Sweet Basil and the Holy Cross

An Orthodox priest reader sent some photos of their tradition using sweet basil on their observance of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  Here are three.

Great tradition.

I didn’t get around to posting about the basil tradition yesterday and I was glad for the reminder today.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are saying.  “What’s with the basil?  Some other herbs would do, wouldn’t they?”

Keep in mind that the name of the herb comes from the Greek word for “king”, “basileos“.

There is a tradition that when the True Cross was rediscovered a sprig of basil growing from the wood.
This is why especially in the  East there is a custom of placing a Cross on a bed of basil before the faithful venerate it.  A kingly tradition.

There is a prayer/rite for the blessing of basil around, but, I cannot determine the provenance.  I looked through the Rituale Romanum.  No joy.

V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who made heaven and earth.
Let us pray.
Almighty and merciful God,
deign, we beseech You, to bless
Your creature, this aromatic basil leaf. +
Even as it delights our senses,
may it recall for us the triumph of Christ, our Crucified King
and the power of His Precious Blood
to purify and preserve us from evil
so that, planted beneath His Cross,
we may flourish to Your glory
and spread abroad the fragrance of His sacrifice.
Who is Lord forever and ever.
R. Amen.
The bouquets of basil leaf are sprinkled with Holy Water.

Again, I don’t know which approved book this comes from.  Readers?

In the Rituale Romanum there is, however, a blessing for a Cross to be placed in a field for the feast of the Finding of the Cross.  I haven’t done that one yet.

There are marvelous blessings and customs attached to the rhythm of the year.  People would guide the arc of their years and lives along with these special days.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. tealady24 says:

    What a sweet blessing for this feast day! We have the triumph of Christ, which is such a blessing! I take comfort in knowing that my daughter’s birthday is this feast day.

  2. priests wife says:

    Byzantine Catholic priests also use a small bouquet of sweet basil to sprinkle holy water during the yearly home blessings of parishioners at the new year.

    My husband gives a sprig to each girl/woman of the house. Now if single woman decide to place that sprig under their pillow and dream of their future husband, we have no part in that superstition ;)

  3. APX says:

    @Fr. Z.

    There is a tradition that when the True Cross was rediscovered

    Wait, are you referring to the actual cross Jesus was crucified on?? Do we actually have it??

  4. Dr. Eric says:


    It’s from Wikipedia so, caveat lector:


  5. ReginaMarie says:

    It is a tradition in our tiny Eastern (Byzantine) Catholic parish to bring fresh basil to be blessed during the Divine Liturgy (later to be made into fragrant pesto).

    The Elevation of the Holy Cross is one of the Great Feasts of the Church, celebrated on September 14. This feast is also referred to as the Universal Exaltation of the Precious & Life-Giving Cross.

    This feast commemorates the finding of the Cross by the Empress Helen, the mother of St. Constantine the Great on Golgotha in 326 AD, the place where Christ was crucified.

    On the spot where the Cross was discovered, St. Helen had found a hitherto unknown flower of rare beauty and fragrance, which has been named “Vasiliko”, or Basil, meaning the flower of royalty. Note that the word “Vasiliko” means “of the King,” since the word “Basileus” in Greek means “King”; so, the plant Vasiliko, Basil, is tied to the Precious Cross of the King of Glory, our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, it is a tradition to bring basil to be blessed at today’s Divine Liturgy.

    Underneath the Basil, the Cross of Christ was found, but with it were the other two crosses, those used to crucify the two thieves on either side of Christ. The sign with the inscription, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”, also lay among the three crosses. In order to determine which one was the true cross, a sick woman was told to kiss each of the three crosses. The woman kissed the first cross with no result. She kissed the second cross and again nothing happened. However, when the ailing woman kissed the True Cross, she was immediately made well. It so happened that a funeral procession was passing that way, and so the body of the dead man was placed on each of the crosses, and when it was placed on the True Cross, the dead man came to life — thus the name the “Life-Giving” Cross, which gives life not only to that man, but to each person who believes in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and His all-glorious three day Resurrection. When the true Cross was identified, it was lifted on high for all the people to see, who then continually sang Kyrie eleison, a practice which is still enacted at current celebrations of this Feast.
    This is a holy day of fasting and repentance. On this day the faithful make dedication to the crucified Lord and pledge their faithfulness to him by making prostrations at the Lords feet on the life creating Cross. For the feast, the Cross is placed on a tray surrounded by flowers or branches of basil, and placed in the center of the Church for veneration.

    Save, O Lord, save Your people and bless Your inheritance; grant victory to the faithful over their adversaries. And protect Your people, by the power of Your Cross.

  6. Trad Catholic Girl says:

    Fr. Z, thanks again for another wonderful lesson concerning Catholic tradition and culture. I have learned so much from you this past year! Unfortunately, I wish I could say the same for the two priests at my parish. During this past year, they have subjected parishioners to liturgical dancing, hand holding while swaying rhythmically to Kumbaya, and sermons promoting birth control. If it weren’t for you, I would have abandoned my religion months ago! God bless you Fr. Z!

