TABNERNACLE FEAST – EXALTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS (KHACHVERATS)
The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, “Khachverats” in Armenian, is also called by its more formal name “Veratsumn Srpo Khachi,” which literally translates into “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross,” to display it to the people proudly and triumphantly, to praise it.
The Feast has widespread popularity. It is not taken as a memorialization of a historical event; rather, it is a general Feast of the Cross, the Holy Cross.
Because it is a Great Feast, a Tabernacle Feast, it is preceded by a week of abstinence, and with a “Navagadig” (Inaugural). And the following day, a Monday, is Memorial Day.
The Feast is recognized in all Christendom. Generally, the other churches celebrate the Feast on September 14. The Armenian Church celebrates it on the Sunday nearest September 14, meaning that it can occur on dates from September 11 to September 17. Celebrating the Feast on a Sunday means working people will generally not be denied taking part in the celebration.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross memorializes the last of the episodes of the Cross as recorded in the history of religion, and as such it is universally recognized in all churches, as well as in the history of nations. The eight expeditions of the Crusades during the subsequent centuries were political actions concerned with the Holy Lands, to recover them from the Muslims; they had no direct concern with the Cross itself. The crosses worn by the soldiers from the several countries (hence Crusaders) were simply an emblem to identify them as a Christian army of liberation.
THE HISTORICAL MOTIVE
THE RUINOUS WARS BETWEEN PERSIA AND BYZANTIUM
During the period 607 to 610, the balance of power between the great political entities was being subjected to change in the Middle East.
It was during the days of the Shah Khosrau II Parviz that the Persians were extending their rule broadly, over Mesopotamia, Armenia, and other parts of Asia Minor, to the detriment of Byzantium.
Byzantium was suffering those losses due to its internal instability.
In 610, Emperor Phocas was deposed and killed. His successor was Heraclius (610-641), who ameliorated the situation somewhat.
The Persians had occupied all of Cilicia, and they were directing their forces toward Jerusalem.
The city was subjected to an intense siege, for 19 days, after which it fell. A large portion of the population was slaughtered, others were taken captive. Among the latter group was the Armenian Patriarch Zakaria and an administrator charged with the dedicated task of protecting the Holy Cross. The Patriarch and the keeper of the Cross were subjected to exceedingly harsh torture, until they were forced to reveal where the Cross had been concealed.
The Persians confiscated the sacred relic as well as the gold and silver that had been gifted to the Cross. All of it was carried off to Ctesiphon, under the care of the Shah.
The military confrontation between the two powers continued. Armenia and the Armenian people became victims of this clash between the powers, and they endured incalculable losses.
Later, the Persian army was able to occupy Egypt and its famous city Alexandria, and also Libya. They skillfully placed the peoples of the countries they occupied against one another on religious and national issues, and thereby were able to strengthen their position.
They even convened a religious conference in Ctesiphon in 615-616. It was attended not only by the Armenian Patriarch Zakaria and his bishops, but also by numerous scholars and famous theologians from the cultural centers of the east and also Alexandria.
The Holy Cross having been made captive of the Persian Zoroastrians, however, continued as a wound to fester openly and actively among the peoples of Christendom.
The spiritual and social collapse among the people was evident. Notwithstanding, the military commanders of the Shah Khosrau II Parviz continued to advance (during 618 and 619), and had reached the shores of the Bosphorus. They had occupied even Chalcedon (Kadikoy).
Heraclius Caesar feared that his empire was in danger of collapse.
He sent gifts and emissaries to Ctesiphon proposing accord.
The gifts were accepted, but the emissaries were dismissed.
The Persian Shah made it clear that he was master of the entire world and the surrogate of the gods.
He added derisively that the Crucified Christ was not in a position to controvert his, the Shah’s gods.
Having rejected the proposal of accord, the Shah Khosrau II Parviz ordered his army to enter Byzantium (Constantinople).
