Thursday, May 07, 2020

The Feast of the Apparition of the Cross

In the year 350 or 351, St Cyril of Jerusalem wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor Constantius, the son of Constantine, to inform him of a very remarkable apparition which had recently occurred in his episcopal city. These excerpts are taken from the translation by Anthony Stephenson in volume 64 of the CUA Fathers of the Church series.

“ the days of your Imperial Father, Constantine of blessed memory, the saving wood of the Cross was found in Jerusalem ... now, Sire, in the reign of your most godly Majesty ... the trophy of the victory over death of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God, even the holy Cross, flashing and sparkling with brilliant light, has been seen at Jerusalem.

An icon of the Exaltation of the Cross; the bishop holding it is St Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem at the time it was discovered, and St Cyril’s predecessor but one.
During these holy days of the holy Paschal season, [on May 7th (missing from about half of the manuscripts)] at about nine in the morning, a gigantic luminous cross was seen in the sky above holy Golgotha, extending as far as the holy Mount of Olives; not seen by one or two only, but clearly visible to the whole population of the city; nor, as might be expected, quickly vanishing like an optical illusion, but suspended for several hours above the earth before the general gaze, and by its dazzling splendor conquering the sun’s rays; ... Immediately the whole population, overcome with joy mingled with fear of the heavenly vision, hastened to the Holy Church: ... all with one accord, and as with a single voice, extolling Christ Jesus our Lord, the Only-begotten Son of God, the worker of wonders. ... We citizens of Jerusalem, therefore, eyewitnesses of this astonishing miracle, have paid, and shall further pay to God, the Universal King, and to the Only-begotten Son of God, fitting adoration joined to thanksgiving.”

In the liturgical tradition of the city of Jerusalem, this event was commemorated with a special feast on May 7th, and this letter was actually read at the Divine Liturgy. The feast then passed into the Byzantine and Armenian Rites, which still keep it to this day. I have simplified its name in the title of this article, but one Byzantine source which I regularly consult gives it a more imposing title: “The Commemoration of the Sign of the Honorable Cross which appeared in the sky at the third hour of the day in the reign of Constantius, son of Constantine the Great.”

This feast may have also played a part in establishing the exclusively Western feast called the Finding of the Cross; in two liturgical manuscripts produced at the abbey of Echternach in the 8th century, which are among the oldest witnesses to the existence of such as feast, it is assigned to May 7th, rather than May 3rd. It is too much to posit on such a basis that this was its original date, and that it was later moved, but it may be an indication that the feast was created under Byzantine influence. Twice during his career as a missionary in Frisia (the coastal region of the modern Netherlands, and the neighboring parts of Germany), St Willibrord traveled to Rome to obtain confirmation and Papal sanction for his work. The Pope whom he met on both occasions, St Sergius I, was a Syrian, one of several Popes in that period of eastern origins; and it was he who introduced the oldest set of Marian feasts (the Nativity, Annunciation, Purification, and Assumption) into the Roman Rite from the East.

The page for May of St Willibrord’s calendar, with the Finding of the Cross on May 7th. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des manuscrits. Latin 10837) This manuscript is actually a composite of different pieces, but the calendar is known to have belonged to the Saint personally, and contains annotations which may be in his own hand.
St Cyril’s letter says that the Cross was “luminous... and by its dazzling splendor conquering the sun’s rays.” This themes is found in several of the liturgical texts of today’s feast in the Byzantine Rite, and the Western Office of the Cross.

The first hymn of Byzantine Vespers: Today the holy assembly of the faithful rejoiceth, for the heavenly Cross appears among wonders, heaven shines with unapproachable light, the sky is made bright, and the face of the earth is adorned. Christ’s Church celebrates with divine songs, and adores with honor the divine and wondrous-above-all Cross that protecteth Her from above; strengthened by its power, let us come to the Lord, crying out, “Give peace to the world, and enlighten our souls!”

A sessional hymn at Orthros: The immaculate Cross, which opened the heavens that were closed, having shone forth in heaven with rays of light, hath risen upon the earth. Wherefore, we who have received the illumination which it gives are led to the light that knows no setting, and in battle, have it as a shield of peace, an unconquered trophy.

The Magnificat antiphon for First Vespers of the Finding of the Cross: O Cross, more splendid than all the stars, renowned to the world, much loved of men, holier than all things, which alone wast worthy to bear the price of the world: sweet is the wood, that bore the sweet nails and the sweet burden. save the throng here present, gathered today in thy praises, alleluia, alleluia.

The first antiphon of Matins: We keep the feast of the Finding of the Cross, whose celebration shineth today through all the world with brilliant light, alleluia.

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