In the Armenian liturgical calendar, autumn is the Season of the Holy Cross. The months of September and October are punctuated with celebrations and fasts dedicated to the Cross of Jesus Christ, and its mysterious power.
Each of the feasts of the cross has its own historical significance, and each is linked to the others. The season begins with a five-day Fast of the Holy Cross in preparation for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Two weeks after the Exaltation—in a feast unique to the Armenians—the church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Cross of Varak (Varaka khatch) commemorating the placement and discovery of an authentic relic of the cross in Armenian soil at Varakavank (the Monastery of Varak).
Finally, on the Sunday closest to October 26, the Armenian Church celebrates the Discovery of the Holy Cross (kiwd khatch), commemorating the finding of the True Cross in the Holy Land by St. Helena (A.D. 327).
Chief among these feasts is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (khatchverats): one of the five great Tabernacle Feasts of our church, dedicated specifically to the Holy Cross. On that day we honor the Holy Cross by which Christ redeemed the world. While the feast is commemorated in other Christian churches on September 14, the Armenian Church celebrates the feast day on the Sunday closest to September 14.
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.
Blessing the World
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. We can only imagine the stirring and deeply 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 process 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.
As Christians living in the 21st century, hearing these rich historical accounts deepen our appreciation of the perseverance of those early Christians who recovered the Holy Cross, the most precious and central symbol of our faith. They connect us to our religious past. However, this year, as we celebrate the feast day and watch the beautiful ceremony unfold, we might ponder not only past events, but focus on the meaning of the Cross itself in our present lives. Is it only a symbol, something we observe perfunctorily in crossing ourselves at a meal, or during church services? How do we integrate the true meaning of the Cross—Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection—into the fabric of our lives?
In other words, how do we lift up or “take up our own cross” in the example of Our Lord?
ABOVE: The Monastery of Varak (sometime prior to 1915). A relic of the True Cross was discovered on Mount Varak in the 7th century.