Sunday, September 18, 2011

Feast of the World-wide Elevation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross

(That’s the full name of the day.)

Wednesday, 14 September

Another paradox hit me in church this morning – besides the paradox of the day itself, I mean, it being a great feast we observe by keeping strict fast! But the other paradox occurred to me during the special ceremonies of the day.

For those of you who aren’t Orthodox, the feast marks a great occasion. St. Helena, mother of Emperor St. Constantine, went to the Holy Land to do some archaeology. Her team did some excavating on Golgotha and found three crosses. But which was THE Cross? Well, as a funeral procession passed by, each cross in turn was touched to the corpse, and when the True Cross touched it, the person came back to life. So St. Helena had that cross, The Cross, brought to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who held it up high for all the gathered crowd to see. Apparently there were many exclamations and many tears, and the anniversary of the great event has been celebrated every single year ever since.

One of the annual rituals is to have a procession with the cross. A small brass cross, sometimes bejeweled (I’m guessing with glass stones!) stands upon a thick, green bed of basil on an enormous tray, which the priest carries atop his head (lifting the cross high for all to see). Basil because the word means, “King”, and legend has it basil grew at the foot of the cross of the King of the Jews and of the Universe.

Of course the cross is preceded by candles and incense, as well. And as it passes around the church, the people bowing and crossing themselves as it approaches, we sing, over and over again, the very familiar hymn: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.” And by have mercy, we don’t just mean forgive us; although that’s included, we mean something broader, something more like, show us Your favor, deal graciously with us.

But think of it! Here we are, singing, “Holy Immortal One” while bowing before the cross upon which He died!

It’s a mystery incapable of being captured by words, but one way to try to say it would be, He died with respect to His humanity; but with respect to His divinity – well, God never dies. One of our hymns speaks of His being simultaneously in His grave, in Hades preaching to the dead, and sitting upon His throne in heaven.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have mercy upon us.