Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
MANY OF THE FEASTS we celebrate each year have a special rite connected with them. The Great Sanctification of Water on the Theophany, the hajme service on Pascha and the veneration of icons on the Sunday of Orthodoxy are perhaps the best-known examples of these festal observances. There is also a special rite proper to the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross (September 14) called, appropriately, the Exaltation of the Cross. During the Great Doxology at Orthros the cross, adorned with flowers and herbage is brought in procession to the center of the church where it is placed on a table or analogion. Everyone then makes three prostrations before the cross. After this, the priest raises the cross high and, facing East, intones a petition. The chanters respond by singing Lord, have mercy one hundred times as the priest blesses the East with the holy cross. He does the same successively facing North then West then South and then East again as he circles the table. He intones the kondakion of the Holy Cross and blesses the people. The cross is placed on the table and everyone makes three prostrations before it, singing “We bow in worship before Your cross, O Master, and we sing praise to Your holy resurrection.” Then everyone in turn venerates the cross. In some churches this rite of exaltation is performed after the Divine Liturgy.

The Discovery of the Cross

This rite is a reenactment of something that happened spontaneously when the cross was first discovered at the excavation for the Church of the Anastasis during St Helena’s expedition to the Holy Land in AD 326-328. The fourth-century Church historian Socrates Scholasticus described what took place in his Historia Ecclesiastica. The site of Christ’s death and resurrection had been covered over by a pagan temple during the Roman persecutions of the Church. St Helena had the temple destroyed to uncover the sacred site. Three crosses were discovered buried near the Lord’s tomb. The title placed on the Lord’s cross (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) was lying with the crosses but it was not clear on which of the three crosses the Lord had been crucified. The Bishop of Jerusalem, Makarios, had each of the crosses placed in turn on a terminally ill woman. When this woman was healed at the touch of the third cross, it was taken as a sign that this was the cross of Christ. When local Christians heard of this discovery, they all wanted to see the Lord’s cross of the Lord and to venerate it. Bishop Makarios, took the cross onto a raised platform and lifted it on high, ‘exalting’ it, for all to see. The people fell to their knees, bowing down before the cross and crying out repeatedly: Kyrie eleison! As Theodoret of Cyr (393-457) described it in his Ecclesiastical History, Chapter 17, St Helena “… had part of the cross of our Savior conveyed to the palace. The rest was enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be transmitted uninjured to posterity.”

Veneration of the Cross

We know from the journal of the Spanish pilgrim-nun Egeria that the cross was venerated on Holy Friday, despite an unusual risk: “Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the [liturgical] Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and [the wood] is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. “It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest anyone approaching should venture to do so again. “And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring.”

Recovery from the Persians

In 602 the Persian Sassanian Shah began a 26-year long war against the Byzantine/ Roman Empire. In 614 Sassanian troops conquered Jerusalem and appointed two prominent Jews as its rulers. After only a few months Christians in the city rebelled, but the uprising was quickly crushed. The Persians retaliated by seizing the holy cross and taking it to their capitol as spoils of war. In 628 a new Shah made peace with the Byzantines. Palestine was returned to Roman control and on March 21, 630 the Emperor Heraclius marched triumphantly into Jerusalem bearing the precious cross. The Emperor, taking off his shoes and his imperial robes, carried the cross into the Anastasis where it was once again triumphantly exalted. It was then resolved that the Feast of the Cross be celebrated throughout the empire, for which reason it is called the Universal Exaltation.

All the Earth Glorifies the Cross

When St Helena found the crosses at the site of Christ’s tomb she noticed a fragrant plant, then unknown in Rome, which she named basil, the royal plant. In the Middle East the cross is adorned with basil leaves at the ceremony of the exaltation. The basil is then distributed to the worshippers. In the Slavic Churches the ceremony of the exultation is generally performed only by the bishop in his cathedral or an abbot in his monastery. During the ceremony the cross is often showered with rose petals which are then dipped in rose water and given to the faithful.
The Cross – Tree of Life
While the clergy and people are venerating the holy cross, the following is sung: Come, you people, and look on this marvelous wonder! Let us venerate the power of the cross. In Paradise a tree brought forth the fruit of death, but life is the blossom of this tree on which the sinless Lord was nailed. Reaping incorruption from it, all the nations cry: “You, who through the cross has laid Death low and set us free – glory to You!” The sayings of the prophets foretold the holy wood by which Adam was set free from the ancient curse of death. Today, at the exaltation of the cross, all creation raises its voice, asking of God plenteous mercy. O Master, who alone are boundless in Your compassion, be our atonement and save our souls.
 
