The Cross as the Power of the Church

In the Orthodox Church, one way we show honor to our Lord Jesus Christ, is through veneration of His Cross.  On September 14, we keep the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, displaying a decorated cross for all to see and venerate.  We humble ourselves before the Lord by bowing before His cross.  For the Cross is a sign of God’s own presence in our midst and grace toward the world.

The Cross is a sign to us just like in the Old Testament when God gave the rainbow as a sign of God’s peace with humanity, that God will never again destroy the earth, but instead makes covenant with us.  The Cross is a similar sign to us of God’s peace and protection.

The Old Testament has many other signs  – the Ark of the covenant, the Temple in Jerusalem, the Torah, Aaron staff, the tablets of stone with the 10 commandments – which remind everyone of God’s presence, promise, activity,  and covenant.  These signs were all treated with reverence by God’s people.   King David danced before the ark when it was brought back into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14) because it was a sign of God’s presence and favor.   In Revelation 11:19, we get an idea of the significance of the Ark as a sign:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

For Christians, the Cross is the sign of God’s Power :

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.   (1 Corinthians 1:18)

The Cross is the sign of God’s love:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.   (John 3:16-17)

The Cross is the sign of God’s plan for the salvation of the human race, the restoration of our relationship with God.  The Cross is the sign of God’s grace and presence.

In the Church we sing the words of the Psalm:

“Extol the Lord our God and worship at his footstool for it is holy.”  (Psalm 99:5)

We recognize that where Jesus’ feet were nailed on the Cross, this becomes Christ’s footstool, the place where his feet rested, and thus the cross is holy.   On the Cross God’s love for His world reigns and thus the Cross is God’s throne.   In the book of Revelation (5:6-14) we encounter these words describing the worship of God at His Throne:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain … he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

We recognize that God set up His Throne on earth, on the Cross, and so we give honor to it for it brings us close to God.  We sing at the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross:

Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross!

The invincible weapon of godliness;

The gate of paradise, the protection of the faithful!

The Cross is the might of the church.

Through it corruption is abolished.

Through it the power of death is crushed

And we are raised from earth to heaven!

The invincible weapon of peace!

The Cross is the enemy of demons,

The glory of the martyrs,

The haven of salvation

Which grants the world great mercy!

But we do not just honor the Cross of our salvation, for the Cross is also a way of life for us Christians.  Jesus asks,

For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?     (Mark 8:36)

We spend a great deal of time, energy and money pursuing our dreams.  For example, college education is expensive, yet we are willing to pay the high price for ourselves or our adult children.  We are willing to sacrifice many things to get that education in the hope that it will benefit ourselves or our children in the long run.  We pursue careers and cars and the home of our dreams, investing all we have to achieve these goals.  But, Christ asks us, even if you gain the whole world, and in so doing lose your soul, what good are these things you have gained?  For they all belong to the fleeting world, which is passing away.  Jesus also taught:

 “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21).  

Treasures are those things  – including convictions and values – which are so dear to us that we are willing to forfeit everything to get them.   Do we value the Kingdom of Heaven so much that we are willing to forfeit everything on earth to attain it?

For some, the things they hold so dear that are willing to forsake and forfeit everything else are fleeting pleasures, not treasures.   They pursue with all their heart, mind and strength things of this world, which are so temporary.  We see it all the time in the scandal mongering news – politicians, sports champions and entertainers who shamefully throw away family and friends to pursue sex, drugs and other pleasures.   They end up destroying that which is human in themselves and others.

For what is truly & uniquely human is the ability to commune with God, the ability to see God, to experience, to possess and share God’s almighty love and being.

We who hope in heaven should not exchange our home and life there for the pleasures of this world which can never satisfy, and so quickly disappear.  We ought not give up our life in God for a moment’s pleasure, for those moments pass away, and we are left with nothing.  Only our life in God is forever.

The world tells us to focus on our self and our self-interest.   Christianity says our self-interest is found in:

Self-respect

Self-denial

Self-control

Self-restraint

Self-discipline

Jesus said: If any want to be my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)

Contemplating the Cross

The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed; he has put on strength as his belt.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.

(Psalms 93:1-2)

Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.

