Feast of the Cross

Russian icon of Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (icon from Yaroslavl by Gury Nikitin, 1680. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).

In the Christian liturgical calendar, there are several different Feasts of the Cross, all of which commemorate the cross used in the crucifixion of Jesus. While Good Friday is dedicated to the Passion of Christ and the Crucifixion, these days celebrate the cross itself, as the instrument of salvation.

In English, it is called The Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the official translation of the Roman Missal, while the 1973 translation called it The Triumph of the Cross. In some parts of the Anglican Communion the feast is called Holy Cross Day, a name also used by Lutherans. The celebration is also sometimes called Holy Rood Day.

As per Christian faith the True Cross was discovered in 326 by Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was then built at the site of the discovery, by order of Helena and Constantine. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the cross. One-third remained in Jerusalem, one-third was brought to Rome and deposited in the Sessorian basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem), and one-third was taken to Constantinople to make the city impregnable.[1]

The date of the feast marks the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335.[2] This was a two-day festival: although the actual consecration of the church was on September 13, the cross itself was brought outside the church on September 14 so that the clergy and faithful could pray before the True Cross, and all could come forward to venerate it.

In Roman Catholic liturgical observance, red vestments are worn at church services conducted on this day, and if the day falls on a Sunday, its Mass readings[note 1] are used instead of those for the occurring Sunday in Ordinary Time. The lectionary of the Church of England (and other Anglican churches) also stipulates red as the liturgical colour for 'Holy Cross Day'

Until 1969, the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the calendar week after the one in which 14 September falls were designated as one of each year's four sets of Ember days by the Church in the West. Organization of these celebrations is now left to the decision of episcopal conferences in view of local conditions and customs.

September 14 is the titular feast of the Congregation of Holy Cross, The Companions of the Cross and the Episcopal Church's Order of the Holy Cross. This date also marked the beginning of the period of fasting, except on Sundays and ending on Easter Sunday, that was stipulated for Carmelites in the Carmelite Rule of St. Albert of 1247.[3] The Rule of St. Benedict also prescribes this day as the beginning of monastic winter (i.e., the period when there are three nocturns of psalms and readings at matins) which also ends at Easter.


The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated every year on September 14, recalls three events: the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine; the dedication of churches built by Constantine on the site of the Holy Sepulchre and Mount Calvary; and the restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem by the emperor Heraclius II after it had fallen into the hands of Chosroas, King of the Persians. Under Constantine, around 327, Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, caused excavations to be made in order to ascertain the location of Calvary as well as that of the Holy Sepulchre. It was in the course of these excavations that the wood of the Cross was recovered. It was recognized as authentic, and for it was built a chapel or oratory, [4] Soon after the discovery of the Cross its wood was cut up into small relics and quickly scattered throughout the Christian World.[1]

The feast was observed in Rome before the end of the seventh century.[5] The Second Council of Nicæa of 787, drew the distinction between veneration of the cross and worship or latria, "which, according to the teaching of the faith, belongs to the Divine nature alone." [4] Petavius noted that this cult must be considered as not belonging to the substance of religion, but as being one of the things not absolutely necessary to salvation.[4]

The honour paid to the image passes to the prototype; and he who adores the image, adores the person whom it represents.[4]

In the Gallican usage, beginning about the seventh century, the Feast of the Cross was celebrated on May 3, and called "Crouchmas" (for "Cross Mass") or "Roodmas". When the Gallican and Roman practices were combined, the September date was assigned to commemorating the rescue of the Cross from the Sassanid Persians, and the May date was kept as the Finding of the Holy Cross or Invention of the True Cross to commemorate the finding. (In this context "invention" [from Latin invenire, "to find"] does not have the modern sense of creating something new.) Pope John XXIII removed this duplication in 1960, so that the General Roman Calendar now celebrates the Holy Cross only on September 14.

