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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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Had the Church never spoken on this matter, it would still be repugnant to our Catholic people’s sense of what is fit and proper in the holiest of places, that a priest should have to struggle through the prayers of the Holy Mass, because of such tunes as “Alice, where art thou?” the “Vacant Chair,” and others of more vulgar title, which, through the carelessness or bad judgment of organists, sometimes find their way into our choirs.
— Preface to a Roman Catholic Hymnal (1896)

Origins of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
published 14 September 2017 by Fr. David Friel

HE LITURGICAL celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is historically, euchologically, and scripturally rich. A unique feast in the sanctoral cycle, the present celebration of the feast is the result of a complex history, including origins in both the Christian East and West. The following is an introduction to some elements of that complex history.

There are actually three interrelated celebrations germane to the veneration of the Cross: the dedication of the churches of the Martyrium (site of the Crucifixion) and the Anastasis (site of the Holy Sepulcher), the finding of the relics of the true Cross, and the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The third occasion is dependent upon the first two for both its meaning and its date on the liturgical calendar.

The origins of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross are found in the Christian East, where the dedication of the Martyrium and Anastasis was recalled annually in a joint celebration that extended over a period of eight days. The Armenian Lectionary, which reflects Hagiopolite practices circa 415, attests that the festival commenced on September 13 in the church of the Anastasis; on the second day of the festival, September 14, the celebrations moved to the church of the Martyrium, whereupon the cross would be shown to the assembly for veneration. 1 As the earliest liturgical evidence for the precursor to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Armenian Lectionary thus establishes the feast’s terminus post quem to be the early fifth century in Jerusalem. 2

The connection between the feast of the Exaltation and the discovery of the true Cross is corroborated by two early sources. The earliest is the Itinerarium of Egeria, which describes her experiences in Jerusalem during the late fourth century. Egeria explains that the dedications are celebrated jointly because their consecrations took place on the same day. 3 The relics of the true Cross, moreover, were also found on the very same day, although neither the date nor the years of these events are specified. 4 The second witness is Theodosius, who travelled to the Holy Land from North Africa in the early sixth century. He records similar details, specifying September 15 as the date on which Helena discovered the true Cross and describing seven days of accompanying celebrations. 5 Both Egeria and Theodosius, therefore, indicate that it was the finding of the true Cross that prompted its veneration during the extended celebration of the church dedications.

Some scholars, while acknowledging these historical events that gave rise to the celebration of the Holy Cross, have sought to explain the feast in relation to the octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 8), within which the Exaltation falls. 6 To do so, however, requires a spiritualized reinterpretation of the feast that separates it from its historical development. Others have argued that the feast of the Exaltation should be understood as a counterpart to Good Friday, similar to the relationship between the epiphany on Mt. Tabor (August 6) and the epiphany at the Jordan (January 6) or between the nativity of John the Baptist (June 24/25) and the nativity of Christ (December 25). 7

This contention, however, has received thorough critique from Van Tongeren. 8 In order for the Exaltation (September 14) to be understood as an accompanying feast of Good Friday (Nisan 14), one must date Easter according to the Quartodeciman system, which had been current in the second century but was no longer widely employed by the fourth century, during the development of the Exaltation feast. This account further ignores the connection between the Exaltation and the dedications of the Martyrium and the Anastasis, to which many ancient authors ascribe essential importance.

Thus, it is more reasonable to assert that the Exaltation is an accompanying feast to the dedication of the Jerusalem basilicas than to Good Friday. Interestingly, over the course of time, the feast of the Exaltation rises in importance above the dedication, such that the celebration originally considered central becomes subordinate to the celebration originally considered concomitant. 9

HE INTRODUCTION of this feast in the West is a later development. The celebration of the Finding of the Holy Cross (Inventio Santae Crucis) with its own feast on May 3 appears to predate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, since MSS representing the earliest Roman evangeliaries10 (c. 645) show that the Gospel pericope for the Exaltation is simply adopted from the Finding. 11 The first appearance of the Exaltation in a Western source is in the Liber pontificalis, which records how a relic of the true Cross found by Pope Sergius I (687-701) in the sacristy of St. Peter’s Basilica would be adored and kissed by the faithful on this feast. 12 Thus, the terminus ante quem for the Exaltation is circa 700 in Rome. 13 Chavasse argues that the feast reached Rome between 650 and 680 in a less elaborate form than what had been developed in the East. 14

In the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, what had been the second-class feast “In Exaltatione Sanctae Crucis” since the MR 157015 became a feast by the same name in the MR 1970. 16 It is one of the few feasts in the sanctoral cycle that, when falling upon a Sunday, takes precedence over the per annum celebration. At present, this feast is known in the Byzantine Rite as the “Universal Exaltation (or, in Greek churches, the Elevation) of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross,” and it celebrates both the finding of the true Cross in 326 and the recovery of the relics from the Persians in 628. 17 It entails fasting and abstinence and is considered one of the “Twelve Great Feasts” (Δωδεκάορτον) of the church year.

Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi, quia per sanctam Crucem tuam redemisti mundum!


1   Athanase Renoux, Le codex arménien Jérusalem 121, Patrologia Orientalis 36, fasc. 2, no. 168, ed. F. Graffin (Turnhout: Brepols, 1971), LXVII-LXVIII.

2   Louis van Tongeren, Exaltation of the Cross: Toward the Origins of the Feast of the Cross and the Meaning of the Cross in Early Medieval Liturgy (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 17-18.

3   “Item dies enceniarum appellantur quando sancta ecclesia, quae in Golgotha est, quam Martyrium vocant, consecrate est Deo; sed et sancta ecclesia, quae est ad Anastase, id est in eo loco ubi Dominus resurrexit post passionem, ea die et ipsa consecrata est Deo.” Egeria, Journal de Voyage (Itinéraire) , ed. Pierre Maraval, SC 296 (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2002), 48:1.

4   “Harum ergo ecclesiarum sanctarum encenia cum summo honore celebrantur, quoniam crux Domini inventa est ipsa die.” Egeria, 48:1.

5   “Inventio sanctae crucis, quando inventa est ab Helena matre Constantini XVII. Kal. Octobris, et per septem dies in Hierusalem ibi ad sepulchrum Domini missas celebrantur et ipsa crux ostenditur.” Theodosius, De situ terrae sanctae, ed. Paul Geyer, in Itineraria et alia geographica, CCL 175 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1965), 31.

6   E.g., Prosper Guéranger, L’année liturgique, vol. 5, part 2 (Paris: Desclée, 1952), 378-384.

7   See footnote 75 in Van Tongeren, 33.

8   Van Tongeren, 32-35.

9   Van Tongeren, 35.

10   Type π, as identified in Theodor Klauser, Das römische Capitulare evangeliorum: Texte und Untersuchungen zu seiner ältesten Geschichte, vol. 1, LQF 28 (Münster: Aschendorffschen, 1935), 1-12, especially 8.

11   “Et ipsa die exaltatio scae crucis si velis require evangl. ad legend. de sca cruce: Simile est regnum caelorum thesauro abscondito in agro.” Klauser, 38, footnote to §198. The appointed passage, which begins at Matthew 13:44, is the parable of the pearl of great price buried in a field, obviously appropriate for the Finding but not particularly so for the Exaltation. See also Van Tongeren, 115-118.

12   “Qui etiam ex die illo pro salute humani generis ab omni populo christiano, die Exaltationis sanctae Crucis, in basilicam Salvatoris que appellatur Constantiniana osculatur ac adoratur.” Le Liber Pontificalis: Texte, Introduction, et Commentaire, 2nd ed., vol. 1, ed. Louis Duchesne (Paris: Boccard, 1955), 374. Hereafter, cited as LP.

13   Roughly the same dating may be given for the introduction of the veneration of the Cross to the Good Friday liturgy. See Patrick Regan, “Veneration of the Cross,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 143.

14   Antoine Chavasse, Le sacramentaire gélasien (Vaticanus Reginensis 316): Sacramentaire presbytéral en usage dans les titres romains au VIIe siècle (Turnhout: Desclée, 1958), 361. Chavasse arrives at this dating by analyzing the pertinent Mass formularies in Roman sacramentaries.

15   Missale Romanum: editio princeps (1570) , ed. Manlio Sodi and Achille Maria Triacca, Monumenta Liturgica Concilii Tridentini (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998), 3210-3219.

16   Missale Romanum ex decreto sacrosancti oecumenici Concilii Vaticani II instauratum, auctoritate Pauli Pp. VI promulgatum, editio typica (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1970). Known in The Roman Missal Revised by Decree of the Second Vatican Council and Published by Authority of Pope Paul VI, The Sacramentary, Approved for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1974) as “Triumph of the Cross,” the feast was renamed “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” in the 2011 English translation of the MR 2008.

17   Joseph Hallit, “La croix dans le rite byzantine: Histoire et théologie,” Parole de l’Orient 3, no. 2 (1972): 290-293.