Traditions and Liturgy of the Exaltation of the Cross

Traditions and Liturgy of the Exaltation of the Cross

September 22, 2021

“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”. (Mark 8:34)

History of the feast

September 27 is an important date for the Belarusian Orthodox Church. On this day we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, one of the Twelve Great Feasts.

The Holy Empress Helena, Equal to the Apostles, embarked on her journey to Jerusalem with the goal of recovering the Cross, on which our Lord was crucified. When the Life-Giving Cross was discovered, a church dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ was built in Jerusalem on the orders of Constantine the Great. It was consecrated on September 26 (September 13 according to the old calendar) in 335. The Cross of the Lord was erected there on the following day. The service of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross is celebrated by the Orthodox Church every year in commemoration of that event.

saint Helen

Icon of St. Constantine and Helena handpainted in our Iconography Studio

Saint Helena left the Life-Giving Cross to the Patriarch for safekeeping, taking back with her a fragment of it as a gift for her son the emperor. During her visit to Palestine the holy empress did much for the sake of the church. She decreed that all places bearing witness to Christ should be cleansed of all remnants of paganism and built Christian churches in these memorable locations. Constantine the Great ordered the construction of a beautiful church glorifying the Resurrection of Christ above the cave with the Empty Tomb. Upon the erection of the Lord’s Cross, St Helena generously distributed alms to the people of Jerusalem and arranged meals for the poor, personally serving their tables. She then returned to Constantinople where she departed to the Lord in 327.

The tradition of the Exaltation of the Cross

The service of the Exaltation is minutely described in the Georgian translation of the Jerusalem Lectionary dating back to the 5th or 6th century. The service was celebrated in the third hour after dawn on September 14. It started with the priests entering the diaconicon and vesting themselves. The Cross (sometimes three Crosses) were decorated and laid upon the altar. The service comprised three exaltations (raising upright) of the Cross, each preceded by a cluster of prayers and chants accompanied by the fiftyfold recitation of the “Lord have mercy”.

Fragrant water was poured over the Cross and  everyone came to venerate the Cross, which was then laid upon the altar, as the Divine Liturgy began. After the service the water was distributed among the worshippers.

exaltation of the Cross

The tradition has changed somewhat over the centuries to include more details. Nowadays, the Sunday of the Holy Cross is commemorated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, preceded by the Matins service. A Great Vespers is served on Saturday evening. The hymns of the Triodion for this day are added to the usual prayers and hymns of the weekly commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ. A special service is held at the end of the Matins during which the Holy Cross is carried out to the center of the church while the priest and the deacon make three prostrations. The pastor stands facing eastward (towards the altar) and takes the Cross adorned in flowers. The choir then sings “Lord have mercy” a hundred times while the deacon recites the litany consisting of five supplications, each accompanied with the service of exaltation directed to the four cardinal points.

After the fifth exaltation, the choir sings the kontakion, “As You were voluntarily raised upon the cross for our sake…”, during which the priest lays the cross on a lectern. The choir then sings, “We venerate Thy Cross, oh Lord Christ…” followed by prostrations and the anointing of the parishioners with blessed oil.

Two priests then slowly and continually pour water over the Cross. The water flows into a vessel and is distributed among the parishioners after Liturgy. A few drops of rose oil or other fragrances may be added to the water according to the custom.

Why is water poured over the Cross?

The origins of the tradition of the ablution of the Cross are unknown. Scholars agree that the Lord’s Cross was covered in dust and mud when it was found after three centuries by the Holy Empress Helena. The cross was then washed and anointed with incense before it was installed for veneration.

In those days fragrances were used to emphasize the holiness and significance of a certain place or object. Thus, by pouring water over the Cross during the Exaltation service, the significant events of the past are reconstructed in the church.

Saint Helena, Heavenly Patroness of Colchester, UK

The Holy Empress Helena is the heavenly patroness of the city of Colchester (Essex County, UK) whose dwellers also recognize her as their fellow citizen.

The city is situated in the eastern part of Britain. It is close to the harbour and irrigated throughout with spring-waters, which accounts for its wholesome atmosphere. According to local folklore, it once was the seat of King Coel.

Colchester’s history is shrouded in mystery. If the legendary ruler ever reigned, it was from way North from York which was the hub of the Roman Empire in Britain. It was there that Constantine the Great was proclaimed Caesar, and the story of St Helena’s connections to Colchester took birth.

For centuries the British believed Saint Helena to be a native of Colchester, choosing her as its patron saint. Much here relates to her: various St Helena shops, a school, a chapel, and much more.

“In any case, local Colchester believers, and I, think her visiting Colchester with Constantine the Great was quite possible. Her statue stands atop the Victorian Colchester town hall, holding the Cross and facing Jerusalem. She is venerated as the Patroness of the town of Colchester at St John's Russian Orthodox Church in Colchester today, and also at St Helena's Antiochian Orthodox chapel. Both have a small relic of St Helena”, - Father Andrew Phillips of St John's Russian Orthodox Church in Colchester.

Although it is not historically proven, it is known that since people consider St Helena as their patron saint, she definitely looks after them and their city, and it’s largely due to St Helena and St Constantine that Britain eventually turned to Christ.

Wooden Cross with decorations made in the workshop of our Convent

Wooden Cross with decorations made in the workshop of our Convent

Troparion of the Exaltation of the Lord’s Cross

O Lord, save Your people, /

and bless Your inheritance. /

Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries.

And by virtue of Your Cross, preserve Your habitation.

P.S. It is a special pleasure to commemorate friends when we venerate the Life-Giving Cross Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. Please let us know your prayer intentions by clicking on this link.

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