To be in the presence of the True Cross of Jesus Christ is a deeply felt emotional experience.
In a powerful service at New York’s St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral on Sunday, September 15, witnesses were able to draw near to a relic of the True Cross. The sliver of the Holy Cross could be viewed imbedded in a cross-shaped reliquary, surrounded by the royal herb, basil.
The service for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross—led by the Vicar of St. Vartan Cathedral, the Very Rev. Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan—symbolized both the grief Christians feel over the Crucifixion, as well as the spirit of salvation and hope that the Holy Cross came to represent after the Resurrection.
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross—Khatchveratz in Armenian—is one of the church’s five major feast days, and the most important of the four feasts of the Holy Cross that mark the present season. Sunday’s service began in the evening, with Fr. Parsamyan carrying the relic of the True Cross into the cathedral sanctuary.
He led a retinue of nine Armenian priests from area churches in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as well as six deacons. Also present in the sanctuary was Diocesan Vicar the Very Rev. Fr. Simeon Odabashian, representing Diocesan Primate Bishop Daniel Findikyan.
The priests and deacons chanted the prayers of the Medz Antasdan service, in Armenian and English, blessing the four corners of St. Vartan Cathedral to symbolize the four corners of the world. As the prayers were chanted, rose water was sprinkled on the large number of people attending, who in the symbology of the service represented the worldwide community of Christian believers.
The basil leaves which traditionally grace the church on Khatchveratz are a recollection of the re-discovery of the True Cross, in A.D. 326. The distinctive herb, named for the Greek word basileos (“king”), was found growing in profusion around the pile of debris where Christ’s crucifixion cross had lain undisturbed for some 300 years. Traditional holds that it was formally identified Queen Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great, when she had the recently deceased body of a young man placed on the discarded cross. The man instantly sprang to life, restored by the surging power of the Resurrection.
Sign of Victory
“For believers, the Holy Cross is a sign of victory,” said Fr. Mesrob Hovsepyan, pastor of the St. Gregory the Enlightener Church in White Plains, NY, in his thoughtful sermon.
“It is the sign of God’s love for us, and his forgiveness. It is also a reminder that Christ brought resurrection for us through his crucifixion.”
“In our world of division, dishonesty, and hatred, where many fear death, the Cross brings unity, and promises life everlasting,” he continued. “It conveys honesty, love, and self-sacrifice, when there is a lack of peace.”
Every time, we make the Sign of the Cross, Fr. Hovsepyan relayed, “we receive the saving power of the cross, and the strength from Christ to protect ourselves from the power of evil in this world.” The cross is “everywhere in our lives, decorating our churches, homes, vestments and vessels. It does so because it is a sign of life.”
Traditionally, Armenian churches are built in the shape of a cross, “so that when we worship, we literally stand inside of the cross, and become part of the cross which leads us to our salvation.”
To conclude the service, worshippers came forward and kissed the relic of the True Cross, and received a sprig of the blessed basil herb.
A reception followed on the open air cathedral plaza, where people conversed with one another about the inspirational meaning of the service.
“Today at St. Vartan Cathedral, surrounded by our faithful community members, we performed a centuries-old service called Medz Antasdan,” explained Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan. “We blessed the four corners of the Earth with the Sign of the Cross. Indeed, the world is turning: the generations pass, and happy and sad times follow each other. However, the Cross is our only hope.”
“It is the sign and the proof par excellence of Christ’s love for us,” he said. “And it will always remain.”
Click here to view photos of the Khatchveratz service.
By Florence Avakian