(Psalms 104:1-2)

St Isaac of Nineveh writes:

For the Cross is Christ’s garment just as the humanity of Christ is the garment of the divinity. Thus (the Cross today) serves as a type, awaiting the time when the true prototype will be revealed: then those things will not be required (any longer). For the Divinity dwells inseparably in the Humanity, without any end, and forever; in other words, boundlessly. For this reason we look on the Cross as the place belonging to the Shekhina of the Most High, the Lord’s sanctuary, the ocean of the symbols (or, mysteries) of God’s economy.

  . . . Whenever we gaze on the Cross in a composed way, with our emotions steadied, the recollection of our Lord’s entire economy gathers together and he stands before our interior eyes.

(Isaac of Nineveh, The Second Part, p. 60)

The Cross as Paradox

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I have been co-crucified with Christ; I live no more, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the Son of God’s faithfulness, the One loving me and giving Himself up on my behalf.   (Galatians 2:20)

St. Paul took very seriously that we who have been baptized into Christ have died with Him (Romans 6:8, Colossians 3:3).  St. Paul says we have been co-crucified with Christ – we experience his death on the cross in our own lives, and we die with Him on the cross.   And if we have died with Him, then we have died and we live no more.  It is now Christ who lives in me, so I should make decisions that are the decisions that Christ Himself would make.   I should no longer think about myself and what I want but I should be ever mindful of Christ and what He wants.

Thus the power of the Cross is that it helps us to live Christ’s life, and to do the things that Christ would have us do.  It involves self denial because “I” (my “self”) has died and has no more needs but to serve Christ.  If I’m dead to the world, I make no more claims on the world, and I don’t let the world become my focus.  Being co-crucified with Christ changes my entire relationship to the world, and limits of the value of this world to me.

The Cross of Christ is also a great paradox for us for many reasons.  So is the Exaltation of the Cross – for it is a Great Feast of the Church which is kept as a strict fast day.  Here are other ways in which the Cross of Christ remains a paradox for us:

The Cross of Christ is both an instrument of torture and death, and yet it is life giving.

It is a sign of judgment and of forgiveness.

A sign of human hatred, and yet of God’s love.

A sign of humanity’s judgment of God, and of God’s judgment of humanity.

A sign of defeat, and yet of God’s victory.

A tool of  human suffering and torment, yet it brings about healing to those tormented by sin.

A sign of humanity’s rejection of God, and God’s being reconciled with us.

It is a sign of evil triumphing over God, and yet it is God’s victory over evil and death.

A sign of the death of God, and the total annihilation of death.

It is an ultimate instrument of human torture and the ultimate sign of God’s love for humanity.

The eternal and all powerful God’s greatness and glory are revealed in the weakness and shameful suffering on the Cross.

Christ was not ashamed to die on the cross for you and me – despite the fact that we are sinners and even despite the fact that we had not even repented of sin before He died for us.   Therefore, we should not be ashamed to take up the cross and to follow Christ.   We hold up our cross to show the world that we believe in Christ and are willing to die with Him and for Him.  We make the sign of the cross when we pray or before we eat to remind ourselves of God’s love and power in our lives.  We can wear a cross to remind ourselves that we have taken up the cross to follow Christ.

We spend a great deal of our time and resources to pursue pleasure, luxury, ease, the path of least resistance, easy street.  We try to avoid the cross even though as Christians we have professed a willingness to die with Him, to die to our self in order to loved and follow Christ.

The Cross is where God reveals the greatness of His Love, a love which overcomes everything including sin, suffering and death.

Holy Friday (2018)

Holy Friday

God entered into the human condition in the incarnation – in Christ.  In Christ, God experienced sighing, sorrow, suffering and death. God takes on our human condition in order to redeem and transfigure it – not to help us escape it.  The beauty of the human condition is found in the fact that God can enter into it, as we are. God loves us in our frailty, in our fears and fragility. It is what makes us uniquely human and yet the very beings with whom God wishes to share his Divinity and to whom God gives eternal life.  In God dying on the cross we see the Divine work of creation accomplished – God sharing every aspect of our human existence. God redeems everything in our existence and shares even in our suffering and death so that we might share in His eternity. God’s death on the cross is not the defeat of humanity, but the accomplishment of God’s will that He be fully united to us.

It is finished!

We are much happier with our god in the heavens than with the man lying before us: “I do not know the man” (Matt. 26:72). We want a god who conforms to our expectations: an all powerful and all-knowing puppet-master, not one who confronts us as all-too-human, serving others, crying, dying.  Show us the Father, we ask, and it will be enough for us.  We yearn for a god who will lift us from our uncertainty, frailty, and fear, to see things from his lofty and implacable perspective, with all things in his providential control, all problems solved as if by magic.  

