The feast of the Universal Elevation of the Holy Cross was originally an immensely political feast-day in Byzantium. It is clearly seen in the Apolytikion of the day: Σῶσον Κύριε τὸν λαόν σου καὶ εὐλόγησον τὴν κληρονομίαν σου, νίκας τοῖς Βασιλεῦσι κατὰ βαρβάρων δωρούμενος καὶ τὸ σὸν φυλάττων διὰ τοῦ Σταυροῦ σου πολίτευμα. This is a victory song and a prayer for the Byzantine emperors to conquer the “barbarians” by the power of the Cross – the same Cross which was also to guard and preserve their political apparatus (politevma).
This was the original purpose of this great feast day. But for us today it takes on its proper biblical and spiritual meaning. The lowering and elevation of the basil-decorated Cross at the four corners of creation signifies for us the sanctifying power of Christ’s Cross on all creation – everything and everyone! Christ did not die “for me” or for you or even for us, but for all, for the entire world. The Cross has power to heal every division, every hatred, every sin. Let us elevate the Cross in our hearts and let us march by the power of the Cross – not to vanquish our enemies, but to win them over with our love, compassion and efforts at dialogue. This meaning of the feast is clearly announced in the three Old Testament readings that are part of the Vespers service. Exodus 15:22-27 is a message of healing, of turning bitter water into sweet. How the Byzantines could turn the sweetness and healing of the Cross into a weapon of war is difficult to understand, though the hymns of the day do refer to the Cross as Christ’s weapon of peace – but only Christ’s weapon of peace, not the people’s who are called by his name? There’s a good question to reflect on.
The second reading of Vespers from Proverbs speaks of the “tree of life,” and this too is an image of the Cross. The third reading from Isaiah mixes images of co-existence with language of subjugation – the usual mixed signal that we get from the prophets of the Old Testament, less a message of healing than the previous two readings. In the first two of these readings from Vespers we see images of healing trees. In the Orthodox church the Cross is most often referred to as the Tree of the Cross. The reasons for this are many. On a practical level, of course the Cross was made of wood, and wood comes from a tree. But on the spiritual level, the Tree of the Cross is a reference to the Tree of Paradise that was the cause of the exile of Adam and Eve. Then we have the healing references to trees in the readings from Exodus and Proverbs mentioned above. The Tree of the Cross is the reversal, the forgiveness of what the Tree in Paradise caused. And the Tree of the Cross is a healing tree, like the tree of life in Proverbs, and a tree that turns bitterness into sweetness. Powerful symbolism all around.
The hymnography of Sept. 14th is extremely rich with messages of peace, healing, salvation, sanctification – the entire panoply of Orthodox theology and spirituality. So let’s ignore how the Byzantine emperors saw the Cross. The Cross is called Christ’s weapon of peace in the hymns of the day. Let it also be our own weapon of peace: peace in our bodies and souls, as we seek to be whole; peace in our relationships with others; peace in how we view the world and what kind of politics and social agendas we prefer to follow or vote for; peace in our relationship with nature and non-human life… And peace with God! There is nothing to fear in our relationship with God, nothing to waste our energy on. Just relax and allow grace and sanctification to work in your life and carry that sanctifying power to those around you. It’s wonderful and traditional for people to bring basil on Sept. 14th to those who are not able to attend Liturgy. Let’s not just bring basil; let’s bring the fullness of Christ’s powerful love, the love that heals and raises our lives to a divine level.
Have a blessed feast day of the Cross. Give glory to Christ the Lord of life.
Some profound resources and thoughts at this website: http://www.antiochian.org/elevationofthecross