The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is celebrated on 14 September. It has its origin in Jerusalem and marks the anniversary of the consecration of the basilica built by Emperor Constantine, in order to protect the holy places linked with the passion, death and resurrection by which Jesus Christ redeemed the world and brought to completion the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. The original basilica included the Martyrium church, the rock of Golgotha and the Anastasis dome with the Edicule of the Resurrection.
This day is also linked with the finding of the Holy Cross of the Lord and with the anniversary of the consecration of the temple of Solomon. This new basilica was the occasion to create a new type of liturgy. The liturgical action of Jerusalem adapts itself and is inspired to the mystery which it celebrates and renews. That is why the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross was given great importance, and could be compared to Easter and Epiphany for the
solemnity of its celebration.
A reading of the Itinerary of the pilgrim Egeria (end 4th century) shows that the great feasts in Jerusalem were not celebrated one isolated from the other, but each one would include the whole mystery of Christ. The reason is found in the fact that all the three great feasts were celebrated in a time span of eight days, during which all holy places linked to the mystery would be visited and the Eucharist would be celebrated in each one of them.
The festive periods were marked by decorations, lights, sumptuous liturgical vestments, which gave a sense of joy and solemnity to the celebrations. They were feasts which filled the faithful of Jerusalem with joy and also left their impact on the Christian communities of the adjacent regions.
The following is a description given by the Pilgrim Egeria in her Itinerary, 48-49, regarding this feast as it was celebrated in the fourth century:
"The day of the 'encenie' is that whic marks the dedication to God of the holy church which is found on Golgotha, and which is called Martyrium; and also of that of the holy church which is found in the Anastasis, that is, in the holy where the Lord rose after his pasion, and which was consecrated to God on the same day. The 'encenia' of these sacred churches is celebrated with great solemnity also because on the same day we celebrate the finding of the Cross of the Lord. It was because of this fact that the day on which the holy churches were consecrated with great solemnity was chosen to coincide with the day in which the Cross of the Lord was found. But Holy Scripture also says that the day of the 'ecenie' is the same day when Solomon finished building the house of God, and he presented himself there before the Lord and prayed, as it is written in the Book of Chronicles.
When the days of the 'encenie' arrive, celebrations take place for eight days. Many days before great crowds being to gather from all over, not only of monks and 'apotates' from many provinces, that is from Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and Tebaide, where many monks live, but also from other provinces and places. There is no one who does not try to go to Jerusalem on that great solemnity and during these great celebrations; lay people, men and women, also gather in Jerusalem from all provinces for such a great solemnity. The bishops present in Jerusalem during these celebrations are about forty or fifty, and many clerics accompany them. What else shall we say? Whovever does not part in such a great solemnity deems onself as having committed a grave sin, except for the cases where one cannot come because of some impediment which blocks one's good intentions.
During the days of the 'encenie' the decorations of all the churches match those of Easter and Epiphany, and every day all visit the holy places just as they do for Easter and Epiphany. The first and second day the faithful gather in the great church, that is, the Martyrium. On the third day they go to the Eleona, that is, the church which is found on the mount from which the Lord ascended into heaven after his passion: in this church one finds the grott in which the Lord taught his disciples on the Mount of Olives. The fourth day..." (here the manuscript of Egeria is interrupted).
The name Exaltation of the Holy Cross probably derives from the rite which is described in the Armenian Lectionary of Jerusalem (V century), which used to be celebrated on the day following the feast of the dedication, that is, on 14 September. The Lectionary says: "On 13 September we celebrate the dedication of the holy places of Jerusalem... The second day (14 September) the faithful gather in the Martyrium church and follow the same canons. On that day the cross is shown to all the assembly of the faithful (chapters 67-68).
Fr. Enrique Bermejo Cabrera