John [compound 19:6-11, 13-20, 25-28, 30-35]
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross—celebrated every year on September 14/27—recalls three historical events: (1) the finding of the True Cross by St. Helen—the mother of the emperor Constantine; (2) the dedication of the churches built by Constantine on the site of the Holy Sepulcher and Mount Calvary; and (3) the restoration of the True Cross to Jerusalem by the emperor Heraclius II.
Notwithstanding, in a deeper sense, today’s feast celebrates the Holy Cross as the instrument of our salvation. This gruesome instrument of torture and execution—which was a public form of humiliation reserved for the worst of criminals and designed to inflict the most painful, agonizing, and protracted death—became the life-giving tree that annulled the curse of Adam’s sin [cf. I Corinthians 15:22]. “Therefore, the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God" [cf. I Corinthians 1:18]. The Cross is then the transition from sin, wickedness, and eternal death to virtue, blessedness, and eternal life—in another word—salvation.
Finding of the true cross
According to Tradition—which was documented by St. Cyril of Jerusalem in 348—St. Helen, nearing the end of her life, decided, under Divine inspiration, to travel to Jerusalem in 326 to conduct excavations at, and around the Temple of Jupiter (built by Hadrian after the destruction of Jerusalem in 135) in order to find the Tomb of Christ and the True Cross. A Jew—named Judas—was privy to an oral tradition concerning the location of the Cross, and led those excavating to the spot in which the Cross was hidden. Three crosses were found. The inscription Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) was attached to one of the crosses. St. Helen and St. Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, presumed that the cross with the inscription was the True Cross and that the other two crosses belonged to the thieves crucified alongside Christ.
Nevertheless, they devised a plan (or experiment) to test their belief and thereby categorically identify the True Cross. A woman who was near death was brought and was made to touch each cross. Upon touching the True Cross [with the inscription], she was instantly healed. Then, the body of a dead man was brought and laid upon each cross. Upon being laid upon the True Cross [with the inscription], the dead man was immediately restored to life.
Having identified the True Cross of Christ, the Bishop ascended the amvon and exalted [that is, lifted up] the Cross—with both hands—so that all of those gathered might venerate the instrument of their salvation. The multitude responded by singing: ‘Lord, have mercy’. This they sang some five hundred times —which act, Orthodox Christians still repeat during the Service of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, even unto this day.
Without the Cross, there is no Christianity
The Cross is the most prominent symbol of the Christian faith, because Jesus “canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, and set it aside—nailing it to the Cross” [cf. Colossians 2:14]. There are some today who dismiss the prominence of the Cross—choosing instead to focus only upon the victory and glory of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection is indeed glorious and raises up all those who have been crucified with Christ to new life, but Christ’s death upon the Cross is our doorway to forgiveness and through the Cross “He reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven—making peace by the blood of His Cross” [cf. Colossians 1:20].
Without the Cross, there is no Christianity. The Cross reveals to us the character of God: His love for lost sinners and His perfect justice meet at the Cross. The Apostle John says: “For by this we know love, that He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” [cf. I John 3:16]. If we desire to grow in our love for God—which is the first and greatest commandment [cf. Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:27]—then we must first experience the power of the Cross [cf. Romans 1:16]. If we desire to grow in godliness, we must grow in the knowledge of the Cross, which confronts the most prevalent and insidious of all sins, namely: egotism (or ego-centrism). Satan hates the Cross because it sealed his doom. He is therefore relentless in his attacks to undermine the efficacy of the Cross through heresies both ancient and modern that attempt diminish (or down-play) the work of Christ on the Cross and magnify human ability and egotism, or ego-centrism. The Cross is therefore crucial to all sound doctrine.
The Cross reveals to us the character of God: His love for lost sinners and His perfect justice meet at the Cross.
All of our problems stem from sin—from our own sin, from the sin that others perpetuate against us and from our own sinful reactions to those sins, and ultimately, from the sinful and fallen world in which we live. The solutions to our problems can only be found in the Cross through which He “became the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” [cf. I John 2:2].
Christ’s death on the Cross
Through Christ’s death on the Cross, those who turn to Him are delivered from the penalty of sin. This is clearly the meaning of the Apostle Peter’s words: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness, for by His wounds we have been healed” [cf. I Peter 2:24; Deuteronomy 21:23; Isaiah 53:1-12].
And again: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” [cf. I Peter 3:18].
The Apostle Paul says: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written: Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” [cf. Galatians 3:13].
In Deuteronomy [cf. 21:23-24], the Law commands: “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God”.
Accordingly, Christ became our substitute and took on Himself the condemnation and curse that we deserve “for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” [cf. Mark 10:45].
The Prophet Isaiah said of Christ: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely, He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed” [cf. Isaiah 53:1-12].
The Apostle Paul says: “Since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the [spiritual] offspring of Abraham” [cf. Hebrews 2:14-16].
“[Therefore, Christ] entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God? Therefore, He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” [cf. Hebrews 9:12-15].
“Furthermore, we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” [cf. Hebrews 4:15].
“For… God has shown His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” [cf. Romans 5:6-11].
“And we are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance, he had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” [cf. Romans 3:24-26].
