportunity to engage with the uniqueness of church celebrations of every feast.

Unlike the other eleven greatest feasts, the Exaltation does not refer to events from Biblical history. For example, the Nativity of Christ is described in the Gospel and the celebration of Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ the Savior into the world. The Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple - commemorates the first entrance of the Virgin Mary into the Temple in Jerusalem. It is described in the Tradition. And so on. 

The Exaltation does not commemorate the life of Jesus or Mary but owes its origin to two events. First, it is the Finding of the Holy Cross, on which the Lord was historically crucified, in the year 326 under Emperor Constantine (+337) in Jerusalem. 

Secondly, the Feast of the Exaltation has as its occasion the return of the Cross from the Persian Captivity in the year 629 under the Emperor Heraclius (+629). At the beginning of the seventh century, the Roman Empire, with its capital in Constantinople, was at war with the Persian Empire, another major superpower of the day. As a result of a series of defeats of the Romans, that is, the orthodox "Byzantines", the cross was captured and taken prisoner. Emperor Heraclius set out on a campaign to retrieve the Cross and in the course of a retaliatory offensive, he returned the Relic to Jerusalem and restored the Holy City, which had been ravaged by the enemies. So again, as if three centuries and three days earlier in 326, the solemn glorification of the Cross - its Exaltation - took place in 629. These two historical events are the foundation, the reason, the motive, and the main focus of the whole celebration. 

The period from the "First" to the "Second Exaltation" lasted exactly 303 years. By analogy with the Constantinian Time, the epoch of Orthodox Christian superpowers headed by Emperors, Tsars and Kings who supported the Church, from Constantine I to Nicholas II, the time from the discovery of the Cross to its "Persian" return can be called the "time of the Exaltation". 

At that time the Orthodox Christian world lived with a very special feeling. It seemed, everyone was convinced, and everyone believed that the time was about to come when Orthodox Christianity would spread throughout the whole universe. There will be a world triumph of Christianity on our planet, and history will rush to its conclusion. But this did not happen.

For soon, only a few years after the Second Exaltation, the return of the Cross from the Persian Captivity of Heraclius, the Arab conquests and invasions began. For the two Empires, Constantinopolitan, and the Persian, had so exhausted themselves in mutual opposition and destruction that they simply had no strength left for any new military confrontation or even resistance. 

Christianity was then also divided into two parallel Churches. Owing to dogmatic disputes following the decisions of the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon, in the suburbs of Constantinople in 451, Eastern Orthodoxy was divided into two parallel Churches, with their patriarchs, bishops, monks and faithful. Beginning in 519 in Antioch, and in 536 in Egypt and Alexandria, there were two such parallel Churches. Each of them considered itself Orthodox, each, in polemic, by fire and sword, if possible, tried to put an end to the existence of the "Church-Alternative", the "Rival Church". 

(For example, the number of Orthodox Christians in the Church of Alexandria at that time amounted to 300,000 believers, while the number of “Monophysites”, that is, opponents of the Council of Chalcedon in the rest of Egypt (apart from the capital Alexandria) was equal to 6,000,000 believers! The Christians of Syria and Antioch were “divided” about equally ...).

It turns out that at the start of the Arab conquests the Orthodox Roman, Constantinopolitan, "Byzantine" Empire, led by Heraclius, had no strength to resist its defeat. Moreover, almost no one had the will to do so either. The "Monophysites", that is, the opponents of the Council of Chalcedon, welcomed these new unwelcome guests as their true liberation!

The world had changed rapidly. “The age of the Exaltation” was over. A new time began, when Islam spread over most of the formerly orthodox Christian lands. Thus a religion without the Cross appeared, and the History of the World changed its course radically. We, in this life, will never be able to truly explain these destinies of God. This inability means nothing else than the impossibility to really, deeply or objectively see history, the world, reality ... to see all these things through the eyes of God. 

Thus, the Church's celebration of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, as the feast is called in the orthodox liturgical books, previously celebrated throughout the entire universe in the certainty of the imminent Christianization of the whole earth, began to take on new, increasingly spiritual, mystical, mysterious contours. The cross began to be transformed into a true sign of the spiritual inner victory of the Lord Jesus over sin, damnation and death in human being born again by faith. 

In the theology of the Western Orthodox Church (that is, until the conditional “year 1054”), this transfiguration was reinterpreted in the categories of St. Augustine the teaching on grace. "The true goodness of man in all its purity and freedom can manifest itself only in relation to one who possesses no power," writes Milan Kundera. Thus, the true and only lasting meaning of the Exaltation is revealed in the birth of our human love for God crucified on the Cross.

In turn, in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Feast of the Exaltation began to take on economic contours. The world economy means here the divine economy, that is the divine government of the world. It is important to note that, according to the liturgical calendar, forty days before the Exaltation, the Transfiguration is celebrated. It is obvious that in this way the Orthodox Church tried to give the Exaltation an additional, housebuilding meaning. In this new interpretation the Feast started having a direct connection with the history of salvation. That is

starting with glorification, our Church fell in love with the Cross. And it is no coincidence that the closing words of the Gospel reading of the Sunday after the Exaltation speak of ... the Transfiguration. "And he said to them, 'Truly I say to you, there are some who stand here who will not taste death until they have already seen the Kingdom of God come in power'" (Mk.9:1). 

Finally, the Cross is the Great Holiness. It is the Shekhinah - the very Presence and Place of God's Presence. As it is sung in the hymns of the Church, "The Cross is the Glory of angels and the plague of demons". Usually, it is demons who are to wound, disgrace and destroy people, but the Cross has truly become that topos, that place of Glory of the Lord Jesus, where demons, evil and all uncleanness have become synonymous with weakness, emptiness, worthlessness, filth, abomination, desolation, and defeat for ever and ever (cf. Apocalypse 20:14).