Remembering the Holy Cross
On September 14 of each year, Orthodox Christians celebrate a great feast-day dedicated to the Cross of Christ; the Feast of the Raising of the Precious Cross. This feast day in the Church reminds us about the Cross and its meaning to us. The Feast of the Raising of the Cross commemorates the discovery of the precious Cross. The Cross remained lost for nearly 400 years. It was discovered in the fourth century by St. Helen, who was St. Constantine’s mother. St. John Chrysostom talks about the three crosses discovered by the Empress Helen beneath the mount of Golgotha; that of Christ was identified because it was found in the middle and bore the inscription.
It is believed that the Empress Helen did not know where on Golgotha to look for the Cross. As she searched she came upon a sweet-smelling plant and decided to dig under that spot. It was there that she found the cross. From that time on, according to tradition, the plant was named Vasilikon in Greek, which is Basil in English. The word “Vasilikon” literally means royal, regal or the kingly plant. It is for this reason that Basil is used in religious services of the Orthodox Christian Church. It is used to sprinkle holy water during blessings and has taken the place of another plant, hyssop, which was used in the religious ceremonies of the Old Testament.
To celebrate Helen’s discovery of the Holy Cross, the Bishop, standing on a platform, in the church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, raised the cross as the faithful sang “Kyrie Eleison.” A type of this ceremony has been going on each year in the Orthodox Church since the cross was raised out of the mound on Golgotha where it lay hidden for nearly 400 years.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in 349 said “Already the whole universe is filled with fragments of the wood of the cross”. There is an interesting custom, which we still practice today that dates back to this time. Many Christians at this time carried with them pieces of wood which they understood to be fragments of the actual Cross of Christ. When danger threatened them, they would touch the wood, thereby signifying that by the power of God, through the Cross, they would be able to endure. This is how the habit of “knocking on wood” to avoid danger or bad situations originated. Originally, it was not actually knocking but faithfully touching a piece of wood that they believed to be a fragment of the Cross.
In the year 628 A.D. The Persians succeeded in pushing back the Byzantine armies. They captured Jerusalem, then belonging to the Christian empire. Among the treasurers they carried off, was the very Cross upon which Jesus Christ had been crucified. The Christian Empire could not tolerate such desecration of the Holy Cross. Hence, fresh forces were organized to recapture Jerusalem and win back the precious Cross from the their enemies. Finally, under Heraclius III the Persians were defeated and the Cross was recovered. The ceremony with the actual Cross of Christ was again done in the Church as form of celebration for the Christians. Thousands of people attended and when the Cross was raised up, once again, the faithful began to chant “Kyrie Eleison.”
– Fr. Bill Tragus is the pastor of Saint Basil Greek Orthodox Church in San Juan Capistrano.