The cross of Christ, the Lord’s triumphant and life-giving death whereby He destroys death, is so important for us to understand and internalize as Orthodox Christians, that the Church gives special significance and specific Scriptural readings for both the weekend before the Feast and the one that follows. This Sunday after the Exaltation, the Church would have us ask ourselves, “what does the power of the cross mean for me personally, living in the world today?”
Sadly, for many in today’s secular culture, its meaning, personally and corporately, has been lost, drowned out by the priorities of our work-a-day lives, where the Church takes a backseat to so many other temporal priorities. The secular world thinks in such terms: all I experience here and now, everything I see and touch, is the extent of my existence and what is knowable, so, “eat, drink, for tomorrow, we die” (I Cor. 15:32). In part, for this reason, the world urges focus on self, ego, “me first,” even as it urges us not to deny ourselves anything; in short, our culture leads us to and encourages spiritual lethargy, spiritual death. For this reason, the keeping of the fasts and Feasts, such as this past week’s Feast of the Cross, prescribed by Christ through His Church, are vital to us and not just ‘extra’ services that can be missed if one is too busy.
A world that doesn’t believe in God and His revelation, that denies the bodily Incarnation, miraculous, and life-saving, historic events of Christ and His power is a world where there are no real consequences for evil or the darkness and violence of the evil one. It’s a world where the way to healing from passions is forgotten and we as a people go from bad to worse. It’s a world where it becomes increasingly difficult to be a true Christian, one who loves God “with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind,” (Matt. 22:37) to which we are all called; it’s not the world as God would have it and for that reason, Christ gives us the cross.
The cross is our answer to the fallen world and its hopelessness, to those who deny God and His loving calling on their lives, and to all who falter in their faith. The cross is always a reminder of the ultimate reality and relevance of the Kingdom of God for us, a reminder of Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis in the Greek)—Christ’s willing, voluntary offering of Himself to defeat sin and death on our behalf and make possible a new race of Adam that will in Him likewise conquer sin and death. In His “dying to self,” we who take up our cross to prioritize Christ and the Gospel, regain our true humanity, our God-given purpose and calling in this life.
But here’s the truth: we can’t follow Christ and become fellow partakers of His victory if we aren’t likewise willing to empty ourselves of all that’s not in keeping with Christ and His Gospel. As Christ says, we cannot serve God and mammon (Mt. 6:24). Instead, we’re called to be ‘in the world, but not of the world.’ This calling isn’t something we can just decide to forego as ‘modern’ Christians. Instead, we challenge ourselves daily to live for Christ, to submit ourselves to His will and reflect the Kingdom of God in all that we are and all that we do. In other words, we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. In this way, we are deified.
St. Paul says in baptism “we have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Well, if we’ve truly “put on Christ”, then we are Christ’s and we are to be about Christ’s work even as we are being made more and more into His likeness and further united with Him. Each of us, is, in a sense, through our action or inaction on this account, deciding for God—or—against God.
St. Paul reminds us that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, even as it is the power of God to those who are being saved (I Cor. 1:18). To the world, self-denial, even true love itself, is alien because a secular, humanistic world seeks to understand ‘love’ apart from God, the Author of love. This is why eros (lust) and pride are often confused for love and results in sexual perversion and confusion when not in accordance with God’s revealed will. Christ is the One who teaches us what love is and how to love: “We love Him because He first loved us,” St. John declares in his first Epistle (I Jn. 1:9). This Love directs us to the cross, to the ultimate sign and action of God’s love, manifested in the Incarnation, in Christ’s saving Passion, and in His calling us to share in that new life He’s made for us who have “put Him on.”
Love is, then, both sacrificial and holy; true love becomes life-giving because it further unites us with God and with each other as we learn to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ, not only outwardly in our acts, but inwardly as we’re transformed and grow in unity with Christ, as we partake of the Divine Nature (II Peter 1:4). True love means desiring for others what God desires for them. It is a far cry from the ‘virtue signaling’ and affirmation of sinful choices and lifestyles of today’s culture. But when Christ stands at the center of our lives, our priorities, He’s at the center of our love too because always, there stands the cross, which defines love!
In other words, as Romanian priest-monk Fr. Arsenie Boca exclaims, “he who makes the sign of the cross, must also be prepared to carry his cross.” When we carry our cross, we proclaim Christ’s victory inwardly and outwardly, we guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus from the demons and their vices, but we also witness to those around us the truth that His victory is for all mankind, that all are loved by God and called to holiness and new life in communion with Him. If we love, we are also willing to stand firm in proclaiming sin that which God has revealed as sin even as we point the way to repentance and healing with our own witness of the truth.
So, that we may gain the victory with Christ over this world and all that’s passing away, we too die to ego and the world, to secular demands to keep the cross and Christ’s truth hidden to ourselves. Christ calls on us to come outside ourselves, to give of ourselves, to become courageous witnesses of the life in Christ to this perishing world. Why? Because the love of God compels us, because loving Christ, we desire healing and salvation not just for ourselves but also for those whom God brings into our lives. This too is a cross, a self-denial in a world where we’re told to keep our faith to ourselves, focus only on ourselves, where the truth of Christ is an affront to the demands of godless secular humanism and hedonism.
Those who have denied themselves and taken up their cross to follow Christ gain the victory as fellow heirs of Christ’s Kingdom. This is our Lord’s great promise of love to us in today’s Gospel as He proclaims: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
We proclaim this love, this hope, to a world that no longer knows what love is or how to love, or how or why to deny themselves any gratification. We give of ourselves to build up the Church and her ministries. We give of ourselves to witness to the truth in word and deed. In taking up our cross daily, we proclaim the reality of Christ’s life and victory over sin and death. We who are struggling with our sins and persevere in that struggle, returning to Christ and bearing the fruit of repentance, bear witness to the victory of the cross. We loudly and undeniably proclaim to an otherwise hopeless world the Truth and Reality that Christ is that life; in Him is our sure hope and healing. Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae sums up this truth when he writes, “The cross is the power of Christ, which when taken up by us, can transform the world into paradise.”
So, examine your life this day. Are you truly denying yourself, taking up your cross to follow Christ? Renew your communion with Him who is Life above all else. Take up your cross, follow Christ, and know that He will be with you every step of the way. His cross will protect you and guide you. Fear God and you will not fear man. And then, we can truly affirm with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Do so and the world around you will be transformed into paradise!