Intense battle raged. On this occasion, however, the Persians were destined to defeat.
The Emperor was delighted. He donned the garments of a penitent, and carrying a hallowed painting of the Virgin Mary, declared to the people of his capital city that he was leaving with absolute resolve, for as long as necessary, to enter battle and liberate the Holy Cross and Jerusalem.
The enthusiasm and fervor of the people of Constantinople was boundless. Poets wrote and portrayed the striking difference between the Persian military commanders and the Emperor. For example, while the tents of the Persian commanders were shown to have naked female dancers, in contrast, all about the Emperor’s camp the chanting of Psalms was described. The Emperor spent about two years in Armenia advocating the liber ation movement. Armenians provided vital assistance to Byzantium, espe cially in the war against Persia. With respect to the military presentation and actual operations, the history of nations of the times devotes considerable space to the participation of the Armenian military force, under the command of Mzhezh Gnouni.
For a time, the Emperor himself controlled the operations from Cappadocia, having established himself in Caesarea (Kayseri.) It was his plan to advance from there to Ctesiphon.
The Persians, having fortified themselves in Cilicia, tried from that po sition to block the advance and the strategy of the Emperor.
The intensity of the confrontation had become fierce.
Heraclius was being victorious, and his advance had reached Gantzak of Azerbaijan.
Khosrau II Parviz withdrew to Dastakert, near Baghdad.
In December 627 the Emperor had advanced over the mountainous regions of Armenia and reached the banks of the Tigris River, near the ruins of Nineveh.
Finally, the decisive battle took place. The Emperor employed fabulous tactics. He personally slew three Persian commanders. The Persian army became demoralized and the soldiers began to retreat in pandemonium.
Under the conditions of the shameful route, the Persian commanders rebelled in February 628. They killed the Shah and placed his seven year old son, Kavadh II, on the throne. As a result of this new, favorable situation, Heraclius proposed negotiations with the Persian commander Shahrbaraz, and offerend to help him become Shah, on condition, however, that he returns the True Cross.
The offer was accepted. Shahrbaraz went to Ctesiphon. He killed the child Kavadh II, king for hardly six months, married Borandukht, daughter of the assassinated Khosrau II Parviz, and became the Shah.
Emperor Heraclius regained the prized treasure. He returned victorious to Constantinople.
It is recorded in history that on his return he was received by the people with the same enthusiasm that was accorded Moses when he came down from the mountain with the Lord’s Commandments, or the same enthusiastic welcome give to Alexander the Great for his glorious victories. Emperor Heraclius fulfilled his vow, and personally led the honor guard in returning the Cross to Jerusalem.
It was that blessed journey through Armenian lands that gave rise to unforgettable remembrance. The Armenian people looked upon the passage of the sacred Cross over its fields and lands as a blessed occasion, and rewarded in exchange for the material and physical sacrifices they had made. The protracted journey, in procession from Constantinople to Jerusalem, was an indescribably stirring and emotional religious experience for the Christian peoples of the East, and especially for the Armenians, who had made such a substantial contribution to the victorious campaign and its battles.
That is probably why the historical recall of that event has remained with the Armenian people, and passed on generation to generation as a living tradition and a source of pride.
That is also the reason why Armenians have put special emphasis on that feast among several feasts of the Cross, and made it one of the Great Tabernacle Feasts. Why not! It was a unique situation, for it was in that episode involving the Cross that the Armenians actually played a meaningful role and shed their blood.
The Cross was being exalted, raised. And the spiritual tranquility it granted the people was called Exaltation of the Cross. The Victory of the Cross became a Great Tabernacle Feast.
In the same way that it has become tradition to bless the product of the vine at the Feast of the Assumption, so too has it become tradition to regard the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross for blessing the harvest of fruits and their preservation. In Armenia, the weather at the time of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross was beginning to grow colder, and it was taken as the time to bring outside things in from the cold. The Feast, then, was the sign for all families to start the fall-winter preparations.
