The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is the last one of the five major feasts of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is the most important feast among the feasts dedicated to the Holy Cross, as it is dedicated to the history of the return of the Holy Cross from imprisonment, its elevation and glorification. In the Armenian Apostolic Church the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is celebrated on Sunday during the period between September 11-17.
The dictionary defines “exaltation” as the state of praising highly, or of raising something aloft to a superior position. According to early accounts, the public adoration of the Cross of Christ, when it was ceremoniously elevated before the faithful for veneration, took place on three significant occasions.
The first occasion was by the apostle James in Jerusalem. While zealously preaching to a crowd, he boldly raised a cross and cried out, “We kiss the ground before your Cross, O Christ. Lord, you who were nailed to the Cross and shed your blood in sacrifice, we bow down before your Cross.”
In the early days of Christianity, the cross was viewed as an instrument of infamy and punishment used by the Romans. Jesus’ crucifixion was intended to stand (by the executors) as a warning that those who followed his teachings would incur severe punishment. One could not openly declare one’s Christian faith without serious consequences. Thus, in James’ public adoration of the Cross of Christ and acknowledgment of Christ’s sacrifice, the cross was transformed from a symbol of death to one of new life and victory.
The second occasion on which the Holy Cross was ceremoniously elevated before the faithful was when it was “discovered” by Queen Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, in 326 A.D. in Jerusalem. The “true cross” (the one on which Christ was crucified) was authenticated when a deceased man came alive after being placed on Christ’s cross. At that time Bishop Cyril, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, elevated the Holy Cross before the faithful crowd, who witnessed the miracle and were inspired with awe.
The third auspicious occasion on which the Holy Cross was elevated and venerated, was upon its return from captivity from the Persians. In the year 629 A.D. the Emperor Heraclitus, leading a coalition of forces, including Armenians, recaptured the cross from the Persians and personally led his troops to return the Cross to Jerusalem. The king led the troops through Armenian lands, a long journey from Constantinople to Jerusalem. It was an emotional experience for those Christian people of the East witnessing these events, but especially the Armenians who had played a substantial role in the rescue of the precious cross.
The celebration of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the Armenian Church takes place at the end of the Divine Liturgy. With great ceremony, the clergy, deacons and acolytes proceed around the church holding high the gleaming gold cross, which is adorned with sprigs of fresh basil (a symbol of royalty), after which an antasdan service takes place.
In the antasdan service, the four corners of the church are blessed as a sign of the sanctification of the world. Similar to the Feast of the Assumption, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is also related to the blessing of the harvest of fruits and their preservation: a time to give thanks for God’s blessings. Following the ceremony, parishioners customarily take home a sprig of the sweet basil and use it for its healing properties.
For Christians, the Cross is God’s power and strength on which Christ’s innocent blood was shed. By means of the Cross Jesus proved His love towards mankind and the Cross became for us the symbol of hope, love and saving.