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Facts about the Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Cross

When you open up your 2020 Calendar of Liturgical Seasons to the spread "Panagia's Month," you'll learn an interesting fact about the Feast of the Transfiguration. The events we celebrate on August 6th - Peter, James, and John joining Christ on Mt. Tabor to behold Him in glory - occurred exactly 40 days before the Crucifixion of Our Lord and Savior. In other words, the revelation of Christ’s glory was intended to show the disciples Who it was Who would soon be laying down His life for the world.

Due to the festal nature of the Transfiguration, however, the Fathers of the Church felt that this remembrance should not be enclosed in Lenten sobriety and they placed it 40 days before the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.

What we're calling to mind on September 14th isn't only the crucifixion, of course, which was to the world’s eyes a somber and even tragic event, but also the ultimate meaning of the Cross - at once something serious and something victorious. The Cross is so victorious, in fact, that it’s Exaltation is referred to as “universal” by the Church - the whole universe is changed and healed through the sacrifice our Savior accomplished there. September 14th is therefore both a day of serious fasting and reflection and a day of great joy and exultation in the victory of our Lord over death.

There are still pieces of the True Cross in Jerusalem, on Mount Athos, and at the Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline. Some critics have said that during the Medieval period there were enough pieces of the True Cross located across Western Europe to build an entire ship. This is almost certainly an impious remark rather than something accurate. Rather, the Western European practice was to touch something to a piece of the true cross - such as fabric, wood, or an icon - and then bring that back to one’s home cathedral as a “contact relic.” Christians loved the Cross so much that they would venerate even things that had touched the cross.

Icon of Sts Constantine and Helen with the Cross and pieces of the True Cross, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

We celebrate with blessed sprigs of basil leaves because this plant was found growing over the place where the Cross buried. When St. Helen arrived in the Holy Land as the mother of the most powerful man on earth, the Roman Emperor, she brought with her a small battalion of Roman soldiers and engineers. She placed her headquarters at a short distance from the hill of Golgotha (her home in Jerusalem became the foundation for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate there until today). Then the excavations began, culminating in the churches built on the original sites of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, the recovery of the True Cross, and its being lifted up before the gathered crowds of the Christians of fourth-century Roman Christian Palestine.

People named Stavroula or Stavros celebrate their feast on this day. There are of course other names associated with the cross in other ancient languages of Orthodoxy. Since the names Sotirios and Sotiria (from “salvation”) are celebrated on August 6th, the connection of the Transfiguration with the Exaltation of the Cross clearly teaches the basics of our faith - Salvation comes through the Cross of Christ!

The Hymn for this Feast is sung repeatedly and joyfully during the services and processions. It is also sung during house blessings conducted outside the season of Theophany. A common translation reads as follows: "Save, O Lord, Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting unto the faithful victory over enemies. And by the power of Thy Cross, do Thou preserve Thy commonwealth."

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