The religious ceremonies performed in the church at this time left the people contented and in good spirit. The harvest was good and plentiful, “thanks to the Holy Cross,” and “evil” was banished through the power of the Cross.
“May my days be blessed by it,” said the people of the Cross.
Because the Exaltation of the Cross was a Tabernacle Feast, the previous day, Saturday, was “Navagadig.”
Navagadig was celebrated with milk products and fried egg meals. But the period of abstinence was not considered ended. All Tabernacle feasts have a Navagadig – an inaugural.
The most salient feature of the religious services of the Exaltation of the Cross is the procession with the Cross. The Cross is luxuriously bedecked with sweet basil (“rehan”).
Sweet basil is known for its aromatic leaves. It is customary for the Cross to be decorated with leaves of the sweet basil when it is being carried in the procession.
Following the ceremony, faithful take home a sprig of the sweet basil and use it as an ameliorator of pain. Formerly, the procession of the Cross was a separate ceremony, being performed on Saturday evening. At the present time, yielding to prevailing pressures, the procession is performed on Sunday, at the end of the Divine Liturgy.
“ANTASDAN” (Blessing of the Four Corners of the World)
Antasdan is also conducted on this occasion. It is a ceremony of blessing and glorification to God for His bounty, His goodness and abundance throughout the world.
The Monday following Exaltation of the Cross is Memorial Day, also a day of thanks and gratitude.
The graves of forever departed loved ones are blessed. And who are they? They are the loved ones who sacrificed for a present good life, those whose sacrifices were like those of Jesus who carried His own Cross to Golgotha, those who bore the cross and torture, and who died for the sake of their loved ones, and those who comprehended the meaning of life and were ready to sacrifice for the people, the fatherland and the faith.
Remembering the deceased is a most noble attribute of man. Lighting a candle, burning incense, and placing flowers at the graves of those souls who have departed from us means to be with them for a time, through the power or blessing of the Cross. With five such Memorial Days in the year, to observe at least one, the one nearest the date that a loved one parted from us, is to honor this very humanitarian tradition established by the
FEAST DAYS DEDICATED TO THE CHURCH
The Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday following the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross are feast days of the Church, in memory of the four churches built by St. Helene, mother of Constantine the Great. They are:
• The Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Golgotha
• The Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem
• The Church of the Ascension, on the Mount of Olives
· The Church of the Holy Virgin, in the Garden of Gethsemane
MAKING THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
The Armenian Church causes the faithful frequently to be mindful of the Cross by calling on them to make the sign of the Cross. It is done by putting together the thumb, the index finger and the middle finger and with them touching the forehead, then the breast, then the left shoulder, then the right shoulder, and then with the open palm the breast again.
SYNONYMS FOR THE CROSS
The Armenians have several synonyms for the Cross. They are “seragnatzev,” meaning “looking, or extending, in all directions,” “Genats payd,” meaning “wood of life,” and “Sourp Nshan,” meaning “Holy Sign.”
PARTS OF THE CROSS
In Armenian they are the following,
• Tak (crown), upper part
• Agn (eye), center
• Tev (arm), two arms to the sides
• Poun (prime), lower part of the crown, above the center
• Jajanchk (bundle of rays), rays that radiate outwardly from the center
THE WORD “KHACH” AS A ROOT WORD
The word “Khach” is used as a root word in Armenian to form many compound words. Below are several examples.
Khachyeghpayr: Equivalent to “best man” at a marriage ceremony but more properly, in the Armenian custom, equivalent to “godfather.”
Khachkavor: One who holds the cross after it has been removed from the blessed waters in the “Cherorhnek” (Blessing of the Waters) ceremony representing the Baptism at Theophany.
Khachhampouyr: Gift put in collection box, or to the priest.
Khachpour: Cross fashioned by folding and joining wheat husks, taken home or given to the owner of the threshing place.