POLITICIANS ARE OFTEN ACCUSED of committing doublespeak: contradicting themselves as occasion demands. St Paul seems to do the same thing in his teaching on justification. He seems to contradict himself in teaching how we are justified. On one occasion he teaches that we are justified by faith; on another occasion he encourages people to work out their salvation. Is this doublespeak or do these teachings complement each other?

Faith over Works

In Galatians 2:16 St Paul writes, “… knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; for by the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified.” The term “works of the Law” refers to regulations prescribed in the Torah which were the subject of debate by first-century Jews of different schools. Opinions of the Qumran school came to light in the twentieth century with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of these documents, Some Pertinent Works of Torah, illustrates the enormous preoccupation on the part of many first- century Jews with these regulations. When St Paul says that no one is justified by works of the Law, he seems to be referring to the ceremonial regulations which were so important to contemporary Jews: the dietary laws, the Sabbath and holyday observances, and especially circumcision, which was deemed essential for numbering a man into the People of God. In St Paul’s day most Christians were, in fact, Jews who had come to accept the Lord Jesus as the Messiah. Some of them were insisting on the necessity of circumcision if a Gentile were to be admitted into the Church. St Paul opposed them and pointed out earlier in Galatians that his practice was not rejected even in Jerusalem. In Galatians 2 he tells of visiting the Holy City with Barnabas and Titus: “After fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and also took Titus with me… Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised” (Galatians 2:1, 3). St Paul says that the chief apostles, Peter, James and John supported his outreach to the Gentiles and “desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do” (v. 10). The issue was far from settled, however. Peter reversed his view at a later time. “Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy” (vv. 11-13). Paul’s position would eventually be upheld when the issue was discussed in Jerusalem (see Acts 15). The apostles then sent this letter with their decision: “The apostles, the elders, and the brethren to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings.  Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, ‘You must be circumcised and keep the law’—to whom we gave no such commandment— … it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:  that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell” (Acts 15:23-29). The apostles thus freed Gentiles from observing circumcision and most of the Jewish dietary regulations. The other prohibitions continued to be observed in the East for centuries, enshrined in the Apostolic Canons. This collection, chiefly of Syrian origin, was accepted as binding throughout the East by the seventh-century Trullan Council. Its sixty-third canon reads in part, “If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone else on the sacerdotal list at all, eat meat in the blood of its soul, or that has been killed by a wild beast, or that has died a natural death, let him be deposed. For the Law has forbidden this.” This prohibition is based on the idea, common in the ancient world, that blood carries the essence of the soul.  By consuming the blood of an animal we make a part of ourselves the passionate nature of the animal just as we partake of Christ’s nature by receiving the Eucharist. Properly slaughtered meat would not have substantial quantities of blood, unlike the other cases mentioned in the canon. Paul himself continued to observe many ceremonial works of the Law but did not see any of them as a cause of our justification. Christ, he insisted, is the only way to God and it is only through faith in Him that we can attain union with the Father.

The Call to Work

It seems contradictory that the same Paul who was so adamant against being justified by the works of the Law would later tell the Philippians, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). For St Paul justification is not a one-time event in life. We do not simply say a prayer or make our baptismal vows once and that does it! Salvation, or justification (to use St Paul’s term) comes through faith, but faith is a lifelong process! Life-long Christians know that there are periods of life in which spiritual zeal is strong, when we are as fervent in our faith as anyone could wish. They also know that there are periods of dryness – times when we may wonder whether we believe anything at all. There are also degrees of awareness which are meant to deepen as our Christian life progresses. St Paul uses the image of milk vs. solid food to illustrate the progress of Christian understanding in our lives: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb 5:12-14). The process of growing discernment enables us to appropriate the righteousness of Christ in an ever-deepening way as our Christ life develops. As we make the teachings in Scripture more our own through reflection and assimilation we become more able to put them into practice in our lives. We thus “work out our salvation” by cooperating with the grace of God working within us – a synergy between God who calls and we who respond to His saving love.
 
