The Institute for Christian Formation
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
On September 14, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Tradition holds that early in the fourth century Saint Helena, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, journeyed to Jerusalem to search for the cross on which Jesus had been crucified. Tradition held that this cross was buried along with the two crosses on which the two men crucified with Jesus died. Saint Helena is said to have found the three crosses buried under a sweet-smelling herb at Golgotha. (This herb was named “basil” from the Greek word meaning king.) Not knowing which of the three crosses was the cross on which Jesus died, Saint Helena was instructed to hold each cross up to a local woman who was dying.When the third cross touched the dying woman, she was miraculously healed. According to Tradition, Saint Helena had found the True Cross!
Cima da Conegliano, circa 1495
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA
Saint Helena needed to get the word back to her son, Constantine, that she had found the True Cross. But in the fourth century there were no cell-phones or e-mail systems. So as she began her journey, Saint Helena arranged for a relay system of bonfires to spread the good news from Jerusalem back to Constantinople (which is now the city of Istanbul, Turkey). She had her servant on the first mountain light a bonfire, then when the servant on the next mountain saw the fire he set a bonfire, and so forth until the fire relay reached Constantinople.
Facade and Parvis of the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
© by Photographer: Deror avi
Photo taken September 26, 2008
The Emperor Constantine had a church built at the site where Jesus’ empty grave had been and he built a basilica. In the middle of these two churches was a shrine marking the spot where Jesus had been crucified. These churches* were dedicated on September 14 in the year 335. Pilgrims would come to venerate the wood of the Cross. Since that time a feast has been celebrated on September 14 by all Eastern Christians. Rome adopted this feast in the seventh century. (*These churches were destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. The present day Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built by the Crusaders and dedicated in 1149. Take a virtual tour and find more information about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from Franciscan missionaries serving the Holy Land.)
Elevation of the Cross
Monastery of Bistrita
Neamt District, Moldavia
Since these early centuries of Christianity, when pilgrims came to Jerusalem to celebrate this feast they would join in procession following the cross, which was lifted up and carried in procession to lead them. (Today there is a daily procession led by the Franciscans in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher at 4:00 p.m., which has its origins in the ancient liturgies of the Jerusalem Church described by the 4th century pilgrim, Egeria.) And this year on September 14, you, too, could take the opportunity, uniting yourself with Christians around the world and throughout the centuries, to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross! Just as Christians have done for hundreds and hundreds of years, you can begin your prayer this day with a procession following the cross. You can gather prayerfully outside of church,
school, or even your own home, then process into and around the church (or your school or home), singing and praying, recalling that you, too, are a “pilgrim” on earth, as you follow Jesus. The cross is the main symbol of Christianity. It is therefore very appropriate and meaningful to celebrate with a procession following the cross on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Activities to Celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Choose one or more of the activities below to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
- Decorate a cross. You could get a plain wooden cross and decorate it with ribbon, flowers, beads, and herbs such as basil. Prominently display your cross at your home, school, or parish church. (Visit a craft store or just do a web search for wooden craft crosses. Here is one source.)
- An icon is a holy image filled with symbolism. An icon of a feast tells us part of the story of the feast. Because it tells a story, we say an icon is written rather than painted. Read the story of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and write an icon portraying that story. You can download our ICF story of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. A good children’s book, written in the Orthodox tradition, is “St. Helen Finds the Cross of Jesus” by Michelle Georgiou; illustrated by Jane Fotopoulos.
- Eat foods such as tomatoes, and drink beverages such as red punch reminding us of the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross. Eat foods such as fresh mozzarella cheese, which is white and reminds us of our white baptismal garments, since we were first signed with the cross at our baptism. And eat foods made with the sweet-smelling herb basil, which is said to have grown over the place where the True Cross had
been buried. You could even take wooden skewers and make an appetizer of grape tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella cheese, with olive oil dressing. The wood of the skewer can remind you of the wood of the cross.
- Have a procession with a cross. If you decorated a cross as described in item #1 above, carry your cross in the procession. Sing songs such as “Lift High the Cross,” which can be found in most hymnals. You can download the words and music to this hymn here.
- Host a gathering and ask those attending to bring a cross from their home. See how many different styles of crosses are brought. Perhaps some are even heirlooms with interesting stories about their origin.
- Take some time to really reflect on the gesture of making the Sign of the Cross. Our ICF “Sign of the Cross” bulletin will help you.
Click on the image above to download our ICF handout on Feast of The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Click on the image above to download our ICF handout on The Exaltation of the Holy Cross Activities.
Click on the image above to download our ICF handout on The Exaltation of the Holy Cross Fill-in-the-Blank activity sheet.
Click on the image above to download our ICF bulletin on "The Sign of the Cross".