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In This Sign You Shall Conquer

The Eastern cross has ancient roots.

The year 312 A.D. saw two pagan warlords massing their troops for bloody battle to determine which of the two would emerge Emperor of Rome. Maxentius relied upon all manner of incantation and superstitious rites to assure supernatural aid for his troops. The other, remembering that his father had prospered so long as he protected his Christian subjects, turned to the Christians’ God for help. At noon, a brilliantly lighted cross appeared in the sky, visible to all his troops, with the inscription, In this sign you shall conquer.

The warrior fell into a deep sleep in which he beheld the Savior Himself ordering him to adopt the sign of the cross as the standard of his army. Awakening from this dream, he did as he was commanded. Some days later, he met Maxentius’ army at the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber in Rome and won a stunning victory. He never forgot his debt to the cross of Christ. In time he granted freedom of religion to all his Christian subjects. The East remembers him as St. Constantine the Great, Equal-to-the-Apostles.

Constantine’s mother, who would later become St. Helena, set out several years after her son’s victory on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She made her way to Jerusalem, where she tried in vain to discover the site of the death and Resurrection of Christ. Finally she turned to the city’s Jewish community.

An elder of their number, named Judah, brought her to the spot which Jewish tradition associated with Jesus’ Passion. Pagans had used the area as a garbage dump since the destruction of the city centuries before by the Romans. Carefully clearing away the debris, Helen and her companions found three crosses and the inscription from one of the crosses: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. But which cross had borne the inscription, and thus the spotless body of Our Savior?

Patriarch Makarios, the bishop of Jerusalem, decided to discover the identity of the True Cross by miracle. Each of the crosses was touched to the body of a recently deceased Christian. Neither the first nor the second produced any result. But when the Lifegiving Wood upon which had hung the One Who would rise from the dead was touched to the corpse, the dead man rose!

Instantly the people pressed forward to venerate the cross of Christ. Since they were so numerous, the Patriarch exalted the cross over their heads for all to see. They bowed to the ground singing Kyrie eleison. From this event the feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Holy Cross takes its name. The rite of lifting the cross over the people’s bowed heads to the repeated strains of Lord, have mercy continues to this day on September 14 in all the churches that follow the rite of Constantine’s city, Byzantium.

Because victory by the sign of the cross assured civil liberties for Christians, the Eastern tradition associates the cross with civic authorities.

Save, O God, your people and bless your inheritance. Grant victory to our civic leaders over the enemy and safeguard your community by the power of Your cross.

In Greek churches, the Holy Cross is festooned with basil leaves and carried in procession on its feast day. Basil is used because the word from which its name is derived, basilios, means kingly or royal. After the veneration, the blessed basil is distributed to the faithful. Its sweet fragrance is a reminder of the sweetness of Christ’s victory over the bitter pangs of death.

In many places in the Middle East, as well as in Melkite communities in the United States, the feast is kept as a communal festival. After spending the day in fasting, the people come together to venerate the Holy Cross at the Office of the Exaltation at sundown. A great bonfire is lighted as the faithful break their fast, having themselves conquered death and sin in their own lives.

The custom of lighting a bonfire springs from an ancient tradition. It is said that Constantine wrested from his mother assurances that he would be notified as soon as she met with success in discovering the precious relics of Our Lord’s Passion. Helen devised a clever plan to send the message. As she traveled from Byzantium to Jerusalem, she had dried wood piled on all the hilltops and mountains. When the miracle of the Exaltation took place, the nearest bonfire was ignited. Within the blink of an eye it was sighted by watchmen on the next hilltop, who set their kindling ablaze. One after another the peaks burst into flame until, in less than ten hours, the joyful news arrived at Constantine’s court.

Archbishop Joseph (Tawil), the Melkite hierarch in the United States, fondly recalls his days as Patriarchal vicar in Damascus: “The Muslim fire chief would come to the chancery every year just before the feast of the Holy Cross to say, ‘Saidna,* we are ready for the Christians’ Feast of Fire.’”

Western Christians are often intrigued by the special form of the cross used in the Byzantine East. At the foot of the cross, for example, there appears a skull surrounded by the Slavonic letters MLRB. They stand for m’esto lobnoye rai byst: “The place of the skull had been Paradise!” According to tradition the hill of Calvary, itself shaped like a skull, was the burial place of Adam. When Adam died, his son Seth received a sprig from Eden’s tree of life and planted it over his father’s grave. In time it grew into a great tree, from which was hewn the wood of our Savior’s cross.

Literally true or not, this legend highlights the truth that by Adam’s sin death entered the world, and that Christ’s Passion and Resurrection destroyed the power of death.

The characteristic three-barred style of the Eastern cross is also symbolic. The topmost bar is the inscription which, according to the Gospels, was nailed over Jesus’ head. In many Eastern churches the words are altered to read: “The King of Glory!” The middle bar is the place where the arms of Jesus were stretched and nailed at the hands. The bottommost bar is the footrest where the nails transfixed those feet “whose footfalls Eve heard in Paradise, and hid herself in fear.”

What is curious is the slant of the bottom bar, which is usually left to right in a downward direction. Many explanations are offered for this phenomenon. Some say it represents the cross of St. Andrew, an X-shaped cross, because he was the patron saint of the Church of Constantinople and later of Kievan Rus’, mother city of the Eastern Slavic Churches. Others trace its shape to the artistic requirements of iconography, according to which all planes are fully visible. A favorite explanation comes from the position of the cross of Christ, which was set up on Calvary between two other crosses, those of the good and wicked thieves:

Your cross stood between two thieves like the scales of justice. The one side dipped to hell with its load of blasphemy. The other was emptied of its weight of sin by faith in the Word of God and rose to heaven. O Christ our God: glory be to You!

The cross will be the measure of our salvation. How we carry our cross will determine whether we join the good thief, whose “Remember me, O Lord, when You come into Your Kingdom” received the assurance “This day you will be with Me in Paradise.” What greater victory over the misery and suffering of this world can we imagine or desire?

* Term of address for a bishop in the Arabic-speaking world.

Father Romanos is Director of the Office of Educational Services of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts.

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