One of the powerful images of Christianity is the Cross of Christ. During Great Lent and Holy Week the Cross stands central to the Christian proclamation of the Gospel. In some Christian traditions it is the death of Christ alone through which God accomplishes the justification of humanity. The Cross is the instrument through which humanity’s burden of sin is taken away. The Cross is the image offered for all to remember that Christ died for our sins, the victim of our transgressions. A natural pious response to a message that focuses exclusively on Christ’s death as the only way human sin can be dealt with is to feel guilty for being responsible for the death of the Son of God.
In the Orthodox tradition, on the other hand, there is another set of metaphors and images through which the Cross is understood and preached. In this tradition the emphasis on the Cross is its power to destroy both evil and death, and to give health (salvation) to all. In this imagery the Cross is not imposed upon Christ the victim of our sins, but rather Christ voluntarily takes up the cross in order to heal humans wounded by sin. Christ is thus saving us from the ravages of sin, not just from the guilt of it. God intends life for His beloved human creatures, and thus the Holy Trinity works constantly to save us from death. And God works His salvation through becoming incarnate and then dying on the cross in order to descend to the place of the dead. It is because in Christ divinity is already reunited to humanity that His death brings about salvation.
What follows are a few hymns from Friday of the first week of Great Lent in the Orthodox Tradition. Fridays in Orthodoxy have the Cross as a daily. We see in the hymns below the Cross being proclaimed by the Orthodox as Good News – God’s triumphing over sin and death for our salvation.
“By Your Cross You have triumphed over the powers of darkness. Deliver me from their wickedness, for I am fallen into a depth of sin and a pit of iniquity; but by Your mercy, I hope to be saved.”
In the hymn above the Cross is celebrated as the instrument of Christ’s victory over all evil powers. We call upon Christ who was crucified to deliver us from sin and to save us. The Cross is the sign of God’s love for us and His determination to deliver us from the power of sin and death. Sin has weakened and sickened us, so we are almost helpless before the “powers of darkness.” But despite our weakness and sinfulness, God is the powerful Savior who is forever merciful to us.
“You hung dead upon the Cross: restore life to my soul, deadened through sin, O Christ, count me worthy to attain Your holy Resurrection in peace obediently fulfilling Your commandments.”
The Cross becomes for us the means of our resurrection – it is thus life-giving. Christ dies on the cross so that we can live. The emphasis is not on Christ paying some price for our sins but rather on Christ’s victory over all evil. Christ’s death is not so He can suffer, but for Him to overcome human suffering and give life to the world.
“In Your compassion You humbled Yourself, and were lifted on the Cross, raising up with Yourself the one who had fallen of old through eating from the tree. Therefore You are glorified, Lord, alone greatest in love, and we sing Your praises for ever!”
Through the Cross Adam is raised from the dead. Adam is a type of all humans and so the Cross is the means of salvation for everyone. Through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Christ dies on the cross to raise Adam, not just to suffer for him. Christ is glorified by saving Adam.
“I have fallen into the heavy sleep of sin through heedlessness, but, my Christ, Who for my sake fell asleep on the Cross, awaken me, that the night of death not come on me.”
A very poetic imagery in the above hymn which plays on the fact that sleeping is an image of one who is dead but can be awakened. Sin has taken away vibrant life from me, and so I fall into a dead sleep of sin. Wonderfully, Christ is portrayed as also having fallen asleep on the Cross – but His sleeping is not due to sloth and sin, but rather His active and powerful love. His sleep is not draining his power away but is done in order to overcome death.
The last hymn, below, adds another dimension to the salvation attained through Christ’s death on the cross: namely, that God is using humanity to overcome sin and death. The hymn turns its gaze on the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary.
“You have destroyed the sentence of condemnation passed upon mankind of old; You are the restoration of our first Mother Eve, the cause of our reconciliation to God, our bridge to the Creator! We magnify you, Theotokos!”
Just as the Cross is the is God’s weapon to destroy “the sentence of condemnation” which stood against humankind for the sin of Eve and Adam (namely, death), so too the Theotokos through God’s grace begins the process of undoing what Eve and Adam had set in motion through their sinful disobedience. Already in the Virgin Mother God’s womb, the incarnate God is at work restoring humanity to Himself. The crucifixion of Christ is essential for our salvation because Mary is Theotokos. God the Word took on flesh from Mary thus bridging the divide between God and humanity. The significance of the crucifixion, and thus the Cross, is that Christ is God in the flesh. God in Christ is already saving humanity from the moment of His conception and incarnation. Without the reality of the incarnation of one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, Christ’s death does not heal humanity or restore our relationship to God. The mystery of the incarnation is fully revealed in the cross – God dying in the flesh while through His body, destroying the power of sin, death and Satan.