Teran shemke khachel: To draw a cross on the threshold of a door when one has returned home after a long absence. Often this is done with the blood of a lamb that has been slaughtered for “madagh” (for celebration or alms.) The significance is “welcome home through the grace of the Cross.” Lanchakhach: Pectoral Cross granted by high church authority in recognition of a clergyman’s competence and loyal service. It is usually jewel encrusted and worn on the chest, hung from the neck on a chain.
These names call for celebration on this feast day: Khachadour, Khachig, Khacheres, Khacher, Khacho, Khecho, and Rahan.
TRADITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE CROSS AND WITH THE FEAST OF THE EXALTATION OF THE CROSS
The liberation of the Holy Cross and its ceremonial return to Jerusalem by way of Armenia was a historic event of great significance. It gave rise to a large number of traditions.
THE TRUE FAITH, THE CROSS AND THE GREEK PRIEST’S GRAVE
Hovnan Otsnetsi (St. John of Otsoon) had opposed the Greeks and from Armenia was harassing the Greek Patriarch who had threatened to throw him into boiling water. After having a vessel of water brought to a boil Otsnetsi confronted the Patriarch, saying, “You have threatened to throw me into boiling water, I will not do that to you. I ask only that you drop this cross into the water and remove it.” The Greek Patriarch was afraid to do so, fearing he would scald his hand. Otsnetsi made the sign of a cross over the water and dropped the cross into it. Then he removed it without harm. The Greek Patriarch, following Otsnetsi’s example, did the same, but as soon as he immersed his hand into the water it was scalded. “That is enough punishment for you,” said Otsnetsi, and released the Patriarch from the challenge.
With the Greek Patriarch was a Greek priest. Seeing the miracle perormed by Otsnetsi, the priest forsook his patriarch and went to join Otsnetsi as a hermit. At Otsnetsi’s monastery is a cemetery stone with a Greek inscription. It is said by the local people that it is where the Greek priest was buried.
It is said that a woman named Piuregh, of the Siuni lineage, was able to soften Heraclius with her ceaseless pleading and obtain from him a small fragment of the Cross, which was called Hatsouneats Khach (Fr. Alishan, “Hayabadoum,” H. A. E. 498-501, Leo 2d 254).
FAITH AND THE POWER OF THE HOLY CROSS
KHACHAPAYDI CHOUR (Water of the Wood of the Cross)
On his way to Jerusalem after having liberated the Holy Cross from the enemy, Heraclius, as he was passing through Armenia, learned that the enemy had made new attacks against his country. He cached the Cross at the place where he was, on a mountain about four hours from Garin (Erzerum), and went to counterattack the enemy. On his return he found that a lovely spring of water flowed out of the place where the Cross had been hidden. The spring became known as Khachapaydi Chour, and the place, Khachka Vank.
YEGHNAKHACHI MADOOR (Deer-Cross Chapel) (In Zankezur, Armenia)
Once upon a time there were dense forests on the hills and in the valleys here. A hunter had been pursuing young deer, which on arriving at this place would become invisible. The hunter took this place to be holy ground, and he ceased hunting. He became a hermit and built a chapel there, which the local inhabitants called Yeghnakhach (deer-cross).
CHOUKHTAK KHACH (near the Khantsk village of Stepanagerd)
Tamerlane had mounted an attack on this village. The people of the village all came out to confront him. Two brothers fought bravely and long against the invader. Though wounded and bloody they continued to fight until they were finally killed. The villagers buried the two brothers where they had fallen, and planted two crosses on their graves. That place became a pilgrimage site, and is called Choukhtak Khach (Twin Crosses).