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF PASSAGES that we find in one of the Gospels but not in the others. The raising of Lazarus, for example, is recorded only in John. The birth of John the Baptist, certain of the Lord’s parables, such as the Good Samaritan, and Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet are found in only one Gospel, not the others. It may be that the people who first witnessed one of these events or heard a certain teaching were important to the local community and emphasized it in their preaching. Thus this episode found a place in the Gospel written in that community. This is not the case with the Lord’s call for anyone who would seek to be His follower to “take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). This teaching is found in each of the four Gospels, suggesting it was important to the first Christians throughout the early Church. One could not be a Christian without carrying one’s cross, they all affirmed, but what does this key passage mean? What is one’s cross? Is it one’s spouse or one’s rheumatism, as is often held, or is it something more? In the ancient world the cross was a symbol of shame reserved for executing the least important members of society. From about the sixth century BC until the practice was abolished by the Emperor St. Constantine the Great in the fourth century AD, crucifixion was the “preferred” method of executing slaves, captives and the worst criminals who had no rights in the ruling culture. The painful nature of this punishment is the source of our English word excruciating. For Christians the cross quickly became the symbol of sacrifice, of self-giving in imitation of Christ. As Christ’s sacrifice on the cross became the moment of His glorification, so the Christian’s sacrifice would be seen as the time of his or her exaltation with Christ as well.

Sacrificing One’s Life

The first Christians were acutely aware that they might be called to follow Christ to a literal cross, sacrificing their lives as He did. Thus the apostolic brothers Peter and Andrew and some others were actually crucified by pagan authorities. Countless others since then have met their deaths in a host of ways. Practically every day we commemorate martyrs among the saints. This week alone we honor several martyrs of the Roman persecutions: the Great Martyrs Euphemia (+304), Eustathius and his family (+c. 110), and a dozen others. Local Churches may also commemorate other martyrs from the Persian, Arab, Turkish or Communist persecutions. For the follower of Christ martyrdom is never very far away. Christians today in many parts of Asia and Africa are giving up their lives rather than deny their faith in Christ their Savior. The demise of militant atheistic Communism was followed quickly by the rise of militant Islamism and even militant Hinduism and ultra-Orthodox Judaism as these peoples strive vainly to purify their cultures from foreign influences. Recently a watchdog group in Europe concluded that throughout the world more that 100,000 Christians are killed each year “because of some relation to their faith.”

