On September 14th we celebrate the Feast of the Elevation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. When I was first exploring Orthodoxy and heard of this feast, I was confused. I didn’t understand why this feast existed. The feasts that celebrated the way Christ was glorified in His saints made a little more sense to me, but a feast for an item itself was baffling to me and sounded almost idolatrous. Why did we need a day to focus on the instrument of Christ’s crucifixion? Isn’t Good Friday enough?
So much about this feast seems counterintuitive. It’s a feast on which there’s a fast. The description “Life-Giving” is applied to an instrument of death. A torture device is called a “haven of salvation.” Two pieces of wood are celebrated as “a sign of true joy.” How can a tool of suffering be lauded as being “the support of those who suffer”?
As I read more about this feast though, I felt a new sense of wonder about my faith because of what I was beginning to understand. I began to love the Scriptures as never before, as I saw with new eyes how beautifully the stories within them were united in the story of Christ’s Cross. The Tree of the Cross of Christ was the way healing was brought to the wounds inflicted on the world through the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Christ stretched out His arms on the Cross like Moses stretched out his arms in the battle with the Amalekites. Just as the Israelites bitten by serpents could look to the bronze serpent and be healed, so can we look to the Cross for healing.
In an Orthodox worldview there isn’t separation between the spiritual world and the material one. It’s not animism or idolatry to have eyes that see God everywhere and contemplate how He works through His Saints and His creation. We don’t have to close our eyes and shut out the world that surrounds us, we can look for Christ and find Him as He constantly offers Himself to us. Christ became man and inhabited the earth, renewing the world and all its inhabitants. By taking on human flesh, He changed what it means to be human. We see water and remember His baptism in the Jordan; we look at each other and remember His Incarnation. Every tree can lead our thoughts back to the Cross and how Christ trampled down death by death on it. The Cross is the instrument through which Christ brought meaning to our lives. It is the sign of our ultimate victory over death. The Cross is the lens through which all the suffering and sickness of soul and body are healed.
When I first heard of this feast, I didn’t understand why it was necessary, but now it has become one of my favorite days of the year. Instead of wondering why Good Friday isn’t enough, I am so thankful for the fullness and wisdom of Orthodoxy. I love how this feast falls in mid-September as the leaves start their slow, lovely dying. These are the days I feel most contemplative. It’s such a fitting time to dwell on the renewal of all things and the ultimate defeat of death that God accomplished through a simple tree.