May 3 is the date given in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer liturgy, but the new Common Worship liturgy, following the Roman Catholic Church's lead, celebrates Holy Cross Day on September 14.[6]

Syriac Church of the East

The Syriac Church of the East celebrates the finding of the Cross on September 13, and considers it to be a major feast. The Syriac Church considers the Sign of the Cross to be a seventh sacrament, by which all of the other sacraments are sealed and perfected (it takes the place of marriage, which they do not name in their traditional list of sacraments). Saranaya (Syriac) hold a shara every year in cities like Chicago, Illinois, and Modesto, California, and other parts of the world. The shara in Modesto is held every Sunday prior to September 13 at East La Loma Park, where they sacrifice lambs in remembrance of the Feast Of the Cross. People gather and feast and sing and dance to celebrate a happy day.

Eastern Orthodox practice

Orthodox Cross set for special veneration on the feast of The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life Giving Cross.

In Byzantine liturgical observance, the Universal Exaltation (also called Elevation in Greek Churches) of the Precious and Life-creating Cross commemorates both the finding of the True Cross in 326 and its recovery from the Persians in 628, and is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the church year. September 14 is always a fast day and the eating of meat, dairy products and fish is prohibited. The Feast of the Exaltation has a one-day forefeast and an eight-day afterfeast. The Saturday and Sunday before[note 2] and after[7] September 14 are also commemorated with special Epistle and Gospel readings[note 3] about the Cross at the Divine Liturgy.

On the eve of the feast before small vespers the priest, having prepared a tray with the cross placed on a bed of fresh basil leaves or flowers, covered with an aër (liturgical veil), places it on the table of prothesis; after that service, the priest carries the tray on his head preceded by lighted candles and the deacon incensing the cross, processes to the holy table (altar), in the centre whereof he lays the tray, in the place of the Gospel Book, the latter being set upright at the back of the altar.[8] Those portions of the vespers and matins which in sundry local customs take place before the Icon of the Feast (e.g.,the chanting of the Polyeleos and the Matins Gospel[note 4]) instead take place in front of the Holy Table.[9] The bringing out of the cross and the exaltation ceremony occur at matins.[8]

The cross remains in the centre of the temple throughout the afterfeast, and the faithful venerate it whenever they enter or leave the church. Finally, on the leave-taking (apodosis) of the feast, the priest and deacon will incense around the cross, there will be a final veneration of the cross, and then they will solemnly bring the cross back into the sanctuary through the Holy Doors. This same pattern of bringing out the cross, veneration, and returning the cross at the end of the celebration is repeated at a number of the lesser times.

Uncovering of the Precious Cross and the Precious Nails by Empress Saint Helen

On March 6, the liturgical calendar of the Eastern Orthodox Church, commemorates the Uncovering of the Precious Cross and the Precious Nails by Empress Saint Helenthat is to say, the anniversary of the actual discovery; the date for the September 14 feast was determined by the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is a lesser feast, and does not have any of the liturgical peculiarities of the September 14 feast.[10]

Armenian Apostolic Church

The Armenian Apostolic Church observes a five-day fast, called the Fast of the Holy Cross from September 10 through September 14, in preparation for the Feast of the Holy Church in view of the Holy Cross, which they celebrate on September 15. September 16 is observed as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Khachverats in Armenian), a feast which continues for several days thereafter. It is counted as one of the five major feasts of the Armenian Church, and the most important of the four feasts of the Holy Cross. According to Armenian tradition, the first one to "exalt" the Cross was the Apostle James of Jerusalem, the "Brother of the Lord". On the Sunday nearest September 14, the liturgy is marked with an antasdan service (blessing of the fields) during which the processional cross is adorned with basil (a symbol of royalty) and the four corners of the church are blessed as a sign of the sanctification of the world.

On the Sunday nearest September 28 (always two weeks after the Exaltation) the Armenian Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Cross of Varak (Varaka Khach) commemorating the third century placement of an authentic relic of the cross in Armenian soil at Varagavank. This is a cross feast unique to the Armenian Church.

On the Sunday closest to October 26, the Armenian Church celebrates the Discovery of the Holy Cross (Kyood Khach), commemorating the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena (327 AD).

Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Coptic Church of Alexandria, commemorate the finding of the true cross on Meskerem 17 of the Ethiopian Calendar (17 Thoout in the Coptic calendar) correspondng to September 27 in the Julian calendar (or, in leap years, one day later). The eve of this day is popularly called "Demera" in Amharic - meaning Bonfire. The patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church lights a large bonfire in Maskal Square, Addis Ababa's greatest open arena, and smaller bonfires are lit by individuals and local parishes throughout the country. Thousands attend the colourful and vibrant ceremony of religious chantings around the bonfire in Maskal Square, which owes its name to the ceremony, maskal meaning in Ge'ez "cross". According to tradition, the bonfire commemorates how Queen Helena, as legend has it, found with the smoke of a bonfire, where to search for the true cross in Jerusalem, or how, by a series of bonfires, she signalled to her son Constantine in Constantinople her success in finding it.

Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church

In the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church a special offering called panchasarayumanda is made on this day, in particular at the Akaparambu Mor Sabor-Mor Aphroth Church in the Ernakulam District, Kerala.

Russian Orthodox Church

In the Russian Orthodox Church, October 12 is the commemoration of the Translation of a Portion of the Life-Giving Cross from Malta to Gatchina. A portion of the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord, as well as the Philermos icon of the Mother of God and the right hand of John the Baptist were preserved on the island of Malta by the Knights of the Catholic Order of St. John of Jerusalem, who controlled the island.

In 1798, when the French seized the island, the Maltese Knights turned to the Russian Empire for defense and protection. To this end, they elected Paul I, the Tsar of Russia, as Grand Master of the Order. The Tsar accepted his election. On October 12, 1799, Maltese knights came to their new Priory Palace, just built for them by Paul in Gatchina (45  km. [27 miles] south of St.  Petersburg), and offered these ancient and holy treasures to their new Grand Master, the tsar.

In the autumn of 1799 the holy items were transferred to St. Petersburg and placed in the Winter Palace within the internal church dedicated to the Icon of the Savior Not-Made-by-Hands. The feast for this event was established in 1800.[11]

August 1

The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholics commemorate the Procession of the Precious Wood of the Life-giving Cross of Jesus Christ on August 1, which is also the first day of the Dormition Fast. The propers of the feast are combined with those of the Holy Maccabean Martyrs, the commemoration of whose endurance is deemed appropriate for the first day of a fast. Unlike the September 14 observance, this commemoration is considered to be a minor feast, but it does have the bringing out of the cross and veneration by the faithful like the September feast.

The history of this feast begins in Constantinople where it was the custom to carry the relic of the True Cross through the streets and squares of the city to ask for God's blessing and for relief from sickness. On the eve of the feast (July 31), observed as a forefeast, it was taken out of the imperial treasury, and laid upon the altar of the "Great Church" (Hagia Sophia) and the following day solemnly placed in the middle of the Great Church for the faithful to venerate. It was taken in procession daily throughout the city, offering it to the people to venerate, until the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (August 15), when it was returned to the imperial treasury.

In commemoration of this tradition, it is customary to have an outdoor procession with the Lesser Blessing of Water on August 1. It is the first of three "Feasts of the Saviour" in the month of August, the other two being the Transfiguration (August 6) and the Icon of Christ "Not Made by Hands" (August 16). Because of the blessing of holy water, this holy day is sometimes called "Saviour of the Water." There may also be celebrated on this day the Rite of Blessing New Honey, for which reason the day is also referred to as "Saviour of the Honey."

According to Saint Nikolaj Velimirović, this feast was instituted by mutual agreement of the Greeks and Russians to commemorate the simultaneous victories of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos over the Bulgarians and the Russian Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky over the Saracens in the 12th century.[12]

In the Russian Orthodox Church, this feast also celebrates the Baptism of Rus, which occurred on August 1, 988.

Moveable Feasts

In addition to celebrations on fixed days, the Cross may be celebrated during the variable, particularly in Lent and Eastertide.

Eastern Christians celebrate an additional Veneration of the Cross on the third Sunday of Great Lent. The services for this day are modeled on the Feast of the Exaltation (September 14), and include bringing the cross to the holy table at little vespers and with solemnity out into the center of church at matins, albeit without the ceremony of the Exaltation of the Cross, for veneration by the faithful.[13] It remains in the centre of the church for nearly a week (the Fourth Week of Great Lent). On the Monday and Wednesday of that week, a veneration of the Cross takes place at the First Hour (repeating a portion of the service from matins of the previous Sunday). On Friday of that week, the veneration takes place after the Ninth Hour, after which the priest and deacons return the cross to the sanctuary.[14]

Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and some Anglican churches have a formal Adoration of the Cross during the services on Good Friday.

