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The Exaltation of the Holy Cross
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross is one of the most revered observances in all of Orthodoxy. In 325 A.D., after the persecutions against the Christians had just ended, Christians were free to express their religious feelings and to adorn their places of worship with symbols of the faith, such as the cross. Empress Helen, a devout Christian and mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great went to Jerusalem to undertake a mission to retrieve the cross upon which Christ had been crucified. After a futile search, the Empress was attracted by the scent of a plant called vasilikos (basil) in the area where Jesus had been put to death. She ordered excavation, and three crosses were unearthed. A paralyzed person was positioned on each of the crosses to determine the cross upon which Christ had died. When the person was placed on the true cross, he recovered miraculously and walked. On September 14, the event was celebrated. Patriarch Makarios, who had also witnessed the miracle at the historic site, raised the cross and blessed the people with it as they responded, "Lord, have mercy" (Kyrie, eleison").
Orthodoxy honors this event on September 14 at a special service in which the priest carries a small cross on a tray decorated with vasilikos, the in procession throughout the church. Vasilikos, the traditional flower of the Orthodox church, is also used during the feast days of Epiphany, the Veneration of the Holy Cross, and any time the service of ayiasmos (blessing of the water), takes place.
The church has established September 14 as a day of fasting equal to that of Good Friday, as a reminder that Christ died on the cross; many parishioners take communion that day. The Gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy describes the Crucifixion of Christ. After the service, each parishioner receives a basil sprig.