“For Christ gave Himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” [cf. I Timothy 2:6].
“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” [cf. Ephesians 1:7].
“For He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised” [II Corinthians 5:15].
“Therefore, He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since He did this once for all when He offered up Himself” [cf. Hebrews 7:27].
“But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God” [cf. Hebrews 10:12].
“So, Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” [cf. Hebrews 9:28].
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” [cf. Ephesians 2:4-10].
“Therefore, cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” [cf. I Corinthians 5:7].
The Apostle John says: “You know that He appeared to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin” [cf. I John 3:5].
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” [cf. I John 4:10].
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” [cf. John 3:16].
“Therefore, if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” [cf. I John 1:9].
“And if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” [cf. I John 1:7].
“These are then the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” [cf. Revelation 7:14].
“And unto Jesus Christ—the Lamb who was slain—who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” [cf. Revelation 13:8]
The Lord Jesus Christ tells us how to receive and benefit from His atonement for our sins on the Cross. Virtue, blessedness, and eternal life—and salvation itself—are conditional. “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” [cf. John 3:35-36].
The Apostle Paul warns egotists: “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will” [cf. Hebrews 2:3-4].
Behold, the Cross! The Cross is the key to virtue, blessedness, and eternal life—and salvation. “Then He said to them all: If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels” [cf. Luke 9:23-26].
The Cross in Jesus’ day was an instrument of torture and execution. Death on the cross was shameful, excruciatingly painful, and protracted. There was no ‘norm’ for execution on the cross, though it often included flogging beforehand, the victim carrying the patibulum, or crossbeam, to the place of execution and being nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up, and seated on a small wooden peg. Seneca indicates there were many variations: “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet” [cf. Seneca, Dialogue 6 in De consolatione ad Marciam 20.3]. The descriptions mentioned from ancient sources are horrible and repugnant—but they are necessary in order that we do not misunderstand Jesus. He is not talking about a mere trial, burden, difficulty, or misfortune. He is talking about death.
Jesus is not speaking figuratively. “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” [cf. Luke 9:23-24]. ‘To deny oneself’ [in Greek, arnisástho eaftón] signifies to refuse, to disdain, to deny, and to disregard oneself—that is, to act in an entirely selfless way.
Christianity is not an add-on to our already full and self-directed way of life. Christian discipleship involves a conscious, intentional, and deliberate choice to follow Christ’s way rather than making our own way. ‘Take up your cross’ [in Greek, aráto ton stavrón aftú] signifies to ‘take up’, to ‘pick up’, and to ‘lift up, take, and carry along’.
Jesus is saying that just as a condemned man is forced to carry the patibulum of his own cross, we are to ‘take up our cross’. The same phrase is used of Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ Cross to Golgotha [cf. Mark 15:21], after Jesus bastázon eaftó ton stavron, that is, had been ‘bearing His Cross’ [cf. John 19:17]. Jesus is telling us that His disciples must take up the position of a man already condemned to death, who carries the patibulum of his cross to the place of execution. This must be done kath iméran, literally ‘every day’ [cf. Luke 9:23]. Jesus then says: ke akoluthíto mi, that is ‘follow me’ or ‘accompany’ and ‘go along with’, with transition to the figurative meaning, ‘follow’ as a disciple. This is the common and characteristic word used for the way a disciple is to follow Jesus, and is the central concept of our understanding of discipleship—walking along with Jesus wherever He leads.
The Apostle Paul took up his cross daily and followed Jesus from the time of his conversion until he was beheaded by the Romans. He expresses this concept in different ways: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” [cf. Galatians 2:20]. And again: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” [cf. Colossians 3:3]. And once again: “As for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I die every day—I mean that, brothers—just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised...” [cf. I Corinthians 15:30-32].
Once we realize that only one of the Twelve Apostles died a natural death, we realize that Jesus is not speaking figuratively about saving and losing one’s life. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” [cf. Luke 9:24]. The earliest disciples took Jesus’ saying literally. They denied themselves and ‘took up’ their own execution daily and followed after Jesus’ lead.
Jesus’ saying is a paradox. We would expect that by attempting to save ourselves we would at least have a possibility to succeed in doing so. But Jesus says that just the opposite is the case. Only by self-denial and surrender to Jesus can we save our lives in any lasting or eternal sense. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” [cf. Luke 9:25]. The choice to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ is not an option for the Christian believer. It is a necessity. We will either lay down our lives and follow Jesus, or we will seek to add Jesus to our own lives and risk deceiving ourselves about our self-serving religiosity and lose our very selves and souls.
Discipleship is not a more difficult path in Christianity. It is the only path to Orthodox life. We either follow Jesus’ path, or we lose our way.
Stop and think! Which path are you on?
The Precious Cross of Christ is a paradox:
It is precisely through dying to ourselves that we are reborn.
It is through dying to ourselves that we find our true self—made in the image and likeness of God.
It is through dying to ourselves that we are finally able to love God and others.
It is through dying to ourselves that we finally find peace and true joy.
It is through dying to ourselves that we are no longer obsessed with ourselves!
By accepting the Cross, we no longer fear suffering or death.
By dying to ourselves, carrying our Cross, and following Christ, we can attain enosis and become ONE with Him.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.