These holy words spoken from Heaven came down to the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Responding to this message the Emperor commanded that the shields of his soldiers be emblazoned with the Holy Cross and the victorious words “IC XC NIKA,” or “Jesus Christ the Victor”! It was under the sign of the Holy Cross that the Emperor overcame his earthly adversaries and paved the way for the spread of Holy Orthodoxy throughout the Byzantine Empire and later throughout the world.
Divine Truths remain eternal truths, and in the Glory of the Cross we find our own victory over sin, temptations, demons, and death. In the Holy Orthodox Church, the Holy Cross is celebrated with a great and triumphant proclamation of victory over all the adverse powers, as we read in the Exapostilarion of the Exaltation of the Cross:
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.
Truly grace-filled is the Holy Cross! We make the sign of the Cross over our bodies during prayer, over our food before meals, over our children before they go to sleep, over the baptismal waters, imbuing them with the Holy Spirit and making them “hostile to all adverse powers”, and over every object sanctified by the prayers of the Church.
When we bless ourselves, we hold three fingers together in remembrance of the Holy Trinity, our remaining two fingers are pressed against our palm calling our attention to Christ’s two natures, Divine and Human. Blessing ourselves with the sign of the Cross we preach the Orthodox Faith while worshiping the Holy Trinity, and proclaim the Incarnation of the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh.
When we make the sign of the Cross over our food, we call on the Holy Spirit to sanctify the meal, and grace descends in such force to render even that which is poisonous, harmless to believers. Consider the martyrdom of St. Victor of Damascus (11/24 November). The executioners, helpless to defeat this valiant struggler for Christ, forced St. Victor to swallow meat which had been poisoned by a sorcerer. After praying and making the sign of the Cross over the meat, the Martyr Victor swallowed it. Everyone was amazed as they witnessed a miracle, as St. Victor remained unharmed. Fulfilling once again that which the Lord had promised his disciples saying, And if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. (Mk. 16:18).
The Scriptures teach us that we are all a royal priesthood in Christ (1 Pet. 2:9), and the province of blessings is not limited to the clergy but is shared with the laity. From ancient times until now, parents bless their children, protecting them from visible and invisible enemies, entrusting them to the Lord’s mercy. In the wedding Sacrament, we hear, “The prayers of parents make firm the foundation of houses”. From the Old Testament (Genesis 27) we recall the Patriarch Isaac blessing his two sons, Esau and Jacob. Blessings from the Lord are granted to children by the fervent faithful prayers of devoted parents.
The Old Testament abounds with images of the Holy Cross. In Exodus 14:21, we hear how Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back, opening a way for the Hebrews to escape the wrath of the Egyptians. Later when the Hebrews fought the Amalekites (Ex. 17:11), when Moses’ arms were lifted in the form of the Cross, Israel prevailed, and when he let down his arms, the Amalekites prevailed. Or again during the crossing of the desert to the Promised Land, another foreshadowing of the Cross saved the Hebrews from the serpents’ poisonous bite, in the form of the Bronze Serpent being lifted up on high, as Christ was lifted up.
When Adam and Eve fell into sin and were evicted from Paradise, all of creation was cursed for their sake (Genesis 3:17). However, by the power of the Precious Cross, when we bless the world and its inhabitants—whether they are children, food, water, bread, oil, houses, cars, or fields—we are reclaiming them, bringing them to their proper place in the creation—restoring them to the blessedness which was marred by the fall.
Considering the Holy Cross, and the source of its strength, Jesus Christ, it seems obvious that when Christianity came to the Holy Byzantine Empire the pious Empress Helen would seek the True Cross. Coming to Jerusalem in her imperial splendor, the Empress diligently sought out the True Cross. Hearing of its resting place in an old Roman cistern, the Empress stood on a raised platform and threw gold coins where the workers were digging to encourage them to dig faster (a place that retains special honor in the Holy Sepulcher). The workers, however, did not find one Cross, but three.
One of these Crosses was the True Cross, but which one?
By God’s Divine Providence a funeral procession passed near, and the bishop accompanying the Empress commanded that the procession be stopped. The dead man was taken from his bier, wrapped in grave clothes and placed upon the Crosses, first one, then the second, before finally being placed on the third Cross, where he was Resurrected by the Might of the True Cross—thus acquiring the name, “Life-Giving” Cross, which gives life not only to that man, but to each person who believes in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and His all-glorious Resurrection on the third day.
The multitude of people who had flocked to see the Empress were astounded by the miracle, and struggled vainly to see the Cross of the Savior. The bishop then commanded that the True Cross be raised up so everyone could see, becoming the foundation of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross.
All gifts from God are given to us for our salvation. May we all continue to bless the world around us and overcome all evil by the victorious sign of the Precious Cross.