TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14: Observant Eastern Orthodox Christians will be fasting for the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-creating Cross. Special rituals and prayers will take place at most churches. The historical irony is that the cross once was a brutal instrument of torture and death, but Christian tradition holds that it was transformed into a source of new life. Another possibly confusing detail for those outside the Orthodox tradition is that this day of fasting and repentance is referred to as a “feast day,” because of its importance to the faith.
OrthodoxWiki has more details. Specifically, this feast day recalls traditional accounts about what happened to the cross on which Jesus was crucified. For hundreds of years, these accounts hold, the cross was lost. Then, the Empress Helen was sent by her son, St. Constantine the Great, to Jerusalem. Although quite elderly, Helen set out on her mission and circulated through the city. (Check out the Greek Orthdox Archdiocese of America site for details.) Tradition tells that St. Helen found Basil where the cross was located (Basil translates into “of the King”), and so today, Basil is often displayed around a cross in church ceremonies.
St. Helen’s story doesn’t end there, though; once she located the cross, she also found the crosses of the two criminals who had been crucified with Jesus. (The Orthodox Church in America has more information.) Without knowing which was Jesus’ cross, she tested the crosses by observing both a very ill woman and a deceased man make contact with the crosses. When both the woman and man came to life at the same cross, she knew which was Jesus’ true cross.