Byzantium and the Glory of the Cross

Beginning with the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on September 14 and continuing throughout the week that follows, a flower-bedecked Cross will remain in the center of our churches, there to be kissed and venerated with love.  The feast has its roots in the Constantinian revolution in the fourth century.  Prior to this revolution, the Church was hunted and persecuted, hiding and crouching fearfully “in the catacombs.”  With the coming of Constantine, the persecution ended, and the faithful were free to come out of relative hiding, blinking in the unaccustomed sunlight of honor with which the Church was now held.  The Christian Faith had not yet become the state religion, but there was no denying it now had favoured status.  Constantine made no secret of his support of the Christians, and he demonstrated this support by funding the building of large churches.

Three of these were in the Holy Land—in Bethlehem, on the Mount of Olives, and over the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial.  This latter church, called “the Church of the Resurrection” (later under the Crusaders, “the Church of the Holy Sepulchre”) was particularly wonderful.  The local Christians there retained the memory of the site, even though a pagan shrine had been built over it in the early centuries.  Constantine’s builders demolished the shrine and cleared away the rubble and found the original site underneath.  They began to build a beautiful basilica, with a space adjacent containing the hill of Golgotha (reduced in size to fit the building programme) and the original tomb of Christ (chipped away from the other tombs to stand alone).  And in an old cistern, the workers found the wood of the Cross.  Christ’s cross could be distinguished from the other two crosses there because the relic proved to be wonderworking and a source of healing.  According to the story, the Bishop of Jerusalem, finding the cross, took it in his trembling hands and lifted it up (i.e. elevated it) as everyone around him cried over and over again, “Lord have mercy!”  It is this event that gave our feast its name.

The feast is therefore a celebration of Byzantium.  Just as the Cross once lay hidden in the dark cistern waiting to be found by Constantine, so Christians once hid in the dark catacombs, waiting for their royal date with destiny.  And just as the Cross was brought out into the light and honored, so the Christians emerged into public prominence and were honored.  It is fitting that the troparion for the feast has a royal ring to it (at least in its original form):  “O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance.  Grant victory to the Orthodox kings over the barbarians!”  The song functioned as a kind of Byzantine national anthem.

As anyone can see, all the Orthodox kings have gone.  (Sadly, the barbarians seemed to have remained.)  Byzantium’s glory with which it once adorned the Cross has long departed, and the Church is once again being forced into the cultural catacombs.  But the true glory of the Cross remains.  Constantine did well to honour Christ’s people and His Cross, but the imperial glory which he shone upon the Cross was always doomed to fade, like the glory of every earthly empire.  The true and undimmed divine glory is that which comes from the Holy Spirit, resting upon those who suffer for their Master.  The Cross is not simply a wooden relic which can be lost to history.  It is a disciple’s determination to serve the Lord even at the cost of suffering, blood, and death.  When reproached for the bearing the name “Christian,” Christ’s disciples rejoice and count themselves blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon them (1 Peter 4:14).  This is the true glory of the Cross.  The flowered crosses standing silently in the midst of our churches this week proclaim that abiding and martyric glory.