Patriarch Makarios ordered that the crosses be placed on a dead man about to be buried. When the Cross of Christ was placed upon him he immediately came to life. With great joy both St. Helena and the Patriarch lifted up the Holy Cross for the people to venerate, upon which they all fell to their knees, crying out repeatedly, Kryie eleison.
St. Helena had the church of the Holy sepulchre built on this site which was eventually consecrated on 13th September, 335, and the finding of and the exaltation of the Cross was appointed to be celebrated annually on the following day. The Cross was encased in this Church in Jerusalem until it was looted by the Persians in 614. Fourteen years later, Emperor Heraclius made peace with the Persians and the Holy Cross was returned to him. Instead of returning it to Jerusalem he brought it to the imperial capital of Constantinople in an impressive ceremony. Taking off his shoes and imperial robes, he carried the Cross into Agia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) where it was once again triumphantly exalted to all present to venerate. From 628 this feast of exalting and venerating the Holy Cross has been kept by the West as well as the East.
Today when we commemorate this Feast it signifies more than the history of finding the Holy Cross. St. Helena passionately wanted to find the Cross, because it symbolised the very heart of God's working out man's salvation.
In the Orthodox Church, this Holy Day commences with the Vigil. After Vespers the Cross is decorated with flowers and sweet-smelling herbs and placed on the altar. After the Great Doxology at Matins, the bishop or archimandrite lifts the Cross from the altar and raises it high, as the people chant, Kryie elieson a hundred times. Five times the celebrant lowers and raises the Cross facing first east, then west, south, north and then east again to proclaim that "the Cross is the guardian of the whole world" and through it "the world is sanctified". In some churches rose water is poured over the Cross during the exaltations, which is caught in a basin of flowers held by the acolytes, and which are distributed to the faithful at the end of the service.
Although it is a major celebration, the Exaltation is kept as a fast day as it is a reminder too of the sufferings which our dear Lord endured upon the Cross for our restoration.
The discovery of the Cross by Helena spread the custom of making the sign of the cross as the symbol of the Christian faith. As John Chrysostom expressed it:
Let no man therefore be ashamed of the honoured symbols of our salvation, let us bear about the cross of Christ. Yea, for by it all things are wrought. ... Whether one is to be new-born, the cross is there; or to be nourished with that mystical food, or to be ordained, or to do anything else; everywhere our symbol of victory is present. Therefore both on house, and walls, and windows, and upon our forehead, and upon our mind, we inscribe it [the sign of the cross] with much care.
The keeping of this feast at this time is also placed in the Biblical tradition of the Day of Atonement. Hebrews links the sacrifice of Christ with the Day of Atonement (9.6-12). Christ offered Himself for the sins of all mankind, and accomplished what the Day of Atonement could never do for the Jews. It is because of this we venerate the holy cross on which the Prince of glory died.
I want to finish with a prayer we can say on Holy Cross Day and indeed each Friday, the day kept by Christians to remember Christ's death.
Almighty God, who in the passion of your blessed Son made an instrument of painful death to be for us the means of life: grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer for his sake; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
THE EXALTATION OF THE CROSS
Like the feast of the Transfiguration, the Exaltation of the Cross is celebrated in the Eastern Church with far more importance than the West. Celebrated on the 14th September it has been observed by the East ever since the early 4th century. So why is it so important? It commemorates two historical events: the discovery of the cross on which Christ was crucified and its recovery from Persia in 628.
After Constantine announced the end of persecution to Christians, and made a commitment to the Christian Religion himself (although he was only baptised on his death-bed), his mother, St. Helena, longed to find the Cross on which our blessed Savour had died. She travelled to Jerusalem where she was told by an old Jew that the Holy Cross was buried beneath the temple built in honour of Venus by Hadrian in 119 AD. After having the temple torn down, three wooden crosses were discovered. Which one was the Holy Cross?