Sunday of the Cross

Come, ye faithful, and let us venerate the life-giving Wood, on which Christ, the King of Glory, stretched out His hands of His own will. To the ancient blessedness He raised us up, whom the enemy despoiled of old through pleasure, making us exiles far from God. Come, ye faithful, and let us venerate the Wood whereby we have been counted worthy to crush the heads of our invisible enemies. Come, all ye kindred of the nations, and let us honor in hymns the Cross of the Lord. Rejoice, O Cross, perfect redemption of fallen Adam. Glorying in thee, our faithful kings laid low by thy might the people of Ishmael. We Christians kiss thee now with awe, and glorifying God who was nailed on thee, we cry aloud: O Lord, who on the Cross was crucified, have mercy upon us, for Thou art good and lovest mankind.

The above hymn was written by Roman/Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912), and is sung during Matins/Orthros on the third Sunday in Lent, the Adoration of the Precious and Life-giving Cross (see Mother Mary and Archimandrite [now Bishop] Kallistos Ware.The Lenten Triodion. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001, pp 348-9). His reference to defeating the Arabs is probably to the capture of the city of Tarsus in 900 and 904, which for several years had been an Arab base for invasion of Asia Minor, and earlier, if similarly temporary, successes further west in Italy and elsewhere.

The relics of the True Cross, as found during the construction of the Anastastis Church in Jerusalem (known today as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a terminology placing undue focus on the place itself rather than the event, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ), which discovery tradition ascribed to Augusta Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine I the Great, had a fascinating history. This was only a small piece of wood, not a very large and entire cross, as the iconography and popular imagination would have us believe. We learn from Egeria’s record of her visit to the Anastasis in the late 4th century that this remnant of the True Cross was small enough for one deacon to hold both its ends while pilgrims kissed it (and that it was thus guarded because someone had previously taken a bite out of the Cross!). When the Persians invaded the Holy Land and took Jerusalem in 614, they burned every church in the land and every church in the Holy City, including the Anastasis. The treasures of the church, including the relics of the True Cross, were taken by the Persians back to their land, with numerous wealthy captives held to ransom. The Emperor Heraclius achieved the dream of many of his predecessors on the throne of the Roman Empire, defeating the Shahan-Shah and accepting the surrender of the Persians, the seemingly eternal foe of the Empire. Heraclius brought the True Cross back to Jerusalem in 630, which is the origin of the Feast of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross celebrated on 14 September. But only a few years later, upon the irruption of the Arabs from out of the desert like some evil plague-wind, he had the Cross sent to Constantinople for safekeeping. There it remained until the City of Churches was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, after which it was lost to history. There are still certain crosses around, remnants of the glory days of the Byzantine Empire, cabochon-studded, gold-shrouded reliquaries of the True Cross, which are typically wooden crosses with a tiny sliver of the True Cross embedded in a sealed reliquary at the intersection of the pieces. Probably the finest surviving example of these is the Limburg Staurotheca (see the middle of the page, here), a double reliquary. (Also note at the top of the page the object which incorporated the crown of Emperor Leo VI the Wise, the author of the hymn above!) The wooden cross is actually a reliquary with a sliver of the True Cross inside the central jewelled boss, with this cross-shaped reliquary given its own further reliquary of gold and enamel. Such relics of the True Cross were obviously rare imperial gifts, not to be equated with the hucksterism of the later middle ages, in which a flood of fragments were made available for sale, probably produced by the unscrupulous merchants having chopped up their wagons, ploughs and whatnot, for the hoi polloi to spend their life savings on purchasing. No, that was not of the True Cross, nor was it worthy to be associated with it.

3 Replies to “Sunday of the Cross”

  1. I’d like to purchase a sliver of the True Cross, for private veneration, and to loan to my parish, upon request. Does anybody have any suggestions as to how I may purchase one. My need is real, and my purpose noble. God bless.

  2. Does anyone know how I may purchase a sliver of the true Corss, for private, family veneration, and to loan to my parish, as the need arises? God bless.

  3. Dear Jim,
    Though such relics are typically not for sale, I have seen this on eBay. Typically, the authentic fragments of the True Cross are so few and so rare that they are affordable to only the wealthiest of persons. This one is a bargain, and it does appear to be authentic.

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