Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Digital Books

Previous // Contents // Next

BASIC DOGMATIC TEACHING

An Orthodox Handbook

by Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos

 

Chapter 24 - The Precious Cross

1. The foreshadowing of the Cross in the Old Testament

As we know, the Orthodox Church bestows a special honour to the precious Cross, whose mention She has discovered even in the Old Testament.

The Fathers of the Church do not stop at the foreshadowing of Christ in the person of Adam and of the Holy Virgin in the person of Eve. They relate the "wood" (tree) in the Garden of Eden - which had become the symbol of the catastrophic Fall - to the "wood" of the life-giving Cross, which became the symbol of victory against the Serpent.

The life-giving power of the Cross also presents itself in the description of Moses' staff, which turned the bitter water sweet (Exod.15:25). The Holy Bible further mentions : "Was not water made sweet from wood in order that his strength might be known?" (Wisdom Sirach 38:5).

The Apostle Paul makes reference to this point and underlines that when the Israelites drank from that water, they drank of a "spiritual drink", which sprang "from the spiritual rock, which followed them"; and that "that rock was Christ", he added (1 Cor.10:4).

Thus, when we honour the precious Cross, we do not drink of the "bitter water" - we do not refer to the instrument of death; rather, we taste of the "spiritual drink", which springs from the "spiritual rock" - from the victor over death and triumphant Lord.  This event is a source of strength and power for all the faithful - against the devil, to whom belonged the power of death (Hebr.2:14) - as well as against death itself - man's final enemy (1 Cor.15:26).

We also see the power of the precious Cross in the bronze serpent that Moses had lifted up.  According to God's instruction, whosoever looked upon that serpent was cured of poisonous snake bites (Num.21:8). That bronze serpent is characterized as a "symbol of salvation" (Wisd.Solom.16,6) which undoubtedly draws its strength from the same source that animates the Precious Cross: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:14-15). There is no doubt that it is the same symbol of victory and triumph that Ezekiel had also seen...

He said that he saw a man in splendid attire, who gave the command that everyone be given "the mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and have been afflicted over all the lawless acts that happen in their midst"  (Ezek.9:4. Cmp.Revel.7:3-4).

With all the above it has become obvious that the foreshadowings in the Old Testament did not only refer to the event of Christ's crucifixional sacrifice, but also to that very "sign" of the Cross - the "sign of the Son of man" which would again appear as a banner of victory during the triumphant advent of the Lord. (Matth.24:30).

 

2. The power of the Cross

Rejoice, o life-bearing cross - the invincible trophy of piety, the gate of Paradise, the support of the faithful, the enclosure of the Church - by which the curse was dispelled and abolished, the power of death trodden down, and by which we were lifted from the earth to the heavens; o invincible weapon, opponent of demons, glory of holy martyrs, truly an adornment, a harbor of salvation, who granted the world the greatest mercy."

This hymn of Cross-Venerating Sunday very characteristically expresses the place of the Precious Cross in the life of the Church and each faithful.

The Cross is no longer a symbol of death and shame (Deut.21:23), but a source of life everlasting. By the Cross the curse disappeared and was abolished and the archon of death conquered - that is, the devil. Consequently, it comprises the invincible weapon of the Church. It is the formidable opponent of demons, it is the glory of the martyrs and the Saints of the Church, the harbor of salvation and the adornment of the faithful.

I have hearkened, Lord, to the hearing of the dynasty of Your Cross, for with it, Paradise was opened", chants our Church.

The Cross of the Lord expresses the limitless love of God and at the same time, the limitless value of mankind.  There is not greater expression of God's love than the Cross, just as there is no greater elevation of mankind than the event of the Cross (John 15:13; Rom.5:8). So great is the value of mankind in the eyes of God, that for the sake of his salvation, God Himself was lifted onto the Cross. We can consequently understand why the Cross is the safe guarantee of God's limitless compassion, as well as man's outspokenness before the throne of God.

Christ's death on the Cross signifies the death of the old world and His resurrection the commencement of the new age of metamorphosis - that is, the period of salvation of the entire world.

The Apostle Paul mentions that through the Cross the reconciliation between man and God came about, and that in Christ a "new man" was created.  He characteristically says that "through the Cross" the Lord put enmity to death (Ephes.2:15-16); that through the Blood of Christ we have "boldness to enter the Holies" ( 10,19). In this manner, we could see the Cross as the center of God's entire new creation.

" But Jesus Himself answered them, saying, The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified", in reference to His being lifted up onto the Cross (John 12:23).

When we study the sacred text carefully, we shall see that the Lord actually characterizes His ascent on the Cross as an elevation, as a glory, as a triumph against sin and death:

"24Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. 25 He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.27 Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour? But for this purpose did I come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify Your name. Then a voice came from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it and will glorify it again. 29 Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, An angel has spoken to Him. 30 Jesus answered and said, This voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. 32 And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.33 This He said, signifying by what death He would die." (John12:24-33. see also John13:31-38, Luke24:26).

These words of the Lord do not only prove the reality of the passion and the agony of the Cross; they also present the event of the crucifixion as a "lifting up" and a glorification of "the Son of Man" - as the starting point and the centre of glory of the human race.