  7. pm125 says:

    Does ‘basilica’ fit into this tradition with basil, I wonder.

  8. RichardT says:

    I was at Mass on the 14th (in a beautiful chapel where the Mass had been celebrated in secret throughout the penal times), and we had the preface for the exaltation of the Holy Cross in the new translation. I can’t find it online, but it seemed particularly fine when I heard it.

  9. RichardT says:

    APX, the Cross was found by St Helena (the mother of the Emperor Constantine) in the 4th century. It was lost when the Holy Land was lost to the infidel, but before that small fragments had been taken from it and given to other churches so that it could be venerated across Christendom, and many of these still exist.

    There are therefore several small fragments of the Cross (a 19th century study estimated that if all the known ones were put together they would form a cube with sides of only about 6 inches).

    I have been fortunate to have been able to venerate a few of them, in England, France and Belgium. My favourite is in Brugge, where a church was built to house it based on the Holy Sepulchre.

  10. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    Any Translators?


    Spasi Hospodi ludi Tvoja*i blahoslavi dostojanije Tvoje*pobidy cerkvi nasej na soprotivnyja daruja*i Tvoja sochranaja Krestom Tvojim ludi

    Instead of Thrice Holy Hymn:

    Krestu Tvojemu poklanajemsja Vladyko, i svjatoje voskresenije Tvoje slavim

  11. JMGriffing says:


    Save O Lord Thy People and bless Thine inheritance. Grant Thou victory to the Church over their adversaries. And by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve thy habitation.

    Instead of the Trisagion:
    Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify.

  12. JMGriffing says:

    It should be added that the beginning of the 1812 Overture is the Russian melody to “Spasi Gospodi” – the main tropar (hymn) of the Feast.

  13. irishgirl says:

    JMGriffing: I didn’t know that the beginning of the 1812 Overture is a hymn to the Holy Cross! Very cool!
    I always like learning about the customs in the Eastern Churches!

  14. Anne C. says:

    JM Griffing – What language is that? I tried Google Translate, but none of the languages there would translate every word! The closest ones were Serbian, Slovak and Croatian.

  15. JMGriffing says:

    irishgirl – The Overture was written to commemorate the Russian victory over the French. So the Tropar at the beginning contrasts with the humanistic playing of the French anthem later in the piece to speak to the Russian reliance on God triumphing over the purely human outlook of the French Republic.

    Anne – I have to admit that I sort of cheated with it. I already knew common English translations of both hymns and tried to piece together parts of the translation into as literal as I could come up with. If I had to guess though, I would think either Serbian or Church Slavonic rendered through Serbian. It is the ‘Hospodi’ that makes me think so as most Northern Slavic renditions would have this ‘Gosposdi’.

    The oldest version of the hymn would be the Greek. The original Greek, transliterated, is ‘Soson Kyrie ton laon sou, kai evlogison tin klironomian sou. Nikas tis vasilefsi kata ton varvaron thoroumenos. Kai to son filaton, dia tou stavrou sou politevma.’

    In honor of Fr. John (sorry, can’t get used to not calling a priest by his Christian name), the slavish translation of this would be ‘Save, O Lord, the people of Yours, and bless the inheritance of Yours. Victory to the king over the barbarians grant. And You safeguard, through Your Cross, your government.’ Greek grammar is definitely not my strong point, but I think ‘philaton’ here is in the either the imperative or subjunctive case.

  16. Denis Crnkovic says:

    Subdeacon Joseph’s posted prayer is a transliteration into Latin letters of the Old Church Slavonic version, reflecting the modern East Slavic / Ukrainian and Ruthenian pronunciation conventions, according to which the letter “g” – the traditional name of the letter is “glagoli” – represents the phoneme [h]. In more northeastern areas (Russia, etc. ) and in the south (Serbia, etc.) the OCS letter “g” represents the phoneme [g]. There are other variants in the Ukrainian and Ruthenian pronunciations, e.g. [i] as a reflex of the OCS “jat'” and the like.

    In actuality Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 Overture for the dedication of the Cathedral of the Saviour in Moscow, which in turn was built to commemorate the victory over Napoleon. In a typical imperial fashion, the cathedral was not constructed until over a half century after the victory. Apparently there were serious and prolonged isagreements over the style of architecture as submitted for the competitions. When the dedication ceremony did take place, the playing of the Overture was cancelled, probably because it quoted the French national anthem, the Marseilles, which by Russian law one could not play in the presence of the Tsar. The cathedral was violently destroyed by Stalin in the 1930s and rebuilt in the 1990 to the original specs. I do not believe that the Overure was played at the re-dedication, but I will stand corrected if anyone knows elsewsie.

    I have looked through the Catholic Eastern Rite Typikon and the Orthodox verions of the same, but have not been able to find any official publication of Father Zuhlsdorf’s prayer.

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