Today is the feast of the exaltation, that means the lifting up, of the holy and life-giving cross. This feast is a strange sort of feast in that it’s actually a strict fast day. This year, because September 14th falls on a Sunday, the fast is relaxed a little to include wine and oil. Of course we have Great and Holy Friday for the actual crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ on the cross so you would be right in thinking that this feast is slightly different. It commemorates two different historical events in the life of the Church well after the death of Christ. It is to these two events that we now turn.
In 326 A.D. the Empress Saint Helen was searching for the remains of the actual wooden cross upon which Christ had been crucified. This had been lost a long time before when the emperor Hadrian, not himself a Christian, had rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city in the early second century. Saint Helen was led to the site of the burial of the true cross by means of her discovery of a crop of highly fragrant basil growing over that place. Of course we still use the herb basil in our cooking today and at the end of this Liturgy, blessed basil and red flowers will be distributed to all. Basil comes from a Greek word meaning “king” so this of course reminds us both of the place where the cross was found and it signifies our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords. By the way, anyone called William, Willie, Vasili, Bill or Wilhemina really takes their name from Basil and of course we also have Basil the Great of Caesarea, a great saint of the Church.
Basil though can have another meaning for us, perhaps the most important meaning of all. As I said, Saint Helen found the True Cross beneath the place where the basil was growing. God led her to find the Cross through the sweet smelling herb. Just like her, we must be finders of the Cross through the sweetness and fragrance of the many blessings that grow from the tree of Calvary. Of course we may think that we have found the cross already because we wear it around our necks at baptism and at Pascha and on every Sunday we celebrate the victory of Christ in the resurrection from the dead of the crucified One, He who died to save us all. However, to be saved in real time, now, we need to go deeper than this. We need to find the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the raw material of our own lives. We need to find the True Cross, not of course once deeply buried underground in Jerusalem but buried deep within our own hearts. How can we do this?
Each one of us here has something difficult to deal with in our lives. The resource for addressing these problems lies within our own hearts, a seed the Holy Spirit planted there at our baptism. We need to face the difficulties that afflict us and cause us pain with the love of Christ Crucified. We need to find the cross in those personal pains and beyond them in the generous and consoling grace of God. The Love of Christ then wraps around that pain with the beauty and glory of His resurrection, sealing off the pain’s destructive power. As surely as the pearl protects the oyster from the grit buried in its tissue so also does the Love of the Risen Christ, heal our infirmities, forgive our sins and provide a resolution in Holy Wisdom for those difficulties and pains that we all have to face. This then is finding the True Cross deep within. In this way we also become Cross finders.
The second historical event commemorated today is the lifting up, the exaltation of the Holy Cross once it had been recovered by the forces of the Byzantine Empire from the Persians who had captured it when they sacked Jerusalem in 614 A.D. With the defeat of the Persians and the restoration of Jerusalem in 630 A.D., the Holy Cross was lifted up high and processed in triumph back to its home in the Church of the Resurrection where once more it could be venerated by the faithful. It is in this great event that the feast of the Holy Cross has its origin in the celebrations of the Church. Coming as it does about six months after the celebration of Pascha and just after the beginning of the new Church year, it is an appropriate time for the Church to remember that her only boast is in the cross of Christ, the Wisdom of God before the ages. We exalt, or lift up the cross and liturgically use it to bless the four directions of the compass, signifying that the whole Universe is regenerated by its most precious tree, the tree of the cross.
Once again this lifting up of the cross has another deeper meaning for all Christians. We are called to be not just “finders-of” the cross but “lifters-up” as well. We lift up the cross in our lives when we first take it up and follow Christ. If the lifting up of the cross is possible on account of the resurrection victory of the King then it is only because He first carried his cross to Calvary. If, therefore, we would lift up the cross, we must also bear it first. We must even be prepared to die, to sacrifice ourselves to bring life to others and eternal life to ourselves. Tertullian said: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” This then is how we lift up the cross, by ascending it ourselves in imitation of our Saviour. This martyrdom, this self-sacrifice may not be physical and literal for everyone, but for all Christians it is the spiritual principle of crucifying our ego, letting go of all selfishness in great humility so that we might love God, our neighbours and ourselves without reserve and without condition as indeed our Christ did in His life on earth and still does today.
So, in conclusion we must be both “finders-of” the True Cross and “lifters-up” of the True Cross. If we are prepared with courage and grace, with wisdom and diligence, to seek out our salvation by being true spiritual soldiers of the cross then our veneration of the same will be honourable. If, however, we do not find the cross and lift it up through self-giving love then our veneration will be in vain and not profit anyone. This feast calls us to choose, once again and always, whether or not we will be true Christians, people of the cross. There may come a time when the Antichrist will forbid the outward sign of the cross on our breasts and on our churches, but know this; for those who know and love Christ the cross can never, ever be removed from the human heart. It is the power of God’s love that makes all things new in his kingdom, and this is both our life and our death.