Sacrificing One’s Self

As Christ’s death was the consequence of His assuming our whole nature, the sacrifice of blood-martyrdom is inseparably tied to the martyr’s witness to Christ. The very word martyr means witness, a witness made at the cost of one’s life. The Gospel indicates another kind of witnessing unto death in this passage, when Christ says, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross…” (Mark 8:34). In addition to our physical life which may be sacrificed in blood-martyrdom, we also have an inner life the life of our ego. We want to do this, own that, eat or drink this. We can satisfy every urge our material resources allow or we can deny ourselves to witness to Christ. This is the heart of asceticism, whether in its institutional expression, monasticism, or in the call of every Christian to place God and others first in our lives. The first such self-denial is that to which St Paul urges us: “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11). We are called to destroy that part of us which is bound up with sin – the passions of our broken human nature – and be crucified interiorly. In another place St Paul becomes more explicit: “Therefore put to death your members which are of the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). As St Augustine noted centuries ago, this does not mean that we are to kill or maim ourselves “…but it does mean that one should kill whatever in oneself is unduly attached to the earthly, which makes one take inordinate pleasure in this present life to the neglect of the life to come” (Letter to Laetus). We are to deal violently with our sinful actions and inclinations in imitation of Christ’s death on the cross. In no previous age has the average person been more able to avail himself of entertainments every day. In our society the stuff of popular entertainment is sin: greed, lust, violence and the rest. It permeates TV, sleazy movies, the Internet and even commercials. It appeals to the voyeur and the gossiper in us. The follower of Christ is called to put aside these entertainments, dying to internet porn, celebrity gossip and whatever else is “of the earth.” Our economy is built on consumerism: buying the newest, biggest whatever, simply because we can. Commercials would have us believe that doing do will make us happy and fulfilled. The message of dying to self, on the other hand, calls us to live simply that others may simply live. Our immediate concerns, our convenience, and the welfare of those closest to us often blind us to the needs of the wider Church and the world around us. Can dying to self also involve putting to death the parochialism of our everyday lives? It often happens, as St. Augustine noted, that our cross drags us along, rather than we carry it. We find the precepts of the Gospel burdensome rather than life-giving and we observe them only out of a sense of obligation. When we do take up the cross, the Fathers remind us, we need to keep our eyes upon Christ whom we are but following. In the words of Caesarius of Arles, “To what place are we to follow Christ if not where He has already gone? We know that He has risen and ascended into heaven; there, then, we must follow Him. There is no cause for despair – by ourselves we can do nothing, but we have Christ’s promise…Human sin made the road rough; Christ’s resurrection has leveled it. By passing over it Himself, He transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway” (Sermon 159, 6).
The Tree of true life was planted in the Place of the Skull; and upon it, You, the eternal King, worked salvation in the midst of the earth. Exalted today, it sanctifies the ends of the earth, and the Church is renewed in the Resurrection. Angels in Heaven greatly rejoice and men upon earth make glad, crying aloud with David and saying, “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at His footstool, for He is holy, granting the world great mercy!”
Liti, September 14
Through the Cross, O Lord, today You have raised us up again. We were plunged continually in the gloom of our father Adam. Unrestrained greed thrust down our nature into error; but now we have been restored to our full inheritance by the light of the Cross which we, the faithful, magnify.
Ninth Ode, September 14
 
IN MARCH, 2012 THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT sided with employers who refused to allow Christians to wear a visible cross at work. Wearing a cross is not a requirement of Christianity, the spokesman affirmed, so wearing one in public is not protected by the law. In October, 312 government took a very different position. Inspired in a dream to mark his soldiers’ shields with the cross, the Roman officer Constantine went on to win control of the empire, an act he attributed to the help of the Christian God. Within a few years reverence for the cross had become the universal mark of Christians in the empire. St John Chrysostom, writing later in the same century, would note how. “Kings removing their diadems take up the cross, the symbol of their Savior’s death; on the purple - the cross; in their prayers - the cross; on their armor - the cross; on the holy table - the cross; throughout the universe - the cross. The cross shines brighter than the sun.”

Jerusalem, City of the Cross

Beginning about the year 325 the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena began to uncover and adorn the sites associated with the life of Christ. In 333 the Church of the Nativity was dedicated in Bethlehem and in September 13, 335 the Church of the Resurrection, built to enclose the tomb of the Lord, was dedicated. The site, revered by Jerusalem’s Christians, had been covered over in AD 135 when a previous emperor, Hadrian, ordered that a temple to Aphrodite built there as part of his attempt to remake Jerusalem into a Roman city. Constantine had the temple destroyed and the surrounding area cut away to make the tomb and the mount of Golgotha more prominent. A covered atrium was built to enclose these two shrines which was then joined to an adjoining basilica and covered by a single domed roof. By restoring the biblical character of the Holy Land, the Roman emperor Constantine undid the work of his predecessor Hadrian and also of the emperor Tiberius, under whom Christ was crucified, and the emperors of the previous two centuries who tried to destroy His Body, the Church.

