People, Look East: The Victory of the Cross

“Save your people, O Lord, and bless your inheritance. 
Grant victory to your church over evil and
protect your people by your cross.”

This hymn for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the Byzantine tradition, called the Troparion of the Holy Cross (which is also sung on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year), recalls the power of Christ’s cross and petitions God for salvation.

Christians worldwide celebrate this feast day on 14 September. It commemorates three historic events: the discovery in the year 326 by St. Helena of the relics of the cross on which Christ died; the enthronement of the cross in the Church of the Resurrection, also called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in 335; and its restoration to Jerusalem from the Persians by Emperor Heraclius in 629. 

According to Christian tradition, the feast takes its name from the actions of Patriarch Macarius of Jerusalem, who took the cross St. Helena found, moments after its discovery, and raised it high above the crowd of people that had gathered for all to see. Upon seeing the exalted cross, the people bowed to the ground, crying aloud, “Lord have mercy.”

While the feast is rooted in these historic events, today its emphasis is on the salvation that has come to the world through Christ’s victory over death on the cross. 

In the Byzantine tradition, the feast day, 14 September, is one of solemnity. Father David Petras in the second volume of his “Light for Life” trilogy explains: “Since the cross always remembers the central act of our salvation, this feast is traditionally solemnized in the East as a day of fasting in honor of our Lord who suffered on the cross.”

However, the festal period for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the Byzantine liturgical calendar goes from 14 to 23 September. During these 10 days, the prayers and liturgies on the Saturdays and Sundays that straddle the feast day focus on the significance of the cross and its invitation to believers. 

In addition to celebrating the cross itself — once an instrument of torture and now a sign of hope — as the primary symbol of the Christian faith, the feast is a reminder that following Jesus means taking up one’s own cross daily. For, as Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, “whoever does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (10:38).

On this feast day — and in the days that follow — it is common in Byzantine churches to place a crucifix within a wreath of sweet-smelling flowers or herbs, to bow and prostrate before it, and to kiss and venerate it during prayer.

Today in the Byzantine tradition, as part of the celebration for the feast, the priest will lift up the cross four times in the direction of the four cardinal points, representing the preaching of Christ crucified to the four corners of the earth. And the people respond to the litany of prayers, “Lord have mercy.”

The faithful kneel as Father Elias Koucos lifts up the cross during the Divine Liturgy for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross at Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Holladay, Utah. (file photo: CNEWA/Cody Christopulos)

The Troparion of the Holy Cross, sung in the numerous Byzantine churches with slight variations in translation, was adapted from a battle hymn of the Byzantine Empire that called upon the power of the cross for victory over the enemies of the empire. 

The prayer was revised to align with the preaching of St. Paul, who teaches that “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Eph 6:12).

The Byzantine calendar has two other feast days related to Christ’s cross as well: the Veneration of the Cross during Lent and the Procession of the Cross on 1 August. 

All three remind the faithful of the extent of God’s sacrificial love for his people and how, through Christ’s excruciating death on the cross and his glorious resurrection on the third day, all people may believe and receive eternal life.

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