Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Commemorations of the Holy Cross in the Byzantine Liturgical Year

We are happy to share this article by Fr Deacon Philip Gilbert on the feasts of the Cross in the Byzantine tradition, since next Sunday, the Third of Lent, is dedicated to the Veneration of the Holy Cross. Father Philip is a deacon of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church; we have previously published his articles on the week preceding Great Lent, on the first ceremony of Lent in the Byzantine Rite, Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday, and on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, as the First Sunday of Lent is called. We also published photographs and a video of his subdiaconal ordination in 2018.

In the Byzantine tradition, in addition to the commemorations of the Holy Cross on each Wednesday and Friday, there are three major feasts of the Cross over the course of the year, on September 14, August 1, and the third Sunday of the Great Fast.

The first of these is formally known as “the Universal Exaltation (or Elevation) of the Holy Cross”, and commemorates the discovery of the relics of the True Cross in 326. In the wake of the famous appearance of the cross to the Emperor Constantine just before the battle of the Milvian Bridge, and the ensuing victory which made him master of the Roman Empire, he sent his mother Saint Helena to Jerusalem to find the Cross. In the excavations of Golgatha (where a temple to Aphrodite had been set up by the pagan emperor Hadrian [1]), three crosses were found, but it was impossible to tell which was the saving cross of the Lord, and which belonged to the thieves. A dying widow was therefore brought to the site to see if one of them would heal her, and when one of them did indeed miraculously restore her to health, that cross was determined to be the one upon which our Lord was crucified. The traditional icon of this feast depicts the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Macarius, standing on the ambo of a church and holding up this Cross before the crowd of faithful for all to see. When the people beheld the Holy Cross being thus elevated, they cried out “Lord, have mercy!” Angels or deacons hold his elbows, assisting him as he elevated the Cross, while Saint Helen stands below the ambo, wearing her imperial crown.

