The Cross

by the Late Very Rev Fr. N Patrinacos

The cross has acquired an exceedingly special place in the Christian faith and worship. Since Christ suffered on it, the cross for the Orthodox is a symbol of the supreme sacrifice and of the Resurrection not only of the Lord but also of one's own in the life to come. The Greek term for cross is used by Homer, Thucidides and Herodotos. But the Seventy Translators of the Old Testament, although they seem to know the verb, do not quote the noun. The cross as the emblem signifying salvation by way of Christ's sacrifice on it comes to eminence with the books of the New Testament. The Church from the very beginning decreed special days for honouring the Cross of Christ. St. Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great, journeyed to Jerusalem about 326AD and found the place where Christ was buried and built on it the famous Church of the Resurrection. Consecrated in the year 335, it still remains the most respected place of worship for the Orthodox where the famous Service of the Resurrection takes place at midnight of the Saturday of Holy Week. According to the greatest historians of the time, such as Socrates and Theodoret, Ambrose and Nicephoros Kallistos, together with the tomb, the Cross of Christ was also found. To commemorate this day, the Church decreed the third Sunday of Great Lent as the feast day of the finding of the Cross, calling it Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross.

Another day when the Cross is ecclesiastically venerated is September 14, the Exaltation of the Cross. This feast is connected with the historical event of emperor Heracleias' recovering the Cross from the Persians into whose hands it had fallen in 614. The Cross was raised in the Church of the Resurrection to be venerated by the people. Since then, on September 14 a special Liturgy has been taking place and the Cross is being raised and exalted by the Orthodox. The day has been specified as a fasting day of the severity of the days of the Holy Week. And since, according to the narrative, St. Helen discovered the Cross buried in a spot on which the herb basil had grown, sprigs of blessed basil are distributed to the faithful by the priest when they bow and kiss the Cross.

Apart from the formal occasions on which the Orthodox venerate the Cross as the Christian symbol signifying life rather than death, the sign of the Cross and small crosses as articles of personal piety and symbolism have played a deep reaching role in the daily experience of the Orthodox. Before kissing an icon, the Orthodox Christian crosses himself as a sign of sealing himself with the symbol most indicative of his relation with Christ and most protective against evil and other adversities of personal and communal experience. It is believed that Constantine the Great won by the sign of the Cross, not only his most decisive personal battle, but also brought about the most historical changes in the life of man since the conquests of Alexander the Great. The Christian martyrs were marching to their death holding Crosses to their heart as objects not only of complete identification with their Master, but as sources of strength as well, that rendered the pain of death an event of supreme personal fulfillment. For today's Orthodox, the Cross stands as a personal protector in the midst of a life that tends, most of the time, to be confusing, fragmented as it is by so many enemies.

from The Orthodox Messenger, Sept-Oct 1996
published bi-monthly by the SA Central Youth

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