And in so doing, we ask to escape not only from our frailty, our suffering, and our tears, but also our joy and laughter – all the things that make up the particularly fragile beauty of human existence.

(Fr. John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p. 64)

Holy Wednesday (2018)

It was common in the early church to personify Death and Hell especially in contemplating the crucifixion of Christ.  Death, Hell and Satan were often portrayed having a conversation trying to understand what the death of Christ meant for them – their victory over God, or, as they belatedly realized, the dead Christ was the seed of their own destruction.  Life burst forth from the tomb of Christ, bringing an end to Death’s power over humanity.

Three crosses Pilate fixed on Golgotha,

two for the thieves and one for the Giver of life,

whom Hell saw and said to those below,

“My ministers and powers

who has fixed a nail in my heart?

A wooden lance has suddenly pierced me and I am being torn apart.

My insides are in pain, my belly in agony,

my sense make my spirit tremble,

and I am compelled to disgorge

Adam and Adam’s race. Given me by a Tree,

a Tree is bringing them back

again to Paradise.

(St. Romanos, On the Life of Christ, pp. 155-156)

The personified Death, Hades and Satan all become mortally wounded by Christ’s own wounds.  They become weakened and sickened by the healing power of Christ’s resurrection.  Simultaneously, for us humans, we are being restored to health by Christ’s wounds.  “Those who repent with all their heart and cleanse themselves of all their aforementioned evils, and add nothing more to their sins, will receive healing from the Lord for their previous sins...”  (Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude 8:77:1-5)  Far beyond forgiveness of our sins, God gives us the gift of healing of soul and body through the suffering of His Son.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.  (1 Peter 2:24)

The Icon of the Crucifixion

“The icon encourages us to reflect on this climax to our Lord’s earthly life; his work has been accomplished, and he commends himself to the Father. The following verses come to mind: ‘I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work that thou gavest me to do’ (John 17:4); ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30); ‘Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And these verses from the letter to the Hebrews seem equally appropriate: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:1-2); ‘So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no abiding city, but we seek the city which is to come’ (Hebrews 13:12-14).

The following extract from St. Theodore the Studite’s On the Adoration of the Cross shows how the victorious nature of Christ’s death on the Cross was interpreted by a great teacher of Orthodox theology (759-826):

How precious is the gift of the cross! See, how beautiful it is to behold!…It is a tree which brings forth life, not death. It is the source of light, not darkness. It offers you a home in Eden. It does not cast you out. It is the tree which Christ mounted as a king his chariot, and so destroyed the devil, the lord of death, and rescued the human race from slavery to the tyrant. It is the tree on which the Lord, like a great warrior with his hands and feet and his divine side pierced in battle, healed the wounds of our sins, healed our nature that had been wounded by the evil serpent. Of old we were poisoned by a tree;  now we have found immortality through a tree.

…By the cross death was killed and Adam restored to life. In the cross every apostle has gloried; by it every martyr has been crowned and every saint made holy. We have put on the cross of Christ, and laid aside the old man. Through the cross we have joined Christ’s flock, and are granted a place in the sheepfold of heaven.”

(John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, pp. 108-109)

The Way to Joy? Take Up Your Cross

“The kingdom of God cannot be imposed; if it is to be brought about we must be born again, and that supposes complete freedom of spirit. Christianity is the religion of the Cross, and it sees a meaning in suffering. Christ asks us to take up our own cross and carry it, to shoulder the load of a sinful world. In Christian consciousness the notion of attaining happiness, justice, and the kingdom of God on earth without cross or suffering is a huge lie: it is the temptation that Christ rejected in the wilderness when he was shown the kingdoms of the world and invited to fall down and worship. Christianity does not promise its own necessary realization and victory here below; Christ even questioned whether he will find any faith on earth when he comes again at the end of time, and foretold that love itself will have grown cold.

Tolstoy believed that Christ’s commands could be easily fulfilled simply by recognizing their truth. But that was a mistake of his over-rationalizing consciousness; the mysteries of freedom and of grace were beyond him, his optimism contradicted the tragic depths of life. “The good which I will I do not,” says the apostle Paul, “but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” This testimony of one of the greatest of all Christians unveils the innermost part of the human heart, and it teaches us that the “failure of Christianity” is a human failure and not a divine defeat.”