The second feast, on August 1st, which is also the feast day of the Holy Maccabee martyrs, is called the Procession of the Holy Cross. The Synaxarion of that day (the equivalent of the Roman martyrology) succinctly says:
Because of the many diseases that occur in the month of August, the custom prevailed of old in Constantinople to carry the precious Wood of the Cross in procession throughout the city for its sanctification and its deliverance from illnesses. It was brought forth from the imperial treasury on the last day of July and placed upon the Holy Table of the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom; and beginning today, until the Dormition of the Theotokos, it was carried in procession throughout the city and was set forth for veneration before the people. [2]
A brief video of a procession with a relic of the Cross held at the beginning of the pandemic four years ago, at the Greek-Catholic cathedral of St George in Lviv, Ukraine.
On this day, holy water is blessed with a rite which includes the reading of John 5, 1-4; this ties the blessing of waters, and the supplication to be healed from disease, to the words of the Gospel, “From time to time an angel of the Lord used to come down into the pool; and the water was stirred up, so the first one to get in after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease afflicted him.” Fr. David Petras explains that “Water was formerly blessed frequently, usually on the first day of each month. The blessing for August 1 is the only one retained in the Typikon (the ordinal of the Byzantine Rite).” [3]
The third major commemoration of the Holy Cross is fixed not to a specific date on the calendar, but instead to the cycle of movable feasts centered on Pascha, and thus Great Lent. The third Sunday of the Great Fast is the Veneration of the Holy Cross, which is continually observed all through the following fourth week of Lent. Archbishop Job Getcha writes:
“The third Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to the veneration of the lifegiving Cross, … According to Nicephoras Kallistos Xanthopoulos in his Synaxarion, the Cross is offered to us as a comfort and encouragement in our journey through Great Lent, and it announces the approach of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord.” [4] Another Synaxarion reading says:
With the help of God, we have almost reached the middle of the course of the Fast, where our strength has been worn down through abstinence, and the full difficulty of the labour set before us becomes apparent. Therefore our holy Mother, the Church of Christ, now brings to our help the all-holy Cross, the joy of the world, the strength of the faithful, the staff of the just, and the hope of sinners, so that by venerating it reverently, we might receive strength and grace to complete the divine struggle of the Fast. [5]
Another Synaxarion explains: “when a king is coming, at first his banner and symbols appear, then he himself comes glad and rejoicing about his victory and filling with joy those under him; likewise, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is about to show us His victory over death, and appear to us in the glory of the Resurrection Day, is sending us in advance His scepter, the royal symbol – the Life-Giving Cross – and it fills us with joy and makes us ready to meet, inasmuch as it is possible for us, the King himself, and to render glory to His victory...” [6] By having the Holy Cross set before us at the midpoint of the Fast, we are reminded what else is very soon to be set before us: Great and Holy Week, and the commemoration of Christ’s betrayal, passion, death, and victorious and glorious resurrection from the dead.
On all three of these commemorations, an image of the Cross, or if a parish has one, a relic of the True Cross itself, is adorned with flowers and placed on a tray. Some typika prescribe that it be laid on a bed of basil leaves, since some accounts of the finding of the Cross say that basil grew on the place where the Cross was uncovered at Golgatha. But this custom may arise from the fittingness of adorning the cross of our King with a plant whose name has the same root as the word for “royal” and “emperor”. (The troparion to St. Basil the Great employs this same play on words and addresses him as “O royal one”).
After Small Vespers, the Holy Cross is taken from the sacristy to the Holy Table by the priest, the deacon incensing before him as he goes, and is placed on the Table in place of the Gospel Book. At the end of the Great Doxology of Orthros, the Cross is solemnly carried out the north door of the iconostasis and placed in the center of the church on the analogion or tetrapod (a stand for holding up icons). It is incensed on all sides, while the troparion to the Holy Cross is sung three times: “O Lord, save your people and bless Your inheritance. Grant victory to the emperor (or orthodox Christians, or, our country) over his/their enemies, and guard your habitation by Your Cross.”
On September 14, and only on this day, the rite of the Exaltation is performed at this point. The priest takes up the cross, and first facing the East, then in each cardinal direction until he is once again facing East, he says a petition of a special litany for this rite, and then, as the people sing “Lord, have mercy” 24 or 100 times, “the priest slowly bows as deeply as he can, holding the Cross and then rising up again during the chant. This is done for each of the five petitions… The cross is then replaced on the tetrapod.” [7] In some places, fragrant rose water is poured on the Cross as it is elevated, signifying that it is the spring of life for sinners. (In the following video, taken at the church of St Elias in Brampton, Ontario, last September, this part of the ritual begins at 2:32:00.)
Once the adorned Cross is placed on the analogion for veneration, the hymn which replaces the usual Trisagion during feasts of the Cross is sung: “Before Your Cross we bow down in worship, O Master, and Your holy resurrection we glorify.” This is done three times, and all make a prostration after each. The clergy and faithful then all come forward to venerate the cross by kissing it, customarily making two prostrations before and one after. (Video taken at the Golden-Domed Monastery of St Michael in Kyiv, Ukraine, on the Third Sunday of Lent, 2021.)
During the week after the Third Sunday of Lent, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, there is also a solemn veneration of the Cross at the Third Hour, at which “Before your Cross” is sung again, while the priest incenses it on all sides, followed by the singing of a group of hymns from Matins, while all approach to venerate the Cross. [8] It remains in the center of the temple until the end of the 9th hour and the Typika service on the following Friday. Having been solemnly venerated one last time, it is then returned to the sacristy just before the celebration of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on Friday evening.
It is worth noting that all three of these feasts are days of strict abstinence, regardless of what day of the week they fall on. In many places, dark (burgundy or purple) vestments are worn, but in others, a festal bright red is customary.
[1] Cf. The Great Horologion, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: 1997), 250.
[2] ibid., 564.
[3] Typicon, arranged Archpriest David Petras, (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, 2024), 61.
[4] The Typikon Decoded, Archbishop Job (Getcha), trans Paul Meyendorff, (Yonkers: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2012), 191.
[5] The Great Horologion, 604.
[6] A Byzantine Rite Liturgical Year, Julian J. Katrij, OSMB (Detroit: Basilian Fathers Publication, 1983), 111.
[7] Typicon, 72.
[8] Cf. The Typikon Decoded, 193.

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