“Don’t worry about a thing,” the accountant said, “your tax papers have been prepared for you. All you have to do is sign on the bottom line. And you will get a refund, too!” What an unexpected and welcome gift that would be!
The Cross of Christ represents such a gift. When there was no hope for humanity to reconcile itself to God by filing papers of accountability; when in fact the record showed an impossible debt to be accounted for, God’s love found the way. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. St. Paul writes: “While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8).
At midpoint during Great Lent, also a time when we have to file income tax papers, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of the Veneration of the Cross. The Cross of Christ is the great symbol of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace with God. The Cross of Christ means that we can turn to God with faith and repentance, but without having to face an unpayable debt, and that we can be assured that we will find grace and forgiveness.
We do not need first to do something to deserve the blessings of the Cross but only to believe in Christ and to commit to a changed life in His name. We receive the blessings of the Cross on the basis of what God has already done for us through the sacrifice of Christ. This is the good news, the source of our joy and gladness.
In today’s Feast, the Cross is presented to us as encouragement and support in the journey of Great Lent. As the festal commemoration (synaxarion) says,“We are like those following a long and difficult path, who become tired, see a beautiful tree with many leaves, sit in its shadow and rest for a while and then, rejuvenated, continue on their journey. So also today, during this season of fasting and spiritual labor, the life-giving Cross is set in our midst by the holy Fathers to give us comfort and spiritual strength, to makes us ready and eager for the remaining journey.
The Epistle reading (Heb. 4:14-5:6) speaks of Christ as our eternal High Priest. In the Old Testament high priests offered sacrifices of animals, grain and fruit at the altar in the outdoor court of the Temple. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the Temple itself, passed through the inner curtain and came into the innermost chamber called the Holy of Holies. There he sprinkled animal blood on the symbolic throne of God as an act of expiation and forgiveness (hilasterion). The throne of God became a “mercy seat” of forgiveness for all the people.
In the New Testament Christ Himself is our expiation and mercy seat (hilasterion, Rom. 3:25). Christ is the eternal High Priest who offered not animals or other earthly gifts but His own self as a sin offering to God. Christ’s temple was not a building, the earthly Temple made by hands, but the whole universe including earth and heaven. The curtain through which He passed was His own flesh, His humanity, offered on the Cross as a unique sacrifice once for all (Heb. 10:12, 20). He passed through to heaven and opened a passage to the throne of God, that is, to the presence of God, with full access to grace and forgiveness for all people.
It is not easy for us to understand the priceless worth of Christ’s undeserved suffering. He suffered intensely and deeply, and without complaint, on account of human sin. Now and then we hear about innocent people suffering for the sake of others. A friend dives into the water to save a friend but he himself drowns. A fireman rescues a child from a burning house but he himself succumbs. Christ did that for the entire humanity. “He was wounded for our transgressions, and by His bruises we were healed. All we like sheep have gone astray . . . and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).
How should we respond to the gift of the Cross? The Epistle text exhorts us to hold firmly to our confession of Christ as Son of God and eternal High Priest, the One who shared our trials and suffering but yet without sin. Christ accomplished the passage from death to life, from earth to heaven, from sacrifice to victory on behalf of all humanity. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of [God’s] grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
The Gospel reading (Mark 8:34-9:1) challenges us to take a further step, a commitment to a way of life following the example and teaching of Christ. As recipients of the blessings of the Cross, the Savior calls us to be also carriers of the challenge of the Cross. “If any would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The way of Christ is the way of the Cross. The way of Christ is sharing in the mystery of divine love as a gift and a task for our salvation and for the salvation of others all around us.
From early age we learn to compete with one another. And by the time we grow old, the ways of fallen nature are often deeply ingrained. We desire to gain every advantage, win every argument, attain every selfish aim. The spirit of pride, a stubborn will, a desire to assert self, pit spouse again spouse, brother against sister, neighbor against neighbor, nation against nation. And we suffer. “The proud,” the Elder Silouan taught, “suffer from many devils.” We may have our way and win many arguments, but then we find that we have gained little or nothing, a spiritual darkness that lies behind many of our personal, family, social and world problems.
Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life [by one’s own selfish ways] will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s [through compassion and self-giving], will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life” (Mark 8:35-37)?
To speak of taking up our cross does not mean deliberately seeking or celebrating suffering for its own sake. Rather it means purposeful and freely chosen suffering. It means enduring patiently and kindly the faults and shortcomings, real or imagined, of others around us: our spouses, our children, our relative and friends, our co-workers and all others. It means speaking the truth in love, practicing compassion and understanding, and being peacemakers in the world. It means at times suffering unjustly and patiently for Christ, without complaint. It means silently forgiving wrongful acts or hurtful words against us, and praying for those who offend us within our hearts, so as to achieve God’s loving purposes for all of us.
Such is the way of the Cross of Christ. It is not a denial of our true selves, our true nature, our true life in God’s eyes. It is rather a denial of the sinful self, our selfish nature, our proclivity to deceptive desires and pleasures. It is a wholly positive self-denial, even a way of joyful self-sacrifice which teaches us how to forgive and to heal the many hurts that life brings. It is the way of God’s love in Christ, and in us, of bearing and healing wounds, sharing in the mystery of God’s patient work to save the world. Jesus said, “Unless a gain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). We die to ourselves in order to live in Christ and to share Christ’s life with others. All praise and glory be to Christ our crucified and risen Lord, now and always. Amen.