Veneration of the Holy Cross

Veneration of the Holy Cross. Historical Background

Veneration of the Holy Cross

Special veneration of the Holy Cross during the third week of Great Lent was established in the 7th century. It was associated with several historical events. Knowing these events is important for those wishing to understand the Lenten atmosphere. Find out about all of them in our article.

Acquisition of the True Cross

Jerusalem was destroyed about 70 AD. The cross on which the Savior was crucified was lost and so was its history from the Passion of Christ and until the fourth century. 

Around 326, the uncertainty associated with the fate of such a significant relic prompted the holy Empress Helena, mother of the holy Emperor Constantine, to go to Jerusalem to conduct excavations. Arriving there, she met St Macarius I, Patriarch of Jerusalem. Together they fasted and prayed, asking the Lord to reveal to them the location of the Cross.

The holy Empress Helena
The holy Empress Helena

Their search led to the discovery of the Holy Sepulcher (the cave where Christ was buried) and the True Cross, as well as the tablet with the inscription INRI and the four nails with which Christ was nailed to the Cross.

Saint Helena divided the Cross in two parts, taking one, together with the nails, to Constantinople, and leaving the other with the tablet in Jerusalem.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

When St Macarius revealed the newly acquired Cross to the people, there were so many wishing to venerate the relic that even seeing the Cross, let alone venerating it, was problematic.

This prompted Macarius to stand on a dais, raising the Cross above his head, making it visible to the people. From there came the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the tradition of erecting crosses in churches for universal worship.

Subsequently, another event began to be remembered on this day (more on that later).

Stealing of the Cross

At the end of the sixth century, a war broke out between the Byzantine and the Sasanian* Empires. The war lasted 19 years (572-591) and ended with the victory of Byzantium. However, the Sassanids soon decided to take revenge, and the second Iranian-Byzantine war began in 602. 

By that time, Byzantium was in a weakened state. To make matters worse, in 608 Heraclius, patrician and exarch of Africa rebelled against the Byzantine emperor Phocas in order to seize power. 

Heraclius achieved his goal in 610, while Byzantium was losing significantly in the war. The Sassanids captured Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and even reached Constantinople in 626 (the capital was recaptured only by a miracle performed by the Mother of God). 

But the fact that the Sassanids were able to capture Jerusalem was especially devastating for the morale of the Byzantines. The city was plundered. Many churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, were burned. The stolen relics included the Holy Sponge, used by the Roman soldiers to offer vinegar to Christ, and the Lance of Longinus that pierced the side of Jesus. However, the most disheartening loss for the Byzantines was the stealing of the True Cross, plunging the empire into despondency. 

The Return of the Cross and the Establishment of the Veneration

Seizing power, Heraclius was able to take extremely decisive measures, including the exaction of church property to finance the war. These measures allowed Byzantium to fight back, go on the offensive, defeat the Sassanids and recover the shrines from Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sassanid Empire.

Around March 6, 631, the Holy Cross was solemnly returned by the emperor to Jerusalem. He personally carried the Cross. Next to him walked Zacharias, Patriarch of Jerusalem. Suddenly the emperor stopped at the gate, where Christ began His journey to Golgotha. For an unknown reason, he was unable to walk past that point. Patriarch Zacharias explained that an angel was blocking the path, since Christ had made His Way to the Cross in a humiliated form. Then the emperor took off his rich vestments and dressed in rags, after which he was able to continue his walk. 

The cross was re-acquired during Lent. At that time, Lenten traditions were just being formed, and the Lenten weeks were not yet associated with specific events. There was however a custom of transferring holidays from weekdays of Great Lent to the end of the week. Gradually, the celebration of the second acquisition of the Cross became attached to the third Sunday of Lent. In addition, the Return of the Holy Cross began to be remembered during the Feast of the Exaltation. 

The middle of Great Lent was the time of preparing catechumens wishing to be baptized on Holy Saturday, so that they may celebrate Easter taking communion together with their congregation. Devoting a week to worshipping the Holy Cross appeared very appropriate for educating those taking their first steps in the faith. Until now, starting from the Wednesday of the Holy Week, special petitions are read, as well as appeals to those “preparing for Holy Enlightenment”. 

Over time, the initial events of the return of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem have lost their supreme relevance for Christians. Therefore, the Week of the Cross is now associated with these and all other events related to the Holy Cross. 

However, in the return of the Cross to Jerusalem, one can still see a spiritual meaning that is relevant to the present moment. Weakened Byzantium was on the verge of spiritual and physical destruction, but the Lord allowed it to bow to His Cross and rise again. In a similar way, tired of fasting and weakened by passions, we receive new strength in the Lord’s Holy Cross, so that we may be counted worthy to celebrate the Bright Resurrection of Christ.


*The Sasanian or Sassanid Empire was one of the strongest powers of that time, also known as the Empire of Iranians or the Neo-Persian Empire.

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About the author

John Malov,
Reader, theologian, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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