In the Roman Breviary before the 1961 reform, a Commemoration of the Cross is made during Eastertide except when the office or commemoration of a double or octave occurs, replacing the suffrage of the Saints said outside Eastertide.

Wednesday and Friday

In addition to all of the above commemorations, Orthodox also hold Wednesday and Friday throughout the year as a commemoration of the Cross.

Veneration of the Cross

Feast Days

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, on several of the feast days mentioned above, there is a public veneration of the cross. It may take place at matins, after the cross is brought out, at the end of the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, or at the end of one of the Little Hours, depending upon the particular feast and local custom.

The faithful come forward and make two prostrations, make the sign of the cross on themselves, and kiss the feet of Christ on the cross, and then make a third prostration. After this, they will often receive a blessing from the priest and bow towards their fellow worshippers on each side of the church (this latter practice is most commonly observed in monasteries).

End of Services

At the end of the Divine Liturgy, and at some other services as well, it is customary for the faithful to come forward and venerate the "Blessing Cross" (hand-cross) which is held by the bishop or priest, and to kiss his hand. This practice is also called the "Veneration of the Cross", though it does not involve making prostrations. The cross which is venerated is small (typically 10-16 inches). This cross is usually metal, often gold or gold-plated, and can be enameled and/or decorated with jewels. The figure of Jesus on the Cross (the soma) is usually engraved, enameled, or painted on the cross, rather than being a separate three-dimensional figure as is found on a crucifix. This is due to the Orthodox practice of using icons rather than statues in church.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

The readings for this day draw a comparison between the bronze serpent of Numbers 21, which was raised up on a pole so that all who looked upon it would be cured of the deadly poison of venomous snakes, and John 3: 14-15, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."[15]

See also


  1. 1st reading--Numbers 21:4b-9; responsory psalm--Psalm 78; 2nd reading--Phillipians 2:6-11; gospel reading--John 3:13-17.
  2. Saturday Before: I Corin. 2:6-9 & Matthew 10:37-11:1; Sunday Before: Galatians 6:11-16 & John 3:13-17
  3. I Corin. 1:18-24 & John 19:6-11, 13-20, 25-28, 30-35 (John's Passion account)
  4. i.e., John 12:28-36, after which is sung the hymn "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ", normally sung on only Sundays and during Paschaltide.


  1. 1 2 Marucchi, Orazio. "Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908
  2. "Sanctuary Holy Sepulchre", Retrieved 2014-04-30
  3. The Rule of Albert as approved by Innocent IV (1247)
  4. 1 2 3 4 Cabrol, Fernand. "The True Cross." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 14 September 2016
  5. "Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross", Catholic Culture
  6. http://prayerbook.ca/resources/bcponline/calendar/
  7. Saturday After: I Corin. 1:26-2:5 & John 8:21-30; Sunday After: Galatians 2:16-20 & Mark 8:34-9:1
  8. 1 2 Mother Mary, Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (1969), The Festal Menaion, London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., pp. 131,133,154, ISBN 0-571-11137-8
  9. "Archbishop Averky Liturgics The Calender [sic] September", Retrieved 2011-12-26
  10. "Uncovering of the Precious Cross and the Precious Nails by the Empress St Helen in Jerusalem". ORTHODOX CHURCH in AMERICA. Retrieved 2016-10-30.
  11. Translation of a Particle of the Life Giving Cross from Malta to Gatchina/ Orthodox Church in America
  12. Velimirovic, Bishop Nikolai (1985), "August 1: The Procession of the Honorable Cross", Prologue from Ochrid, 4, Lazarica Press, ISBN 978-0-948298-02-8, retrieved 2007-08-14
  13. Тvпико́нъ сiесть уста́въ (Title here transliterated into Russian; actually in Church Slavonic) (The Typicon which is the Order), Chapter 49 (PDF), Москва (Moscow, Russian Empire): Сvнодальная тvпографiя (The Synodal Printing House), 1907
  14. Icon and Synaxarion
  15. Pope Francis. "Homily for Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross", Radio Vaticana, September 14, 2014
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