September 14, 2018

Origins of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

By Louis van Tongeren

The roots of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross lie in Jerusalem and go back to the fourth century. The oldest sources associate the observance with the annual feast of Dedication of two churches built at sacred sites in Jerusalem: the Martyrium on Golgotha and the Anastasis rotunda, located over Jesus' tomb and therefore also called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Church of the Resurrection. According to the oldest stratum of the Armenian Lectionary, which goes back to the liturgical customs of Jerusalem circa 415, the feast of the Dedication of the two churches, which was celebrated for eight days, began on September 13 in the Anastasis. On the second day (September 14) people gathered in the Martyrium and "the venerable, life-giving Holy Cross was displayed for the whole congregation." Here we do not yet find an independent feast of the Cross with a name of its own. The feast focuses on commemorating the Dedication of the two churches. The term "Exaltation" is first used in the sixth century by the monk Alexander of Cyprus (527-565), when he reports that "the Fathers, commanded by the Emperor, determined that the day of the Exaltation of the venerable Cross and of the Dedication should be celebrated annually on September 14, in honor of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." For Alexander too the celebration is a combination of Exaltation and Dedication.

The reason for the display or exaltation of the Cross during the celebration of the Dedication was the discovery of the true Cross, that is, the historical Cross on which Jesus died. That in any case is reported by the archdeacon Theodosius from North Africa, who wrote on the occasion of his pilgrimage to Palestine circa 530 that "the Holy Cross was found on September 15 by Helen, the mother of Constantine, and that for a period of seven days in Jerusalem at the tomb of the Lord liturgies are celebrated and the Cross itself is displayed." Although Egeria, who probably stayed in Jerusalem from Easter 381 until Easter 384, does not mention a display or exaltation of the Cross in her travel-diary, she does connect the finding of the Cross with the Dedication of the Martyrium and the Anastasis. The feast of Dedication (encainia) of the two churches is celebrated at the same time, because they were consecrated on the same day. This celebration is performed very solemnly, because the Cross of the Lord was found on the very day of their dedications. Egeria does not, however, either mention the date of the feast or the year in which the churches were consecrated and, therefore, in which the Cross is supposed to have been found.

Thus by the end of the fourth century we find the conviction that the discovery of the Cross was related to the feast of Dedication, and from the beginning of the fifth century this feast of Dedication is accompanied by a display of the Cross. The finding of the Cross is in this way related to the Dedication and provides the motifs for an exaltation of the Cross on the day of the feast of Dedication. To put it differently: because of the finding of the Cross, it is displayed during the feast of the Dedication.

The history of the origins of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross shows that it goes back to the dedication of the Martyrium basilica in Jerusalem in 335. The connection between the building of the church and the finding of the Cross is underlined and expressed during the annual feast of the basilica's foundation day, originally celebrated on September 13, when the Cross was displayed for the people. This display is the precursor of the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. After the dedication of the Anastasis rotunda in the second half of the fourth century on the same day, September 13, the dedication feast of the Constantinian basilica with the display of the Cross was transferred to September 14. Originally, therefore, both churches had a separate festal day. It was only in the course of time that the dedication feast of both churches came to be concentrated on September 13, and on September 14 the discovery of the Cross was celebrated with a display of the Cross.

It is impossible to determine when exactly this separation took place. That the two feasts were independent in his time is evident in a sermon by Sophronios. From his sermon it emerges that on two successive days the feast of the Dedication (which Sophronios calls "Anastasis") is celebrated first, followed by the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The relation between the two feasts, however, was not clear to Sophronios. He did not understand the order, for "originally the Cross preceded the Resurrection; now, however, the Resurrection leads and is, so to speak, the precursor of the Cross." Despite the fact that he provides an explanation for the reversal, Sophronios says he is not ashamed to confess publicly that he does not know the reason why the Resurrection is celebrated first, before the Cross, but that there may have been a secret reason for it, known to earlier Bishops of the Church. This sermon of Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem from 634 to 638, reveals that the Dedication and Exaltation of the Cross were two discreet feasts at the beginning of the seventh century, and from the fact that Sophronios openly admits his ignorance we may conclude that this had been the case for some time. The Exaltation of the Cross no longer accompanied the Dedication, originally considered more important. The Exaltation became the central feast, which was preceded by the feast of the Dedication as a forefeast.

From the book Exaltation of the Cross: towards the origins of the Feast of the Cross and the meaning of the Cross in early medieval liturgy, excerpts from pp. 17-36.