On September 14th, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. Although it is a triumphant celebration, the Feast is observed with a strict fast regardless of what day it falls on. It parallels the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ on Good Friday.
This Feast actually celebrates two significant events that occurred a few hundred years apart from one another. The first, was the finding of the Cross by St Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, in 326 AD.
After St. Constantine defeated Maxentius, ruler of the western part of the Roman Empire in 312 and later Licinius, ruler of the eastern part of the Empire, he became sole emperor in 323 AD.
In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity and persecution against Christians in the western part of the Empire ceased. This was a watershed event in the history of the Orthodox Church; a transition from the pagan Roman Empire to the Christian Byzantine Empire.
Before his victory over his adversaries, St. Constantine beheld the vision of the Holy Cross in the sky with an inscription below it which read: IN THIS SIGN CONQUER. He was determined thereafter to find the Cross of our Lord. So he sent his mother, the Empress Helen to the Holy Lands in search of it.
St Helen ordered the destruction of the pagan temples in Jerusalem, especially the temple of Aphrodite which stood above Golgotha. After an intensive search, three crosses were found, however, Helen was not sure which one was the Lord’s. There was a funeral procession and so Patriarch Macarius of Jerusalem who aided St Helen in her search placed one of the crosses on the dead person. Immediately the deceased man was restored to life and that confirmed that this was the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.
The second great event occurred in 628 AD, also on the 14th of September. The Cross was returned to Jerusalem from Persia after a fourteen-year captivity. The Persians had pillaged Palestine and abducted the Cross back to Persia. However, Emperor Heraclius set out on a military campaign to retrieve the Cross and returned it back to Constantinople. Later on, he personally returned it back to Jerusalem.
A few days before the Feast of the Holy Cross, is the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that terrified America and the rest of the world. The immediate days after 9/11/2001 were devastating for everyone, especially for the first responders and families who lost loved ones due to those attacks.
At Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers were destroyed, on the third day (9/13/2001) since the devastation, a worker found a cross of two beams some 20 ft tall. Those who witnessed this saw this as a great miracle and sign of hope. Just as the Holy Cross was found among rubble, so was this cross, known as the Cross of Ground Zero. There is also significance that this cross was found after three days which is analogous to Christ’s Resurrection on the third day.
The Ground Zero Cross is not the actual Life-Giving Cross, yet, it still symbolizes the Cross. St Leontius of Neapolis, a revered Church Father of the 7th Century said: when the two beams of the Cross are joined together, I adore the figure of the Cross because of Christ who was crucified on it- but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them. It didn’t take long for someone to recognize these two iron beams at Ground Zero as a cross. Thus, Christ is in our midst. God will not forsake His people and the Cross of Ground Zero provided healing and hope to all America, especially New Yorkers.
The Cross of Ground Zero remained in the midst of the site until 2006 when it was transferred to St Peter Roman Catholic Church, a block or two away. Indeed, the recovery was completed and now stands the magnificent One World Trade with the two reflecting pools where the Towers once stood, along with the museum.
The Cross of Ground Zero was blessed by Father Brian Jordan, a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest and placed at St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps one day, by the grace of God, the Cross of Ground Zero will be blessed by our clergy and transferred to St Nicholas National Shrine.
Coincidentally, on September 13, 335, the consecration of the Church of the Resurrection occurred in Jerusalem where the Holy Cross was placed. Under the roof of this Church is the Tomb of Christ and Golgotha.
On the days preceding the anniversary of 9/11 and the day of, it has been a tradition for the Towers of Light to be lit from where the Twin Towers once stood. We gaze at them with awe as they reach the same Heavenly sky that St. Constantine once beheld the vision of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. May we all with faith and love know that upon the Holy Cross, Christ forgave, life was granted and sin and evil were conquered.
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted (John 3:14). In the Book of Numbers, Moses lifted up the serpent to cure the Israelites from deadly bites of poisonous snakes. This image prefigured Christ being lifted up on the Cross. But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness…(1 Cor 1:24).
Moses once prefigured you when he extended his arms up and he routed utterly Amalek the tyrant king, O most precious Cross; the believers' pride and joy, Martyr athletes' support, the Apostles' badge and ornament, defender of the Just and the preservation of the Devout. And all creation seeing you lifted high is therefore rejoicing now, and is celebrating and glorifying Christ who has through you united those that were separate, in His extreme benevolence (Sticheron of Festal Vespers).
For the Greeks who were pagans at that time, the Cross was a folly since they did not know Scripture and it would seem bizarre for one to die a voluntary death. The Jews on the other hand, misunderstood Scripture: for he who is hanged on a tree is accursed of God (Deuteronomy 21:23). For St Paul says: Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (Gal 3:13). Christ fulfilled the Mosaic Law, having submitted Himself to crucifixion on the Cross. It is by the Cross that Christ saves us.
St Ephraim the Syrian poetically describes that the Tree of Life in the Book of Genesis sprouted forth on Calvary: in the place of the Tree of Knowledge, there was the Cross; in place of the stepping of the feet by which our first ancestors walked to a forbidden tree, and in place of their stretching out of their hands in order to take the fruit of the tree, there were nailed to the Cross the innocent feet and hands of Christ, in place of the tasting of the fruit, there was the tasting of gall and vinegar, and in place of the death of Adam, the death of Christ. Therefore, Christ was for us a curse, through being hung upon the tree of the Cross.
Let us all proclaim from our hearts: Save O Lord Your people and bless Your inheritance, granting our rulers to prevail over their adversaries, and protecting Your commonwealth by Your Cross (Festal Apolytikion).
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.
Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get a weekly reflection every Saturday!
BONUS: Y2AM has released a brand new ministry training course. And check out our "Be the Bee" episode on the Cross: