The Ablution of the Cross

An unusual ceremony takes place in cathedrals and big temples during the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord: a bishop or the parish priest together with other clergymen performs the so-called “exaltation”, that is, the elevation, the raising of the Cross of the Lord in the middle of the Church. While the ritual of the Exaltation clearly reproduces the historical discovery of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified, what is the meaning of the ablution of the cross with special water? What is this water and what is its significance? What conclusion can we draw from all that?

The Ablution of the Cross as Veneration. Typically, rose water is used (and in case of lack thereof, water with the addition of incense and essential oils). Such water has been used since ancient times in Ancient Rome, Persia, India for medicinal, cosmetic, and even cooking purposes. Rose has always been considered a noble royal plant, so it is not surprising that Christians decided to use rose water for liturgical purposes as well. Thus, rose water is used during the consecration of the Holy Table. Holy Shroud is anointed with rose oil or other fragrances before it is taken out on Good Friday. By spraying the Holy Crucifixion with fragrant liquid, Christians express their respect and love for Christ, the King of the Universe, and His saving triumphant Banner. In some Local Churches, in particular in the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, lay people, including women, participate in the ablution of the Cross, imitating the Myrrhbearers who came to anoint the Body of Jesus.

Ablution of the Cross as Visual Symbolism. Another reason for the ablution of the Cross of Jesus, in addition to showing respect, is the ritual re-enactment of the historical events of the discovery of the Life-Giving Wood. When Queen Helen found the three crosses, it was not immediately clear which one of them had been the instrument of Christ’s redemptive Passion. Therefore, they started laying all three crosses one by one on a dead person, praying for God to indicate which of them was the true Holy Cross by the miracle of resurrection. The man was raised from the dead and everyone was able to see which cross was the cross of the Messiah. They immediately began washing it of dirt and mud, for it had remained in the ground for more than three hundred years. After washing the Cross with water, they began to anoint it with precious incense, which may have included rose water, or rather rose oil which was more fragrant. The ritual of washing the Cross with water and anointing it with expensive substances is a symbolic representation of that story.

Decoration with Basil. According to some versions of the discovery story of the Cross of the Savior, there was lots of basil on the plot of land where the Crucifixion Wood was buried. Many people know that basil got its name from Greek Βᾰσῐλέως, lit. the king. Thus, the nature itself pointed to the location of the Victorious Banner of Christ the King. The crucifix in Greek Orthodox churches on the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross is abundantly decorated with fragrant basil, which is then distributed among the faithful. During the days after the holiday, in the afterfeast period and before the apodosis of the holiday, basil is even mixed into the dough for baking prosphoras. In the Russian Church, the crucifix is decorated with flowers, usually roses.

Such involvement of Orthodox Christians in all these procedures with material objects, the use of water, basil, various spices, oils and so on may seem strange and incomprehensible to an outside observer. It all looks like vanity and excessive attention to nature and matter, but that is not the case. Matter is divinely created for the service of man, for our joy, and we bring it into the service of God. The Christian message and the gospel worldview are far from trivial spiritualism, withdrawal to another world and denial of matter. All nature, all exuberance of matter is the life-space that God has prepared for us. We love the world that God has created for us, in which we see the imprint of His Wisdom and His love for us (see Romans 1:20). The Lord took upon Himself human flesh, entered the world of matter and sanctified it, rendering it permeated with His grace, so that the simple bread can become the body of Christ and the wine can become His blood through the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox worship service is filled with aromas, colors and flowers, hues and images, melodies and sounds. This is the life and life with abundance (see John 10:10) for which Jesus, the Savior and King of the world, entered this world.

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