The Exaltation of the Cross is celebrated twice during the ecclesiastical year. The first time, and one of the twelve great feasts, is September 14. The second celebration occurs in the spring, at the vigil service of the third Sunday of Great Lent. Immediately after the singing of the Great Doxology of Matins, the Cross of Christ is brought in solemn procession to the center of the church building. It remains enthroned there for the entire middle week of Lent for the veneration and contemplation of the faithful.
The cross was the instrument of capital punishment in the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus. Criminals were executed by being tied or nailed to the cross. According to the Law of the Old Testament, anyone who was crucified was considered as a sinner cursed by God: Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree. (Deuteronomy 21 :23)
"Father Forgive Them ..."
The unimaginable tragedy of this world is that when Christ the divine Son of God and Lord of Glory, "through whom the world was made," came unto "his own," He was rejected and crucified. Christ was killed because men "love darkness more than light," because they prefer their own ways to the wisdom of God, because they cannot bear the truth and love of God revealed in His only-begotten Son Jesus.
Christ was crucified because He was and is divinely perfect, perfect as God and perfect as man. He never ceased to confront men with the Truth, being Himself the Truth. He did it because of His love and His mercy, never ceasing to forgive those who sinned against Him and His Father, as well as His human brothers. Thus even in the midst of the greatest evil ever committed on the face of the earth, the Divine Victim cries out: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. (Luke 23 :34)
Center of Our Existence
The very center of the Christian Faith, and indeed of the whole of human life and history, is the Cross of Christ. The Cross contains and reveals to us the very meaning of existence. It shows us the Truth and the Love and the Life of God Himself. When the world lay in evil, sold under sin to death, the Son of God became a man. And not only a man, but a slave of men. And not only a slave, but dead. And not only dead, but dead on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
He could not have gone further for us; for there was no further to go. He became sin for us though He knew no sin. He became a curse for us, though He was the Blessed of God. He became dead for us so that He could be also our Resurrection and our Life.
Take up the Cross
If men wish to be disciples of Christ, they must "take up their cross and follow him." This means first of all that they must suffer with Him in truth and in love. This means that they must experience the rejection of this world for the sake of the righteousness of God. This means that they must put into practice the very life that Christ Himself lived, the Life that Christ Himself is, the life which is given to men in Christ's Spirit in the Church.
It is for this reason that the Cross of Christ is placed in the center of the church building in the middle of Great Lent. It tells us of God's coming to us and of our return to Him, both accomplished by the Way of the Cross which is foolishness to the wise of this earth and very scandalous to the powerful. Yet, for those who believe, it is the Wisdom and Power of God Himself.
This is the teaching of the Apostle Paul:
For Christ sent me to preach the Gospel not with eloquent wisdom lest the Cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the Word of God is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness I will thwart." For since, in the wisdom of God, it pleased God through the foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe. For the Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a scandal, to the pagans foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is more powerful than men (I Corinthians 1).
This is what we venerate and contemplate in the midst of Great Lent: the Wisdom and the Power of God, Christ Crucified.
We bow down to the Cross and rejoice in its message for it tells us the truth about life. It tells us of the truth and love of God for the world. And it tells us what we must do to be alive for eternal life in God's Kingdom.
Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify.
This is the veneration song of the Life-creating Cross of Christ: the Cross which saves us. And the Cross which we must take upon ourselves if we will be saved, entering into the victorious resurrection of Christ.
Department of Religious Education Orthodox Church in America