By the Wood of the Cross

The wise thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise in a single moment, O Lord.  By the wood of Thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me. (Exaposteilarion from Matins of Holy Friday)

With my Protestant background, it was difficult to accept and embrace the church’s longstanding tradition of active involvement with the community of believers whose earthly existence has ended.  We venerate images of the saints, ask for their prayers and, through reading and singing about their extraordinary lives, are inspired and encouraged for our own journey to salvation.

It is, then, a particular blessing that my own parish is dedicated to the Cross of the Lord.  Whatever church you belong to, if you call yourself a Christian, you must at least believe in the miracle of the Cross — that through one undeserved death, Death itself was conquered.

Our church celebrates this miracle every Sunday in some sense, of course, being a feast of the Resurrection, but there are two main feasts for which we specifically turn our attention to the barbaric instrument of torture that has, over the centuries, become a thing of beauty for the faithful.  On September 14 we commemorate the finding of the Cross by St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, and midway through Great Lent, we look to the Cross in adoration for strength to complete the fast.

There is also a third feast, the Procession of the Cross, that takes place today — the first day of the Dormition Fast.  I’ve always found this puzzling  The fast is in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, and every night we gather in the church to ask her prayers for our healing.  It’s the easiest of all the fasts for me to keep, partly because it is so short (only two weeks) and partly because at this time of year the gardens and markets are overflowing with fresh and flavorful ingredients that make humble meals easy.  It’s also the hardest to explain to my non-Orthodox friends — why so much fuss for the Mother of God?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on God Himself?

But last night at church, I learned something new:

To avert the illnesses which were most prevalent during the month of August from the most distant times, the practice in Constantinople was to carry the venerable Wood of the Holy Cross through the city’s streets and public places in order to sanctify these places and to ward off illnesses. On the pre-festive day the Wood of the Holy Cross was carried from the Imperial Treasury Chamber and placed on the Holy Table of the Great Church, Holy Wisdom. From August 1 until the feast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, it was carried about throughout the entire city, then it was exposed for the people’s veneration. This is the origin of the Procession of the Venerable and Life-giving Cross that we commemorate today.

The mental image of the Cross circling through disease-filled neighborhoods — the hottest part of the year in the Holy City, when the heavy, stagnant air seems to make every breath difficult — was so poignant, so lovely. And the thought that, even in the midst of our seasonal focus on the Virgin Mary, whom we hold up as the ultimate example of a Christian, we are still fixing our eyes on the Cross?  Fitting, and right, and beautiful.