We live surrounded by logos. They have become almost like words, pictograms and we all know what we are seeing when we see the yellow M for a McDonalds, or the Nike Tick mark. Companies spend a lot of time and energy designing these things, to give a certain feel to their products or services. Heraldry also uses symbols to give visual identity which is associated with ideas and ideals. Royalty across Europe has made great use of the lion and the eagle. The Eastern Empire used the double-headed eagle.
Christianity has one of the best logos ever; we all wear one, as a small pendant round our necks and we make the mark across our bodies in church, some have it tattooed on their bodies. I refer, of course, to the Cross. It is not the only visual identity we bear, we also have icons, but the Cross is central to our lives, as a sign and as an example.
Now, the Cross is one of the greater paradoxes in all history. We would find it very odd if we wore hangman’s nooses as jewellery, or little replicas of a guillotine or an electric chair, yet the Cross is worn. It is actually one of the most awful deaths humanity has ever inflicted on its members. I do not need to dwell on the horrors of it but it was death by torture, performed in public as a massive deterrent to any criminal. Even the Gospels record the Cross without much detail. Everyone knew what it meant to be crucified.
One of my friends visiting an Orthodox Church recently said it was less frightening than the Catholic churches in France he was used to, with the very emotional crucifixes and the Stations of the Cross on the walls. We Orthodox concentrate far more on the resurrection and the positive aspects of redemption so we tend to give less attention to the agony and suffering, but we accept that these happened and move on to the real point. We recall the Cross for the great paradox that it represents. As St Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 1 v 22 “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
The Cross turns all our expectations on their heads; this is God, who is also fully human, suffering and showing utter love to His creatures. The Cross shows God being weak for us, it shows Him accepting the worst of deaths and doing so voluntarily. We know that Christ Himself said that He could call upon legions of angels, yet He did not, and the words of the Holy Liturgy include a reference in this regard to: “the night in which He was betrayed, or rather voluntarily gave Himself up for the life of the world”.
So, Christ surrendered to ignominy on the Cross and yet the very powers of creation were shaken by this momentous event, with the risen dead being seen in the city together with an earthquake and the darkening of the lights of heaven. God can send cataclysms and yet He dies at the hands of His creatures. “The judge is judged and suffers willingly, for the salvation and renewal of the world,” in the words of the Vespers service for this weekend.
Unlike the heterodox we do not attempt to rationalise or construct an intellectual framework for the Cross and all it means. We venerate it as a vehicle for salvation. We kiss the Cross, we honour it and accept that we cannot know its entire story and the depths of the secrets of God revealed therein.
The Cross is also called life-giving. This is not just because it gives eternal life, as I used to think, it brings life now. When the Empress St Helena found the three crosses the Church tested them to identify the Saviour’s Cross by laying each on a dead man. The Lord’s Cross brought him back to life and it also cured a sick woman.
The Cross itself is a sign and a vehicle of the working of the Holy Spirit. Like all manner of sanctified items the Cross itself is holy. So we venerate this great sign of Christ’s saving work, and, although some will sneer and claim that there are enough fragments to make a forest, we all know that relics were and are divided and shared. It is a tremendous thrill to venerate a fragment of the Holy Cross. The fact is that we celebrate not the wood, but the grace of God that is transmitted by this and other relics. We truly honour the Cross as the vehicle of our salvation and we can think of it in this way. Deuteronomy 21 teaches: “Cursed is he that hangs on a tree.” St Paul takes up this theme in his letter to the Galatians (Chapter 3), commenting that Christ took our curse upon Himself by embracing death. In this sacrifice He made it possible for us to enter into a full relationship with God.
We glory and rejoice then, not in the blood and the pain; nor in the vileness of the cruel torture, but in the great love God has shown us in all of this. Father Gregory talked on Wednesday about how the Hebrew word HESED, which is usually translated as mercy means so much more. It means the steadfast loyalty, loving kindness and trustworthiness of God in His saving Love both for His covenanted people and through them for the whole Cosmos. He shows that HESED on the Cross above all else.
This is a greater love than any of us can imagine. We should respond with the most generous response we can give. Some of us may be called to face sufferings, pain, privation, and even sometimes to walk in doubt, but, however our lives are shaped by God, we must truly surrender them and all that we are, to Him. We know that beyond any suffering there is the joy of God, the blessings of glorification whereby we participate in God’s energies and the blessedness of the resurrection to eternal life.
So as we advance towards Pascha and the celebration of Joy, let us give thanks for all Christ has done for us, and venerate His Cross. To Him be glory for ever.