The End of Persecutions and the Finding of the Cross
The persecution of the Christians ceased only in the beginning of the fourth century, under the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.
The Emperor Constantine himself was conquered by the power and the glory of the sign of the Cross of Christ. One day, on the eve of a decisive battle, he and all his soldiers saw a cross of light in the sky with the inscription, "By this sign you will conquer" (in Greek, NIKA). The following night the Lord Jesus Christ Himself appeared with the Cross in His hand and told him that by this sign he would conquer the enemy and directed that each soldier’s shield be monogrammed with the holy Cross. Constantine fulfilled the command of God and conquered the enemy. He placed his empire under the protection of the saving sign of Christ. He took Christianity under his protection and proclaimed faith in Christ to be the state religion. He outlawed punishment by crucifixion and issued laws favoring the Church of Christ. For his merit and zeal in propagating the Christian faith, Constantine the Great with his mother Helen received the title of Holy Rulers, Equal-of-the-Apostles.
Equal-of-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine desired to build God’s churches on the Christian holy places in Palestine, the places of the birth, suffering, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and others, and to find the Cross on which the Saviour was crucified. His mother, the Equal-of-the Apostles St. Helen, took upon herself the task of fulfilling the Emperor’s wishes with great joy.
In 326 A.D., Empress Helen journeyed to Jerusalem. She devoted much labor to finding of the Cross of Christ since the enemies of Christ had hidden the Cross burying it in the ground. Finally, she was directed to an elderly Jew by the name of Judas, who knew where the Cross of the Lord was. After much questioning and conversation, they induced him to reveal its location. It seemed that the holy Cross had been thrown into a cave and heaped over with debris and dirt; and above it, there had been built a pagan temple. Empress Helen ordered the building to be torn down and the cave — unearthed.
When they uncovered the cave, they found three crosses in it and apart from them lay a sign with the inscription, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." It was necessary to find out which of the three crosses was the Cross of the Saviour. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Macarius, and Empress Helen firmly hoped and believed that God would show them the Cross of the Saviour.
On the advice of the Patriarch, they brought the crosses one at a time to a very sick woman. From two of the crosses, nothing happened; but when they brought the third cross, she immediately became well. It happened that at this moment a dead man was carried by on the way to his burial. They brought the crosses one at a time to the dead man; and when they brought the third cross, the dead man revived. By this means, they found the Cross of the Lord through which the Lord worked miracles and showed the life-giving power of His Cross.
The Empress Helen, the Patriarch Macarius, and all the people with them thankfully venerated the Cross of Christ and kissed it with great joy. Christians after finding out about this great event gathered in a crowd of innumerable people at the place where the Cross of the Lord had been found. Everyone wanted to approach the holy life-giving Cross; but because of the size of the crowd, that was impossible. Thus, all began to ask at least to be able to see it. Then, the Patriarch stood on a high place; and in order to make it visible to all, he lifted it up several times. The crowd seeing the Cross of the Saviour bowed and exclaimed, "Lord have mercy!"
The holy Equal-of-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine and Empress Helen built a vast and splendid church in honor of the Resurrection of Christ. They also built churches on the Mount of Olives, in Bethlehem, and in Hebron at the Oak of Mamre.
The Empress Helen sent a portion of the Cross of the Lord to her son, Emperor Constantine; and another portion, she left in Jerusalem. This precious remnant of the Cross of Christ is still kept at the present day in the Church of the Resurrection of Christ at the Holy Sepulchre.
After finding the Life-giving Cross of the Lord, Judas, who had shown the location of the Cross, became a Christian. Later for his virtuous life, he was ordained a bishop with the name Cyriacus and was raised to the position of Patriarch of Jerusalem. He suffered for Christ under Julian the Apostate. The memory of St. Cyriacus the holy martyr is celebrated October 28th.
In remembrance of the finding of the Cross of Christ and Its elevation, the Holy Orthodox Church established the feast of the Exaltation of the Honourable and Life-giving Cross of the Lord. This feast is one of the great feast-days and is celebrated on September 14th.
During the All-night vigil service, at Matins, the Cross is carried out for veneration. While singing the great doxology, the priest dressed in full vestments and carrying on his head the Holy Cross decorated with flowers carries it during the singing of "Holy God..." from the altar to the middle of the church and places it on a lectern. During the thrice-repeated singing of the festal hymn, "Save O Lord, Thy people...," the priest censes the Holy Cross. Then, during the singing of, "Before Thy Cross we bow down, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify," everyone venerates and kisses the Holy Cross. Decorating the Holy Cross with greenery and flowers signifies the conviction that through It, through the suffering and death of the Saviour on It, eternal life is given to us. On this feast day, strict fasting is observed to deepen reverence for the memory of the Saviour’s suffering by crucifixion and for cleansing us from sins.
(from: The Law of God by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy)