Homily given at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church for the Leave-taking (Apodosis) of the Exaltation of the Cross, on Sept. 20, 7530 (Oct. 3, 2021 on the civil calendar).
Today is the leave-taking of the Feast of the Exaltation or Elevation of the Holy Cross, which is one of the most solemn of the 12 major feasts of the Orthodox Church. As one Orthodox prayer puts it, “The Cross is the guardian of the whole world; the Cross is the beauty of the Church, the Cross is the might of kings; the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful, the Cross is the glory of angels and the wounding of demons” (Exapostilarion of the Exaltation of the Cross) Or as an old version of the Orthodox Troparion hymn for the Cross puts it, “O Lord, save Thy people and bless thine inheritance, grant victory to the kings over the barbarians, and by the virtue of Thy cross preserve Thy commonwealth.”
This sober feast, which is a day of fasting, comes early in the Church year. As we take leave of it soberly yet triumphantly with this sign of suffering and triumph, of joyful sorrow, we look ahead from the gathering darkness of the autumn toward the Incarnation at the height of our winter in the northern hemisphere, and the promise of Resurrection in the spring to come. We go forth from the short season of this feast with joyful sorrow into the main swim now of the Church year, which just started recently, following also in the earlier wake of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God. For the Cross is a sign of both sorrow and victory. Significantly, this feast is about the elevation of the Holy Cross by Christians who seek it and find it and then reverence it as a sign of our Lord God and Savior, a banner for our salvation. So this feast includes us as well with them, elevating and exalting the Cross. Just so we wear the Cross around our neck as Orthodox Christians, privately except for priests, but we visibly cross ourselves bodily often throughout the day, and especially to dispel demonic influences. According to tradition, the Cross was found in a place where the herb basil grew, whose name means king. As the old tropar for the Cross calls for victory for the kings, today in our day without an Orthodox emperor or basileus we raise the banner of the Emperor of Emperors, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, Who makes us as believers by His grace and our ascetic struggle kings and priests unto God, as the Scriptures put it.
The patron of our holy mission, St John of Shanghai and San Francisco, gave this homily on the Elevation of the Cross, which I’ll read today (the translation is a meld of two English texts, one in the book collection, St. John Maximovich, Words and Sermons, and that online here).
Before the time of Christ, the cross was an instrument of punishment; it evoked fear and aversion. But after Christ’s death on the Cross it became the instrument and banner of our salvation. Through the Cross, Christ destroyed the devil; from the Cross He descended into hades and, having liberated those languishing there, led them into the Kingdom of Heaven. The sign of the Cross is terrifying to demons and, as the sign of Christ, it is honored by Christians.
The Lord revealed Himself in heaven to Tsar Konstantin, who was going to Rome to fight the tormentor who had seized power, and, having built a banner in the form of a cross, won a complete victory. Having received help through the Cross of the Lord, Tsar Konstantin urged his mother, Tsarina Helen, to find the most life-giving Cross, and the pious Helen, going to Jerusalem, after many searches did. Many healings and other miracles have been and are being done, both from the Cross of Christ itself, and from its image.
The Lord saves HIs people from all enemies, visible and invisible. The Orthodox in this feast season solemnly celebrate the finding of the Cross by the Church, remembering at the same time the appearance of the Cross to Tsar Konstantin. On those and other days dedicated to the Holy Cross, we pray to God that God will not only grant His graces to individual people, but to all Christianity, to the whole Church. The Troparion to the Holy Cross, compiled in the 8th century, when a friend of St. John Damascene, Bishop Cosma of Mayum, wrote the entire sequence of the service of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, asks:
God save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance; grant victories to the kings over the barbarians, and by the virtue of Thy Cross preserve Thy commonwealth.”
The beginning of this prayer is taken from the twenty-seventh Psalm. In the Old Testament the word “people” designated only those who confessed the true faith, people faithful to God. “Inheritance” referred to everything which properly belonged to God, God’s property, which in the New Testament is the Church of Christ. In praying for the salvation of God’s people (the Christians), both from eternal torments and from earthly calamities, we beseech the Lord to bless, to send down grace, His good gifts upon the whole Church as well, and inwardly strengthen her.
The petition for granting “victory to kings,” the bearers of the supreme authority, has its basis in Psalm 143, verse 10, and recalls the victories of King David achieved by God’s power, and likewise the victories granted Tsar Konstantin through the Cross of the Lord.
This appearance of the Cross made emperors who had formerly persecuted Christians into defenders of the Church from her external enemies, into “external bishops,” to use the expression of the holy Tsar Konstantin. The Church, inwardly strong by God’s grace and protected outwardly, is, for Orthodox Christians, “the city of God” or residence of God, from which the path to the Heavenly Jerusalem begins. Various calamities have shaken the world, entire peoples have disappeared, cities and states have perished, but the Church, in spite of persecutions and even internal conflicts, stands invincible; for the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18).
Today, when world leaders try in vain to establish order on earth, the only dependable instrument of peace is that about which the Church sings:
“The Cross is the guardian of the whole world; the Cross is the beauty of the Church, the Cross is the might of kings; the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful, the Cross is the glory of angels and the wounding of demons.” (Exapostilarion of the Exaltation of the Cross)
I would unworthily just add a footnote today to our beloved St. John’s words: That even and particularly a humble mission parish in northern Appalachia is an outpost of our Lord’s commonwealth today, and in this era without government in the world by Orthodox kings in these latter days, in this American land our homes and families likewise are both little churches and little kingdoms, which in Christ bear the banners of the Cross to defend externally in a small but central way our Lord’s Church from the spirit of anti-Christ in godless so-called new world orders, even while we find our own protection also in the Church, our Ark from demonic efforts at global control that would seek to deny our God’s Incarnation. We do this exalting Jesus Christ’s Cross and to His Glory, that He by the virtue of His Cross may preserve His commonwealth. For Who is so great a God as our God? Thou art the God Who worketh wonders. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.