(Nicholas Berdiaev, Tradition Alive, pp. 96-97)

A Christian Understanding of Death

Only through and in the human person will the whole world come into a relationship with God.

The fall of humanity alienated the whole creation from God. It destroyed the cosmic harmony. Through the Fall, humanity became subject to the course of nature. This ought not to have happened. In the life of animals death is an expression of the power of procreation rather than of frailty. Through the fall of humanity, death also receives in nature an evil and tragic meaning. To the animal’s death means only the end of individual existence. Among humans death strikes at the personality; and personality is something more than mere individuality. The body is dissolved and subject to death because of sin. But the whole human person dies. The human person is composed of body and soul; therefore, the separation of body and soul means that the human person ceases to exist as a human person. The image of God fades. Death reveals that the human person, this creature made by God, is not only a body…The fear of death is only averted through the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

Death does not only mean that sin is revealed; it is also an anticipation of resurrection. God does not only punish fallen human nature by death, but also purifies and heals it.

The death on the Cross was not efficacious because it was the death of an innocent man, but because it was the death of the incarnated Lord. It was not a human being who died on the cross but God. But God died in His own humanity. He was Himself the resurrection and the life.  (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, pp. 145-146, 148-149)

Christ’s Death on the Cross

The Savior came to destroy death by His own death. ‘The ultimate reason for Christ’s death must be seen in the mortality of man.’  Redemption is the ‘liberation of man from the ‘”bondage of corruption”.’ However, this means that ‘the Cross is more than merely suffering Good.’  ‘The death on the cross was effective, not [simply] as the death of an Innocent one, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord. ‘We needed an Incarnate God; God put to death, that we might live’ – to use a bold phrase of St. Gregory of Nazianzus.” Here we see Florovsky’s a-symmetrical Chalcedonianism at work: as he writes, ‘It may be properly said that God dies on the Cross, but in his own humanity.’

The death of Christ is of necessity for salvation precisely because through it, eternal life enters the realm of death. Thus, Holy Saturday itself is ‘the very day of our salvation.’ As the icons suggest, Christ enters hades as Victor despoiling death.”(Matthew Baker, On the Tree of the Cross, 114-115).

Holy Friday (2017)

“Even though he was crucified in weakness, he lives through the power of God!” (2 Corinthians 13:4, EOB)

 

On many occasions in the Old Testament God appears to have human attributes, human emotions, human limits.  God takes the dust of the earth to fashion human beings and breathes into the dust of the earth to create life. God walks in the Garden of Eden. God is saddened by human evil and grieves over having created humans. And while we who have sophistication today realize God doesn’t have hands and feet and lungs nor eyes and ears, we also realize that all of these primitive anthropomorphic descriptions of the invisible, incomprehensible, and ineffable God, prepared us humans for the incarnation, when God in fact took on flesh and became human. Not just any human, but perfect human. He became what we are created to be.  And, as a human, our God takes upon Himself our mortal nature, dying on a cross for us.  Holy Friday is the day on which we contemplate God’s love for us.  God endures everything we have to endure in His creation, including suffering and death.  Divine Love knows no limits, descending not only to earth but into Hades itself to restore life to all.  With His death on the cross, God shows His love for us is complete, total and absolute.

It is finished!

Finally finished and finally completed.

Finished and completed: “Behold the man” (John 19:5), the true human being, the image of God, the one who loved us till the end, even if I do not know him and do not comprehend him.

Among the gods there is not like thee O Lord; neither are there any works like thy works (Ps. 86:8).

God’s ways are past our understanding, shattering every constraint that limits our feeble imagination.

Christ shows us his divinity, not in a superhuman–inhuman–manner, but as truly human, human in the end common to us all.

Put to death on the cross, he yet voluntarily laid down his life in love for us, showing us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as human, for us.

And so, for us mortals, he opens up the possibility to share in his life, to live the life of God himself.

If he had shown us what it is to be truly human in any other way, what part could I have had in it?

But by his death, his life lived for others, a path of sacrifice and service, in his love and compassion for us, he has shown us a more noble way still, beyond our self-aggrandizing aspirations and merely human projections. And this life has led, as it must to the grave; yet it is not bound by the tomb.”   (Fr John Behr, The Cross Stands while the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year, pp. 66-67)

God became human in order to die for us on the cross, to descend to the place of the dead in order to destroy death.  What we truly commemorate and celebrate on Holy Friday is not only the death of the Son of God, but the death of death itself.  God overthrows the tyranny which Death claimed over humanity.