On the Sunday of the Cross

Third Sunday of Great Lent
The Veneration of the Cross

In those days, when the Lord had called the people to himself, with his disciples also, he said to them, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. And he said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” (Mark 8:34-9:1).

Moses and the brass serpentGlory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In the twenty-first chapter of Numbers, the Israelites were menaced by venomous snakes. God instructed Moses to make an icon of a snake and raise it up in front of the people. When they looked with faith on the image of their death lifted up on the crossbar of a pole, they were healed (Numbers 21:4-9).

Christ explained that this was an image of himself:

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up. And if I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all peoples to Myself.” This he said, signifying by what death he would die. Then Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he” (John 3:14; 12:32-33; 8:28).

It is hard to believe, but we’re already halfway through Lent. This Wednesday we'll sing hymns for the midpoint of the Fast. This is the Sunday when the choir realizes they only have three more weeks to prepare for Holy Week.

Today is one of three commemorations of the Cross. The best-known is in September, the date of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It commemorates the finding of the wood of the Cross, and its being raised up in front of all the people: that's the Universal Exaltation of the Cross. The second is earlier, in August. Because the hot, humid summers in Constantinople bred diseases, it became customary to bring the wood of the Holy Cross out in procession through the city daily during the whole two weeks of the Dormition fast, for the sanctification of the city and the healing of the people. We celebrate the Procession of the Cross on August 1.

Now on this Sunday, halfway through the great Fast, as Moses did, we set up the cross in the middle of the Church to encourage and strengthen the people of God.

It might be hard to see the cross as an encouragement. In New Testament times, a cross had a single purpose. A cross was an electric chair; it was a lynching tree. Not only an instrument of death, but a shameful, humiliating death. The Romans wanted not only to execute a criminal but to do it in the most contemptuous way they could think of.

To the Jews, the apostolic message that the God-Man and Messiah died on a cross made the whole Gospel a laughing-stock. To hang on a cross was to be conclusively exposed as a failure. 

Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco wrote:

God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor. Sometimes in the arena the wild animals did not touch the righteous ones, but by no means were they all preserved untouched.

What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards God and devotion to him.

Though a person may be found in a weak state, that does not at all mean that he has been abandoned by God. On the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ was in trouble, as the world sees things. But when the sinful world considered him to be completely destroyed, in fact he was victorious over death and hades. The Lord did not promise us positions as victors as a reward for righteousness, but told us, “In the world you will have tribulation — but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (John. 16:33).

Again and again in the Gospels the Lord predicted his crucifixion. From the time he was revealed in his baptism and his first miracle at Cana of Galilee, every step took him toward Calvary. “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Pascha with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 22:15-16) He looked forward to the cross – not with fear, but as the path toward his ultimate aim, the salvation of the world. “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

For Christ, the road to the resurrection led through the cross. For us, the road to Pascha is through Lent; and the road to salvation is through life in this world where we are unconditionally promised “you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). I will celebrate and feast with everyone else at Pascha, and share the joy of the Resurrection – but I also know that this life is Lent, and struggle does not end while we’re on top of the ground.

Suffering is not evidence that you’ve done anything wrong; suffering is evidence that you live in this world. But a culture of psychology and philosophy and marketing has told us suffering is unnatural, and we deserve better.

In fact it’s possible to become convinced that all our stress and pain are temporary, and when they finally pass, we will return to a state of peace and contentment — then we’ll finally be able to relax, when things return to normal. But the fact is that most of us are in a state of stress or crisis, pain or fear or grief, or inner conflict that at times feels like it might break us. Our memory is unreliable. We remember a time when everything was great and we believe that that was how it usually was.

Peace is the ideal thst we infer from the fact that there have been occasional quiet moments between wars.

For people who believe God has come to make them healthy, wealthy, and happy in this life, the cross is not good news. Nobody will sell a million books on TV with that kind of message.