The Century of the Cross

During the excavations conducted for the construction of the church, workers unearthed the cross of Christ and the title placed over his head. A portion of the cross was sent to the emperor in Constantinople, but the principal part was enclosed in silver and entrusted to the care of the Bishop of Jerusalem. As a result Christians throughout the empire dreamed of visiting the Lord’s tomb and venerating the precious and life-giving cross of Christ which was enshrined there. A few years after the church’s dedication, St Cyril of Jerusalem could actually point to the cross as tangible proof that Christ was truly crucified. “Jesus then really suffered for all men; for the Cross was no illusion, otherwise our redemption is an illusion also. His death was not a mere show, for then is our salvation also fabulous. …If I should now deny it, here is Golgotha to refute me, near which we are now assembled; the wood of the Cross itself refutes me, which was afterwards distributed piecemeal from hence to all the world” (Catechetical Lecture 13.4). On May 7, 351 another manifestation of the cross took place over Jerusalem. The current bishop, St Cyril of Jerusalem, reported that a large cross encircled by a rainbow appeared in the heavens, just over the holy Golgotha, reaching as far as the holy mount of Olivet, (almost two miles). He affirmed that it was seen not by one or two persons, but clearly and evidently by the whole city and remained visible for several hours. In c. 381-384 the Spanish pilgrim nun Egeria visited Jerusalem. She described the veneration of the holy cross on Good Friday, noting that the cross and the title are removed from their reliquary and held by the bishop. Then “all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it”(Pilgrimage, 37.3). Egeria also describes the week-long anniversary of the church’s dedication each year; however much of what she wrote has been lost. The manuscript is incomplete.

Recovery of the Cross

One other event concerning the cross is remembered at this time. The Roman Empire was often at odds with its neighbor to the east, the Sassanid Persians. When Rome was pagan, Christianity was welcomed in Persia, but when Rome became Christian the Persians turned against the Christians as Roman sympathizers. In AD 613 the Persians invaded. They sacked Jerusalem in 614 and seized the precious cross as spoils of war. The Emperor Heraclius retaliated and in 627 surrounded the Persian capital and recovered the cross. On March 21, 630 Heraclius brought the cross back to Jerusalem and it was restored to the Church of the Resurrection.

The Cross Today

Christians in the fourth century clearly saw the power of the cross in the events of their age as signs that the Roman Empire was meant to turn to Christ. Succeeding centuries saw the cross become something of a talisman, carried or worn for personal protection. When Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 they divided up the emperor’s portion of the cross for bishops and princes throughout Europe. Subsequent ages saw Europe dismiss the cross and even the Crucified as passé and irrelevant. The cross remained only as an item of jewelry or other ornament but less and less as the sign of the true life of the world. In Jerusalem Christ emptied Himself, even to death on the cross. Today we see the cross emptied of its imperial, political and talismanic associations – necessary perhaps for the true meaning of Christ’s sacrifice to shine forth again in power. The radiance of the Crucified is in His refusal of power rather than in an embrace of it/.
From The Feasts of the Cross


The divine treasure hidden in the earth, the Cross of the life-giving Lord, appears in the sky to the pious emperor, showing him the spiritual sign for his victory over the enemy. With love, in joy and faith, he is divinely inspired to seek the exaltation of the object of his vision. He carefully has it lifted from the bosom of the earth for the redemption of the world and the salvation of our souls. (Vespers of the Forefeast)

By its elevation, the Cross is like an appeal to the whole creation to adore the blessed Passion of Christ our God who was suspended on it, for Christ destroyed by this Cross the one who had destroyed us. In His great goodness, He brought us back to life after we had been dead, and He beatified us and made us worthy of Heaven, for He is merciful. Wherefore, we exalt His name with great rejoicing and glorify His infinite condescension. (Vespers of the Feast)

The rod of Your divine power has appeared from on high: the Cross, sent to us in Sion, wholly illumined by grace and boundless light. The heavenly cross of our crucified God has shone forth above glorious Golgotha, proclaim-ing to all that salvation has come to the world through His sufferings. Bowing down before it we chant unceasingly and ask with faith that He grant peace to the world and that He save our souls. (Vespers. May 7)

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