Hymns of the Church
Part 2: Sticheron for the Veneration of the Cross
Celebrated on 14 September, the Exaltation of the Precious and Holy Cross was one of the greatest solemnities of the yearly cycle of worship at the Constantinopolitan Great Church of Hagia Sophia. The background to this feast us summarized in the brief notice for the day contained in the modern Orthodox Horologian:
The blessed Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, looked for the Cross in Jerusalem and found it buried in the earth about the year 325. Then the people, seeing it elevated on the ambo by the then patriarch of Jerusalem Makarios, cried out, “Lord, have mercy!” Note that after it finding part of the precious Cross was taken to Constantinople as a blessing, while the rest was left in Jerusalem. There it remained until the year 614, when the Persians, ravaging Palestine, took it back to their own country (January 22). But later, in the year 628, Herakleios led an army against them, took the precious Cross back again and brought it to Constantinople. (Translated by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash)
Commensurate with the profound significance of Christ’s redemptive act–His Suffering, Crucifixion, and Resurrection–the Holy Church saturates this great feast with some of the most powerful and beautifully cathartic texts. One such text–Come believers–is sung at Mattins after the Great Doxology during the veneration of the Cross:
Come believers, let us worship the life-giving Cross, on which Christ the King of glory, willingly stretching out his hands, raised us up to our ancient blessendness, whom the enemy of old had defrauded through pleasure and made exiles from God.
Come believers, let us worship the Wood, through which we were found worthy to crush the heads of invisible foes.
Come all the families of the nations, let us honour in hymns the Cross of the Lord. Hail, O Cross, the complete redemption of the fallen Adam. In you our faithful Kings boast, as by your power they mightily subdue the people of Ishmael. We Christians now greet you with fear, and glorify the God who was nailed to you, as we say: “Lord, who was nailed to it, have mercy on us, as you are good and love humankind.”
The author of this hymn is Emperor Leo VI (the “Wise”) reigned from 886–912. The words alternate between the themes of salvation through the Passion and Resurrection of Christ on the one hand, and the wars of Byzantium with the Arabs (“the people of Ishmael”) on the other, before closing with a collective plea for divine mercy. We see here a mix of two hymn types–the doxological and contemplative–calling the faithful to worship the Cross and also to contemplate Christ’s redemptive acts.
Drs. Alexander Lingas & Peter Jermihov