But the early Christians saw Christ’s ascending the cross as a victory over death. They read Psalm 98:5 LXX (99:5 KJV) “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship the footstool of his feet; for he is holy” and they said, see! The footstool of the Lord’s feet is the cross! It’s a throne, from which Christ reigns as King. That’s why Orthodox crucifixes usually show Christ awake and alert; and some even show him in royal robes. Usually the inscription over his head says “The King of Glory.”

Christ united our broken human nature to himself, carried that nature down into death, and by raising us up in his own divine life, he demolished the gates of death and defeated the evil one.

Adam was made in God’s image and it was very good (Genesis 1:31). Then Adam’s sin broke the mold and Adam went on stamping out damaged images of God: We are born bent, so that we fall into sin and earn our own captivity to death. But now, by raising our human nature from the dead in himself, free and whole and alive with the creative life of the Holy Trinity, Christ has healed us and made us alive. (Ephesians 2:4-7; Colossians 2:13-15).

The cross as an emblem or logo is so common in our culture that we need to remind ourselves how foolish and scandalous it was for Christians to be the people of the cross. The nations laughed and mocked.

“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27).

But last night and today the choir has been singing this hymn:

Hail, O life-bearing Cross! The invincible weapon of godliness, the gateway to 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 boast of the martyrs, the harbor of salvation, which grants the world great mercy!

In 175 AD, the Church in what is now southern France sent out a letter to encourage the churches. It wasn’t a promise that things would get better; in tone it reads more like a promotion for a sports spectacle. It begins:

Other writers of history record the victories of war and trophies won from enemies, the skill of generals, and the manly bravery of soldiers defiled with blood and with innumerable slaughters for the sake of children and country and other possessions. But our narrative of the government of God will record the most peaceful wars waged in behalf of the peace of the soul, and will tell of men doing brave deeds for truth rather than country, and for piety rather than for dearest friends. It will hand down to imperishable remembrance the discipline and the much-tried fortitude of the athletes of religion, the trophies won from demons, the victories over invisible enemies, and the crowns placed upon all their heads.  (From “A Letter From the Suffering Church in Gaul — c. 175 AD”)

I’m going to finish with a brief sermon preached by Saint Theodore (+826) abbot of the Stoudion Monastery in Constantinople:

How precious is the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree Adam tasted in Paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of Paradise, but opens the way for our return.

This was the Tree on which Christ, like a king on a chariot, destroyed the devil, the lord of death, and freed the human race from his tyranny. This was the Tree upon which the Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in hands, feet, and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature. A tree once caused our death, but now a Tree brings life. Once deceived by a tree, we have now repelled the cunning serpent by a Tree.

What an astonishing transformation! That death should become life, that decay should become immortality, that shame should become glory! Well might the holy Apostle exclaim, “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world!” The supreme wisdom that flowered on the cross has shown the folly of worldly wisdom’s pride. The knowledge of all good, which is the fruit of the cross, has cut away the shoots of wickedness.

The wonders accomplished through this Tree were foreshadowed clearly even by the mere types and figures that existed in the past. Meditate on these, if you are eager to learn. Was it not the wood of a tree that enabled Noah, at God’s command, to escape the destruction of the flood…? And surely the rod of Moses prefigured the cross when it changed water into blood, swallowed up the false serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians, divided the sea at one stroke and then restored the waters to their normal course, drowning the enemy and saving God’s own people? Aaron’s rod, which blossomed in one day in proof of his true priesthood, was another figure of the cross, and did not Abraham foreshadow the cross when he bound his son Isaac and placed him on the wood?

By the cross death was slain and Adam was restored to life. The cross is the glory of all the apostles, the crown of the martyrs, the sanctification of the saints. By the cross we put on Christ and cast aside our former self. By the cross we, the sheep of Christ, have been gathered into one flock, destined for the sheepfolds of heaven.  (Oratio in adorationem crucis: PG 99, 691-694, 695, 698-99.)

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.