Misunderstanding the Cross

Homily 453 – 3rd Great Lent – Exaltation of the Cross
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
April 4, 2021
Epistle: (311) Hebrews 4:14-5:6
Gospel: (37) Mark 8:34-9:1

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

Very few objects are more central to the Christian faith than the Cross. We hear of the Cross often – enough to perhaps become desensitized to the meaning and significance of it.

Trying to reflect on all the implications of the Cross would take more time than we have, certainly. But there are a few things about the Cross that deserve some special attention.

We often hear that on the Cross, Christ was punished instead of us. It is understandable, particularly with the advent of the theology of John Calvin and other protestant reformers, how that might be accepted.

The Orthodox Church disagrees with that assessment, though. To the Church, there is a key element of the Cross that blows that theory out of the water.

That element is the voluntary nature of Christ’s death on the Cross.

For that voluntary ascent of the Cross by Christ, which we find throughout our hymnography, and our poetic referral to the Cross as life-giving or life-creating, really tells us that the Cross was not about punishment.

To the Romans and perhaps to the Jewish leadership, the Cross was indeed punishment, and certainly wasn’t expected to give life – it was expected to end it. To take life, not establish it.

God used this instrument not as a tool of punishment and death, but as an instrument of reconciliation and life.

Look at the parallel, what we call the “type” or prefigurement, of the Cross – the lifting of the brass serpent on the pole by Moses, which cured those who gazed upon it. It brought life.

Earlier when Joseph was sold into slavery – providing life.

Even earlier, when Noah and his family entered the ark – providing life.

Adam and Eve in the garden of Life ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and were banished lest they partake of the fruit of the tree of life.

The Cross is that tree of life.

The Kontakion we sang a moment ago reveals this to us – the flaming sword that guarded the gates of Eden has been mysteriously quenched by the wood of the Cross. Enter again into Paradise!

Perhaps it is worth asking the question – if the Cross isn’t punishment, and it isn’t transactional, then what is actually happening here? Why does the Cross have this role in our relationship with God?

To properly understand the role of the Cross, we may need to roll back the chronology of the events of the crucifixion a few hours. Back to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Christ prays to the Father: If it is possible that this cup – that is, the Cross – be removed, that would be my choice, nevertheless, not my choice but yours, Father.

And with those words, repeated three times, under the immense weight of voluntary death in obedience to the Father, to the point of sweating blood – the human ego was restored to its rightful place in the order of creation.

Adam and Eve placed the ego above everything – Christ restores it to the proper relationship in humanity.

Like Jacob’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, where a Father is willing to sacrifice his true son as an offering to the Lord, the Father is willing to sacrifice his Son, to restore fallen humanity.

In that restoration, in the Cross, recall the words of St. Paul – we are bought with a price. Christ recognizes this ahead of time – He offers to God the prayer that we, humanity, have been given to Christ.

And He no longer condemns us. He shows us the way – denial of self. Our own ascent of our own cross. We may think of our cross as a burden we are expected to endure – but that isn’t the case.

Our Cross is the same as the Cross of Christ. It is the sacrifice of our very selves. Our Cross is the sacrifice of our will, our desires, our ego – everything that comprises what we know to be us.

In the same way that Christ gave the pathway to life by the sacrifice of self on the Cross, so too will we find that same pathway through the same method.

Christ reveals to us through the entirety of His life and ministry on Earth that true life is found in self-denial. Christ denied His Divinity – He set Divinity aside – and became like us, Human.

What of the Father? What about divine judgment and divine retribution?

Because of the Cross, we now belong to Christ. So to judge us, the Father sees Christ, and Christ reminds the Father – You gave these to me. When You see them, You now see me.

And I don’t condemn them.

We are bought with a price. That price isn’t the death of Christ on the Cross. That price is the death of human will, human ego, human hubris.

With that death, we are given life. And through the Cross, joy has come into all the world.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!