September 14 – Exaltation of the Cross

The Feast of the Exaltation (Elevation) (Lifting Up) of the Cross commemorates two separate events in the history of the True Cross™. The first is its finding in 326 by Helen (mum of Constantine (May 21)), with the help of an old Jew named Jude, who showed her to a pagan temple (Aphrodite’s, if that matters) and said, “On this site, uncover.” (This story is told also on March 6, The Feast of the Uncovering of the All-Holy True Cross™ by Helen, Mother of Constantine the Great; see the entry for that date.) The temple and several feet of dirt beneath it were removed, and there for all the world to see was the Cross upon which our Lord was crucified all those years prior. It was lifted up out of the pit, then lifted up for display in the church built for that very purpose on the site. This church (see yesterday’s entry), was later damaged by fire, then rebuilt, then destroyed, then rebuilt, then enlarged, then nearly destroyed by fire again, then rebuilt, then repaired. It is currently, of course, gradually falling into decay. But back to our story

In 614, disaster—in the form of Khosrau II the Victorius, last great king of the Sassanid Empire (there were some mediocre kings after him but no more great ones)—struck. Khosrau was at war with the Byzantine Empire, but when one of his generals deposed him, he fled to Constantinople, won over the emperor, and with his help regained his throne. In thanks, he attacked the Empire and sacked Jerusalem, and one of his (loyal) generals carried off the True Cross™. For some reason the emperor in question, Maurice, does not bear the sobriquet “the Blithering Idiot.” To be fair to Maurice, he did buy “peace in his time;” it was his successor’s successor, Heraclius, who lost Jerusalem. To be fair to Heraclius, he also regained it, and the Cross as well.

Heraclius made Greek the official language of the eastern Roman Empire (generally considered a great improvement over the earlier Esperanto), played a key role in the conversion of the Dalmatians, made a good-faith (if bad-theology) effort to reconcile the Monophysites, strengthened and reformed the military, and may or may not have had dealings with emissaries from Muhammad.

In 628, Heraclius was approaching Baghdad. Khosrau fled, and his son Kavadh II was proclaimed king. Kavadh was at death’s door, however, and attempted to strike a bargain with Heraclius to save his son Ardeshir (then seven) by sending an emissary bearing the True Cross™. (Despite being at death’s door, Kavadh managed to kill his father and all 18 of his brothers before shuffling off the coil.)

Heraclius took the Cross (or what was left of it; the sources keep using phrases like “a portion of the True Cross™”) on a grand tour of the Empire, returning in triumph to Jerusalem in 629. Despite the warnings of Patriarch Zacharias of Jerusalem, the emperor resolved to carry the Cross into the Church of the Resurrection. (According to one source, Zacharias had been taken into captivity along with the Cross; we’re not told if he went on the round-robin tour previously mentioned.) Dressed in his finest Emperor weeds, Harry headed out among the cheering crowds, but at the gates of Golgotha, he was stopped as if by some invisible force. “It’s your duds, dude,” the Patriarch said. “Jesus didn’t carry the Cross dressed like no Byzantine emperor.” There was a pause while Heraclius removed his shoes and put on peasant garb, after which he proceeded with the True Cross™ to the Church.

This feast, which reached the West by the end of the seventh century, is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of Orthodoxy.