GREGORY OF NAREG (NAREGATSI) AND THE HOLY CROSS
Gregory of Nareg was a hired shepherd for a landowner in the village of Tsevik. One day while he was grazing his master’s sheep, he cut off a large celery plant, shaped the leaves into a cross, and took it to show his forty-two companion shepherds. They began to worship the celery cross. Suddenly the cross flew out of Gregory’s hand, landed on some branches, and began to glow. That night the priest of the village dreamed that he should go to the pasture and bring back the celery cross. As soon as it was morning light the priest did as he was bid, brought the celery cross to his home and put it in a special place. The cross filled the priest’s home, and on learning of the secret of the celery cross he informed the landowner. The landowner sent men to the priest’s house and confiscated the celery cross, taking it to the landowner’s house. That night the cross ceased giving off light, and in the morning it appeared in a well near the place where Naregatsi prayed.
THE POWER OF THE CROSS AND THE INVENTION OF THE ARMENIAN ALPHABET
Mesrob Mashdots wanted to create an alphabet for the Armenians. With that purpose in mind, he traveled from monastery to monastery and prayed day and night, but no vision to help him appeared. He arrived in a foreign land. One day he entered a monastery and saw that a beam of light was dancing on the wall. He was amazed. He was told that the light was emitted from some stones, and that the stones had come from Armenia. Mashdots watched and noticed that there were four stones in the wall placed over one another and aligned. The light was coming from those stones, and in between there were dark lines. He knelt and prayed. During the night, at one of the hour, he heard a voice. “There it is,” said the voice, “the sign of the letters for the Armenians.” The sign, a cross, had nine letters on each of the arms. Mashdots went to examine the wall. The cross was luminous, forming a radiant square. One by one each letter became luminous. Thus, each letter was written on the wall in light, and Mashdots was illuminated by the light. That was how the Armenian letters were created.
Translator’s note: The description of the apparition of the letters given above is a very loose translation of the original text in Armenian, as it appears in “Avantabadoum.”
SOURP AGHPRIG (HOLY SPRINGLET) or the RADISH CROSS
Armenians used to wash the cross of their monastery and use the water to feed the animals, or pour it on them and they would be cured of dis ease. Once, when a sickness had stricken the herds and flocks of the un cultured Kurds, one Kurd went to the Sourp Aghprig Monastery and asked the head abbot to loan him the cross, to save their animals. The priest secretly removed the cross from its pouch and replaced it with a cross he made with radish stalks. He gave the pouch to the Kurd, saying, “Do not open the pouch, or there will be calamity.” The Kurd did as he was told, and the animals were cured. He went back to the monastery to return the pouch to the head abbot. When the Kurd left, the head abbot opened the pouch and saw that the radish stalks had turned into a real cross. Thereafter, that miraculous cross became known as “Poghgi Khach” (Radish Cross).
AKRAVAKHACH (Raven Cross)
(Located northeast of the village of Datev)
To prepare food for the workers building Dzidzernavank (Swallow Monastery) a large vessel was taken to the nearby river and filled with water, to be put over a fire. It happened one day that a snake had got into the vessel with the water, which remained unnoticed. When it was time for the meal, a raven, cawing, was flying around the vessel. The workers paid no attention to the raven, but sat down to eat. Suddenly, the raven, with a screech, plunged into the vessel. Regarding the food thus contaminated, the workers threw it out. They were astounded and fascinated when they saw the snake’s parts in the food. In gratitude they enshrouded the raven and ceremoniously buried it along the western wall of the monastery, and placed there a cross like stone, which was then called Akravakhach.
