(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate the Illumination of the Holy Cross, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Illumination of the Holy Cross
Of the three special days set aside in Orthodox celebrations honoring the sacred symbol of the cross of Jesus Christ, the one that seems to command the least attention is that day, commemorating the most spectacular display of the Savior’s truth, which falls on May 7, to be known for eternity as the “Illumination of the Holy Cross.” The two more familiar days are the feast days of the Elevation of the Holy Cross on September 14 and the Veneration of the Holy Cross on the third Sunday of Lent.
On May 7, 356 there was emblazoned across the sky a dazzling symbol of the cross of Jesus, etched for a brief period against the heavens for thousands to see but etched for all time in the hearts of millions of Christians not privileged to witness this awesome spectacle. With a brilliance that outshone the sun itself on a clear, bright afternoon, thousands stood in awe as they looked upon a glowing cross of Jesus Christ that stretched out as though drawn by the finger of God over a distance whose boundaries were on the one side the crucifixion site of Golgotha and on the other the Garden of Gethsemane.
The death of Jesus Christ transformed the figure of two crossed timbers from a symbol of wretchedness to a symbol of glory as no other symbol in the world. Whether it be two lines drawn in the soil with a stick, or an encrusted crucifix in the mightiest cathedral, the sign of the cross is looked upon with deepest reverence by all Christianity, a symbol of the triumph over death, and of the everlasting love of the Savior for all mankind. God saw fit to put this dazzling spectacle on display not with accompanying darkness, thunder, lightning, or an eclipse of the sun by the moon, but in the full light of day on a quiet afternoon. It was shown only once, never to be seen again since. It was not at all like our UFOs, which seem to be put on display quite often and then only before audiences limited to one person at a time. It was a divine phenomenon thrust before the eyes of the world for which an encore will appear to those of faith when their eyes close forever.
This awesome miracle took place on the afternoon of the Sunday of Pentecost, appearing at precisely three o’clock when the sun was beginning its descent, but still high enough in the sky to make for a very bright day. The obvious interpretations of this divine manifestation arrive at the same conclusion, which is to say that it had as its purpose a reassurance to those of Christian faith that for them and for generations to come there lay eternal hope for salvation through Jesus Christ. The apparition did not loom there for days on end to act as a magnet drawing all near. It was a reminder that Christ had appeared and then departed this world after leaving His message, and the rest is up to Christendom. It was momentary but monumental, and proof of its purpose is all around us in the signs of the Holy Cross to be seen throughout the world.
There were no cameras to record this event, but the quill of the patriarch of Jerusalem has recorded it in an account of the occurrence as brilliant as the event itself. Patriarch Cyril apprised all the bishops of Christianity, including Bishop Leo III of Rome, each of whom saw to it that every member of the faithful was told the wonderful story of the illuminating cross of Jesus. It inspired one of our most gifted hymnographers, Kosmas, to write a solemn hymn still chanted in Greek Orthodox churches today and which bears translation as follows:
O Lord, that thou mightest make plain to the world the sign of the cross,
adored since it was glorified of all, thou didst trace it in the sky,
sparkling with shining light, an invincible and perfect weapon to the King.
Wherefore all the powers of heaven do magnify it.
The lyrics suffer without the Byzantine chant, but they exemplified the artistry of Kosmas the Melodist, who was adopted by the father of St. John of Damascus, another hymnologist of renown. This beautiful liturgy in praise of the brilliance of the cross in the sky was written some five hundred years after the actual occurrence. The feast day of the Illumination of the Cross was instituted by Patriarch Cyril after returning from exile.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.