14 Sep A Reflection on the Cross
We cannot go anywhere, even in our secular society, without seeing a cross. In any town we go through, we will no doubt see at least one Christian church, with a cross sitting atop it. Yet, for the early Christians, they must have been met with maybe strange looks, or puzzlement, or even confusion. As St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the jews and folly to the gentiles.” For the cross was a symbol of death, it was an instrument of torture, and in the time of Christ, to see the cross, almost certainly brought about the image of defeat and death. So, imagine a non-christian, early in the church’s history, seeing this symbol of death used as the calling card of this new faith. It would be like if today you were to see a hangman’s rope at the top of a church, or an electric chair around someone’s neck on a chain. You wouldn’t see those things, because they have not been transformed. For we, as Orthodox Christians, know that the cross was a symbol of death only until Christ stretched his arms out on it and died for our sins. Then, with his glorious resurrection from the dead, the cross took on new meaning–it was transformed–from a symbol of defeat to a symbol of victory; from a symbol of death to a symbol of life.
Besides its being transformed to become this victorious symbol, it also represents for us an intersection of the heavenly and the earthly. St. John Damascene writes, “As the four ends of the Cross are held together and united by its center, so are the height and the depths, the length and the breadth, that is, all creation visible and invisible, held together by the power of God.” St. John Chrysostom affirms this when he writes that the “Cross is the joining of the heavenly and the earthly and the defeat of hell.” It can also be said of the cross, that in its shape, we see the width of God’s love, and the height of his divinity. There is a saying that goes: “I asked Jesus how much he loved me and he stretched out his arms for us on the cross and said, I love you this much.” Imagine the depth of God’s love for us. We can’t imagine. For those who are parents, think of it this way: if someone gave you a pen and a piece of paper, and asked you to write down the names of people that you would be willing to sacrifice your child for, it wouldn’t take very long, because the list would be empty. No one would fault any parent for that. God’s list however, includes everyone who has ever lived, everyone who is living, and everyone who will ever live, because he sent His only begotten Son to suffer and to die on the cross for each and every one of us. It can be easy to try and grasp the immense numbers of people this is, and lose sight of the individuality of God’s love…God loves each of us, created in His image and likeness. Bishop John R. Martin of blessed memory, was fond of saying that if you were the only person on earth guilty of sin, Christ still would have died on the cross; for just one person. This is the width of His love.
The height of his divinity. Only God could take a symbol of death and transform it to life, and only God could in doing so, enable us to be raised up, to be saved. The tree of life–the cross–was seen in the Old Testament, which Christ came to fulfill, as the brass serpant which Moses made on the tree in obedience to God’s command, by which those who had been bitten by poisonous serpents upon looking at the brass serpent would remain alive. This is referred to by Christ as recorded in John’s gospel: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Through the cross, we are saved. Because of this sacrifice, we can now commence on our spiritual journey towards theosis–towards deification. God became man, so man could become like God; so we could reach the divine heights of his heavenly kingdom–the height of His divinity.
It isn’t easy, however. Just as Christ struggled by asking if the cup of the cross could be taken away from Him, so we struggle too. Just as Christ suffered, so we suffer too. But we are called to take up our own cross, just as Christ did, that God’s will be done, as Christ said to His Father, so that at the end of this road we can say, as St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” For Christ Himself said in the Gospel of Matthew, “he who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” As we venerate the cross today, we are reminded of Christ’s sufferings, His crucifixion, and we are called to take on our own sufferings as well. But we cannot look at the cross without also thinking of what followed. Yes, Christ suffered, yes He died on the cross, but on the third day he arose from the dead. As it says in the book, These Truths We Hold, “In order to become a temple, a repository of the Spirit of God, the soul should follow the Lord step by step along the way of the cross until, at last, all that remains for us is to be lifted up on the cross in spirit, after which follows spiritual resurrection in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The suffering and the death is there, but it is followed by the glorious resurrection. So that now everyone who looks to the cross with faith receives salvation and protection. As we sing today: “Before Your cross, we fall down in worship, and Your holy resurrection we glorify.” St. Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, sums it up so beautifully, this idea of death followed by resurrection: “For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.”