HAZAKHACH (Cough Cross), or AGHCHl-DGHI KAR (Girl-Boy Stone) (Located north of New Bayazit, alongside the road to Aghkara)
A handsome but poor young lad had fallen in love with the daughter of a priest. The daughter also loved the boy. The priest had thought to get rid of the lad. He called the lad to him and said, “I’ll let you have my daughter if you are able to harvest my large field in one day.” The lad sharpened his scythe that night, and in the morning, at first light, he started to harvest the field as he sang. Toward evening, when there was only a little left to complete the harvest, the priest turned to a cunning new scheme. He sent an old woman to the lad working in the field. She told him that his effort was in vain because the priest had killed his daughter so that he would not have to offer him his daughter’s hand. Hearing that miserable message, the lad died suddenly. The priest’s daughter was brought the sad news that because her sweetheart had been unable to finish the task in the required time, he had become totally exhausted and had died. On hearing that news, the girl threw herself into the lake. Regretting his deed, the priest retrieved the body of his daughter from the lake and buried her and the boy together. On their joint grave he put a cross stone. That night the Holy Cross, in the form on an old woman, appeared before the people of the village telling them that if any of them had a cough they should go to the grave of the loving youths, kiss the grave, and ask mercy for their souls; then their coughs would be gone. Thereafter, the grave was called Hazakhach (Cough Cross), or Aghchi-Dghi Kar (Girl-Boy Stone).
GLOSSARY – NOTES
ASDAGERD: Literally meaning handmade, or farm, or city built by a king. The word has also been used as the name of a city, in in ternational literature, as in the Encyclopedia
NINEVEH: One of the oldest cities of Assyria, presently in ruins. Located in the vicinity of Mosul in lraqon the left bank of the Tigris.
CHALCEDON: Old city of the Asian side of the Bosphorus, at present, one of the suburbs of Istanbul, known by the name of Kadikoy, in Armenian, Kadekiugh.
EXALTATION OF THE CROSS; CONCERNING THE EXACT DATE: The September 14 date still remains a controversial issue between historians and philologists.
1. According to Nicholas Marr, the Holy Cross was returned to Jerusalem on March 26, 629. This scholar states that there is no connection between this date and the date taken for the Exaltation (Hay. Zhogh. Pat.II, 1984, V, pg. 301, Note 145).
2. According to Leo (Arakel Babakhanian) the Holy Cross was returned to Jerusalem on September 14, 629 (Leo 2, pg. 254).
3. According to Patriarch Torkom, the restoration of the Holy Cross was on September 14, 629, as with Leo (Sourpk yev Donk, pg. 98).
4. Archbishop Malachia Ormanian believes the true date for the Exaltation of the Cross is September 14, 631 (Azkaba doum, Vol 1, 2nd Book, pg. 686).
5. Encyclopedia Britannica (1984, Vol. 8) gives the date only as the year 630, with no month or day.
EMPEROR HERACLIUS (Emperor 610-641): Born in Cappadocia in 573. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica his father was probably Armenian.
It is probably because of his Armenian origin that he was helped so much by the Armenian people. It is a result of Armenia’s geographical position that he gained his final military success against the Persians and won the honorable position in history of being the liberator of the Cross. According to historians generally, the Emperor was quite truly God-fearing, devout, and a fervent faithful, especially in calling on the Virgin Mary. A letter he had written from the battlefront had been ceremoniously read in the St. Sophia Cathedral. In it he revealed his religious fallings.
“Make a cry to the Lord, O people of the world. Labor joyfully for the Lord. Approach Him with ecstasy, and know that He is God. Let heaven rejoice, and the earth tremble in joy, and may the seas and all things marvel that all us Christians repose in Him, praising and glorifying Him, and expressing gratitude to the one God, being joyful in His Holy Name. Because the God-persecuting and immoral Chosroes has fallen and has been thrust into hell, his memory has been banished over all the earth. He, that evil one, was noisily demolished. With arrogance and contempt he heaped blows on our Lord Jesus Christ, the true God, and on His immaculate mother, our blessed Mother-of-God and forever Virgin Mary.
God-hating Chosroes was sentenced to the most horrible death on February 28, so that he would acknowledge that Jesus born of Mary, crucified by the Jews, whom he in his writings had ridiculed, was in fact the omnipotent God who had retaliated, as we had written.” (Historian Sebeos, Leo 2 V, 1967, pg. 254).
Courtesy of “Feasts of the Armenian Church and National Traditions” by Garo Bedrosian, 1993