Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The History of the Icon and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross is celebrated on September 14th. Aidan Hart’s book Festal Icons describes the history of this feast and of the images associated with it in great detail, and I recommend it to anyone who wishes to dig deeper.

It’s origins date back to the 4th century, when the Emperor Constantine dreamt of the cross as the sign of his forthcoming victory over Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge in 312 AD, due to the intervention of Christ. When Constantine won, he converted and issued an edict by which Christianity would be tolerated in the Roman empire.

This feast is associated with a number of themes. First, the Cross is shown as a symbol of protection in battle, as typified by the Troparion in the Byzantine Rite: “O Lord save your people and bless your inheritance. Grant victory to our nation over its enemies.” (A recording made one year ago at the Greek-Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, on the patronal feast day.)

Another hymn called the Kontakion makes it clear that the sign of Christ’s victory is peace. It is for the glory of Him and not the temporal ruler nor should such a victory be source of national pride.

“O Christ God, who chose by Your free volition to be elevated upon the holy Cross, grant Your mercies to Your new people who are called by Your name; in Your power gladden the hearts of our civil authorities; strengthen them in every good deed so that Your true alliance may be for them a weapon of peace and a standard of victory.”

When I read this, it reinforces for me the idea that the nation is a natural entity, and that the one who has authority over nations is not the United Nations, but rather, Christ the King. If we want world peace, each nation should strive vigorously to be in conformity to the standard of peace that the Holy Cross represents, and where necessary fighting just wars.

Other themes celebrated by the feast are the healing power of the cross, primarily, but not limited to, spiritual healing by which we are raised up with Christ from spiritual death due to his sacrifice. It is also the symbol of the Tree of Life, the fruit of which is Christ himself, of whom we partake in the Eucharist. Furthermore, it is a symbol of unity of people, the standard of peace, by which Jews and Gentiles can be in harmony, as St Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1, 22-24:

“Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

The typical icon of the feast shows an event that took place after the finding of the true Cross by Constantine’s mother, the Empress Helena, around 327 AD. Three crosses were found in Jerusalem, and there was uncertainty as to which was the true cross, so the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St Makarios, suggested that each should be elevated and that they should observe the effects. When the true cross was elevated a woman was healed of serious illness and this was taken of the sign.

Makarios is shown centrally elevating the cross, while the Empress (and sometimes her son the Emperor) look on. Very often a vast entourage of deacons, subdeacons and laity are shown present as well. In an interesting aside, Hart describes in his book the rich history of Anglo-Saxon devotion to the cross. In his Ecclesiastical History, which gives much of the history of the warring kingdoms of Britain prior to the the uniting of England, the Venerable Bede says that around 634 AD, an exiled prince, Oswald of Northumbria, had a dream similar to that of Constantine, and ordered that all should venerate the cross prior to a battle with his pagan father, the king of that region. This led first to the unity of Northumbria as a Christian kingdom, and was seen as the precursor to the subsequent conversion of the whole country.

In Anglo-Saxon literature, the Exaltation of the Cross takes its most vivid form in the epic poem “The Dream of the Rood”, written from the perspective of the tree that became the Cross. “Rood” is the Anglo-Saxon word for the Cross, and preserved in such terms as Holy Rood, and “rood screen”, the ornate wooden screen that separated the chancel of a church from the nave. The rood screen is so called because it was surmounted by the Rood itself, a large figure of the crucified Christ, and most commonly, supporting statues of saints to either side, normally the Virgin Mary and St John.

In The Dream of the Rood, the cross has a voice and can feel and express emotion – ripped from its roots in the wood, it says:
Men bore me on their shoulders there, until they fixed me on a hill; many enemies fastened me there. Then I saw the Lord of mankind hasten with great courage, because he wanted to climb upon me.
There I did not dare, against the Lord’s word, to bend or break when I saw the earth’s surface tremble
I could have felled all those enemies, but I stood fast.
The young hero stripped himself – he was God Almighty, strong and stout-minded.
He mounted the high gallows, courageous in the sight of many, when he intended to save mankind. I trembled when that man embraced me;
yet I dared not bow to the ground, fall to the surface of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
As a rood was I reared.
I lifted the mighty King, the Lord of the heavens; I did not dare to bend.
They drove me through with dark nails.
On me those sores are seen, open wounds of wickedness.
I dared not harm any of them. They mocked us, both together.
I was entirely bedewed with blood poured out from that man’s side, after he sent forth his spirit.
I experienced on that hill many cruel events, I saw the God of hosts severely stretched out.
Darkness had covered with clouds the Ruler’s body, the shining brightness.
A shadow passed dark under the heavens.
All creation wept, lamented the king’s fall. Christ was on the cross.
To this day there are surviving crosses from the period that were carved to commemorate this feast and devotion to the cross:
An Anglo-Saxon cross in Irton, Cumbria, northern England.
An Anglo-Saxon crucifixion from Romsey, Kent
An English Romanesque cross.

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