The feast of the Holy Cross commemorates two “rediscoveries” of the Holy Cross (the cross on which Christ was crucified) in 326 AD and again in 614 AD. These rediscoveries happened in this way.
In 70 AD, the Roman army of Emperor Titus destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the temple, after a Jewish revolt which has begun several years early. Later Emperor Hadrian ordered a pagan temple to be built over Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified, so that no one would know where this had happened.
In 326 AD Empress Helen (Elena), mother of St. Constantine the Great (the emperor who legalized Christianity) journeyed to Jerusalem to visit the sites of Christ’s life, and to hopefully find the cross of Christ.
Local tradition said that Golgotha was under a pagan temple of Venus. St. Helen ordered excavations to be done there and found three crosses, but there was no way of telling which one was Christ’s. To find out, the empress asked a sick woman to touch the three crosses and when she touched one cross she was healed, so this was probably the cross on which Christ was crucified. To make sure, she laid the crosses on the body of a dead man. When the cross of Christ touched him he came back to life. In this manner St. Helen realized that the healing, life-giving cross was Christ’s.
Then in 614 AD when the Persians captured Jerusalem, the Holy Cross was taken as a war prize. The cross was recovered in 622 AD by the Roman forces and returned to Jerusalem.
But in 326 AD and 627 AD, when the cross was recovered, it was raised on high and the Christians sang “Lord have mercy” many times. One can see this recreated in the cathedrals and monasteries at the Virgil service on September 14th.
In parish churches the cross, decorated with flowers, is brought out for veneration at the end of Matins. At this time the hymn “Before Thy Cross” is sung.
This feast reminds us that the cross of Christ is the sign of Christ’s victory over death, a victory which we participate in during our baptism.
Troparion — Tone 1
O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries. And by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation.
Kontakion — Tone 4
As Thou wast voluntarily crucified for our sake, grant mercy to those who are called by Thy Name, O Christ God; 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.