What is the Exaltation of the Cross?

One of my favorite scenes from the film version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is in The Return of the King when Aragorn is anxiously awaiting in Rohan for news from the Realm of Gondor, watching for the fire from the beacons to appear. If he sees the flames then Gondor is calling for aid from their Allies in the war against evil. Aragorn desperately wants to ride into Gondor with an Army to defend The White City. In the theater, especially, the lighting of the beacons (signals sent by bonfire) stretching out across the mountain tops was an awesome scene, those fires of hope stretching across the land, imploring Rohan to come fight a war in which they know they are outnumbered and most likely will die in.

One reason I love the Lord of the Rings is because it helps me to contemplate the world. To think about good and evil; just as all real art should. The numerous characters and the situations which they were placed in give me many things to contemplate. How would I act in such situations?

In Tolkien’s classic, the world has gone mad, evil is bent on destroying everything good and everyone is asked to take a stand, to choose a side. Everyone is tested. Some are tempted to do nothing, to stay out of the war, believing it is not their fight. Some choose evil; others give their lives for good. Faith, Hope, and Love are tested and tried true by the heroes of the story.

Whenever I watch The Return of the King and see the bonfire scene, I think of St. Helen and her quest for the True Cross of Christ. When St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, went on pilgrimage to the holy land in search of the True Cross of Christ she stationed people on the hilltops and mountains along the 721 miles from Constantinople to Jerusalem. Upon finding the cross, a bonfire was lit that signaled to the people on the hilltops to light their fires. The news of the finding of the True Cross went to Constantinople by way of bonfires lighting the sky across the mountain and hills of the land.

It is tradition today to have bonfires on this feast. Some of the Eastern Churches, especially in parts of the Middle East and Ethiopia, will have one at church. The fire will be blessed and the priest will bless the four corners of the earth with the Cross. People will celebrate at home too, with family, friends, and a bonfire burning through the night. People will jump over the smaller fires symbolizing passing through the difficulties in life by the victorious power of the precious and life-giving Cross. In some places, illuminated crosses will be placed on everyone’s rooftops and will light up the night.

Entire villages celebrate and town squares are taken over with people praying, dancing and celebrating the victory of Christ’s cross. Enormous bundles of wood, decorated with flowers, are lit up. These huge fires fill the skies with billowing smoke from the flames (it is worth taking the time to Google videos and pictures of the celebrations).

Sadly, in places where ISIL terrorists have driven out Christians, the annual celebration of the Exaltation of the Cross will again be silent this year as some were last year. Places emptied of Christians and their joy. I suppose it is only human to wonder, ‘Where is the victory now? Why has God not saved His faithful children from persecution?’

Every year on this feast I have sung:

Save, O Lord, Your people and bless Your inheritance; grant victory to the faithful over their adversaries. And protect Your commonwealth, by the power of Your Cross.

As Thou was mercifully crucified for our sake, grant mercy to those who are called by Thy name; make all Orthodox Christians glad by Thy power, granting them victories over their adversaries, by bestowing on them the invincible trophy, Thy weapon of peace.

Peace. The world seems void of it right now. And how can peace be a weapon? How is the cross a source  of victory?

Roses and basil leaves will surround the cross in churches across the world, fires lit, hymns of victory sung, and the Cross of Christ venerated by the faithful. I am wondering how the Christians, who have survived but are displaced, will celebrate this feast day this year. This glorious feast day that has meant so much to them their entire lives. Try to imagine having been driven out of your home and displaced, how would you celebrate Christmas or Easter while suffering persecution?

Of course my questions show that I am looking at this all wrong. I am not seeing with eyes of faith.

The Cross of Christ is the greatest paradox the world has ever known. Through death, eternal life was gained. By death, the power of death destroyed.

This is how peace is a weapon. The peace of knowing that suffering is not in vain. The peace of knowing there will be a “new heaven, and a new earth” and that “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” The usual fires will not be lit this year in many places but one day again they will be; at the end of all things, when Christ will come again in triumph and glory, and will raise the dead to life eternal “making all things new.” (Rev.Ch 21)
One thing that I have noticed about the Christians who are familiar with persecution, they tend to have deep faith and joy. I have been inspired again and again by the faithful from the Middle East and around the world who know what it means to be Christian and accept the consequences. They know that to be Christian means to embrace the cross and are prepared to die, and many have, especially in recent times. Still, they remain faithful and hopeful, knowing that resurrection always follows the cross.

I am wondering now, how would I act if I was among those Christians persecuted today? I cannot know for sure of course. I know the sorrow I feel from just receiving news of what is happening. It is easy to let the joy of Christ’s victory be lost and allow my heart to grow heavy. Again I think of the Lord of the Rings,

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 

I have asked myself, what am I to do with the time given to me, right now, right here where I am? I am safe in my home, with my loved ones safely sleeping in their beds.

The Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of Brooklyn, New York recently gave an answer to this question. At a meeting held in D.C. on behalf of Mideast Christians, during an ecumenical prayer service, he reflected on the beatitudes, which he called “a way of life for Christians.”
He suggested that there were three ways to respond when Christians and other minorities are persecuted:

  • – Pray and do nothing, “and say to ourselves, ‘Christianity was made for suffering.'” But, he added, “that is not the way of Jesus.”
  • – Declare war, fight with every tool available and “destroy those who destroy us. … But that’s not the way of Jesus, either.”
  • – Nonviolent resistance, which he said worked for Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and St. John Paul II. This requires “much prayer, much fasting, much building of solidarity.”

“This nonviolent resistance can be powerful,” he said.

Prayer, fasting and the building of solidarity, this must be my answer and I must act on it.  We do not have time to wait. Beginning on the eve of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross, many Christians will be in Church as they are every year. They will go outside and light their fires, singing the songs of victory and of the triumph of the Cross of Christ. And in solidarity with Christians and all other people suffering around the world, they will pray:

Save, O Lord, Your people and bless Your inheritance; grant victory to the faithful over their adversaries. And protect Your commonwealth, by the power of Your Cross.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1Cor.1:18)

Photo by Christina Winter on Unsplash

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Jessica Archuleta blogs with friends at Engage the Culture where you might find a movie review, a piece of poetry, a work of art, or any other number of culture related topics being discussed or shared from a Catholic point of view. She also blogs at Every Home a Monastery where she shares her experience of being a Monastic Associate (oblate) of Holy Resurrection Monastery located within walking distance of her home. She and her family moved across the country to Wisconsin from California after the monks had to make the move themselves. Jessica is a Romanian Greek-Catholic (Byzantine), mother of ten, and has been married for 20 years to her most favorite person in the world.

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