It is not an weak, helpless man upon the Cross; it is the Godman Jesus - He Who descends into Hades as victor and and triumphant conqueror, Who abolishes the realm of death and Hades in order free man from the bonds of death and to induct him into the realm of life.

The Cross therefore and the death of Christ do not comprise a weakness, but a strength. The death of the Lord is characterized in the Holy Bible as a "sleeping lion", which conserves its formidable strength, both during sleep and after it. This is the reason no-one dares to wake it: "When you reclined, you slept like a lion and like a whelp. Who will rouse him? " (Gen.49:9).  " Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out." (John12:31), as Christ had said, thus placing the event of the Cross at the centre of a universal tribunal. He rendered the Cross a measure and gnomon of triumph or condemnation of mankind - depending on each person's stance towards the Cross.  As has been said, in the persons of the two robbers (next to the Cross) all of mankind is represented and judged: not on the basis of their actions, but based on the dispositions of people towards the crucified Godman.  The grateful robber confesses Christ. He does not regard Him as a fellow-sufferer like us humans, that is, as a robber.  He confesses Him as King, as Lord and God.  That is why he invoked His mercy.  By doing so, the grateful robber becomes a true theologian and saint - the first saint of our Church - showing all of us the path of true spirituality, the path towards salvation, which is the path of the Cross.

The ungrateful robber perceives the Lord as a common mortal and His Cross as a symbol of disdain and mockery. That is why he even "blasphemed Him" (Luke 23:29).  He hoped for nothing from the Lord. He had always been a robber from the past, but he did not want to depend his salvation on Him, Who was raised upon the Cross in order to attract all grateful robbers to Him.

This wondrous truth is expressed in an unprecedented manner by a hymn of our Church: 

"In the midst of two robbers, Your Cross was found to be a balance of righteousness: the one (robber) being led down into Hades, burdened by his blasphemy, and the other (robber), relieved of offenses, being led up towards knowledge of Theology; Christ our God, glory to You."

 

3. The sign of the Cross

When we make reference to the Cross of the Lord, we do not refer only to the event of the Crucifixion, but also to the precious wood of the Cross. Because, as Saint John of Damascus characteristically mentions, by being in contact with the Precious Body of the Lord, the wood of the Cross is also sanctified. That is why honour and veneration also befits the Cross.  "Not only the reference to the Cross and the Mystery" says Saint Gregory Palamas; "but also the form itself is divine and deserving of veneration, for it is a venerable, sanctifying and finalizing seal for all the wondrous and inexpressible gifts that come from God." 

It is necessary to underline this, because - as the Apostle mentions - there are the "enemies of the Cross" (Philip.3:18) These "enemies of the Cross" exist in our times also; for this reason, it must be clarified why the Cross of the Lord is not a shame (cmp.Deut.21:23) but on the contrary, a "boast" (Gal.6:14) - and this, as we said, does not refer only to the event itself, but also to the Precious Cross.

The Cross is an image of the crucified Christ, and it draws its power and its grace from the passions of Christ.

This is the reason that sealing with the sign of the Cross is the external sign of all -without exception- the sacred mysteries of the Church, by which man's salvation is realized.  This is certainly not about some kind of magical instrument; it is about the life-giving force of the divine energies. This force is not transmitted by the sign of the Cross per se; it is the fact of the Cross's association with the Person of Christ.  Besides, this is what applied in the case of the bronze serpent: "7For the one who turned was not saved because of what was beheld, but because of you, the savior of all. 8And in this also you convinced our enemies that you are the one who rescues from every evil." (Wisd.Solom.16:7-8).

The Israelites had not comprehended this truth which is why they sought to bestow worship on the bronze serpent, when worship belongs to God alone.  For this reason, "4He removed the high places and smashed all the steles and utterly destroyed the groves and the bronze snake that Moyses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel had been making incense offerings to it, and he called it Neesthan." (4 Kings 18:4).

The sign of the Cross expresses the presence of the Lord in the life of the faithful and the Church, and comprises the symbol of victory and triumph over sin and death (Ephes.2:16). Thus, the sign of the Precious Cross is justly referred to as the symbol of victory and triumph over the devil and over the works of the devil: 

"Lord, You have given us Your Cross as the weapon against the devil; for he shudders and shakes, unable to behold its power, because it raises the dead and has also abolished death; for this, we venerate Your Burial and Resurrection."   (Verses from the Sunday Laudatory Hymns, Tone A).

The Precious Cross is the "sign" of salvation of God's children - the "sign of the Son of man"  (Matth.24:30).

This is the reason that John's Book of Revelation mentions that during the end times, salvation will be secured for those who will bear the sign of the Cross:

"Then out of the smoke locusts came upon the earth. And to them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. They were commanded not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green thing, or any tree, but only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads." (Rev.9:3-4. Cmp.also 7:2-4; Ezek.9:4-6).

Following all the above, every Orthodox faithful justifiably prays: "By the power of Your Cross, o Christ, fasten my mind in praising and glorifying Your salvific Resurrection."

The sign of the Cross is not a latter-day custom by Christians. It can be found in the Apostolic Tradition. It is testified by Justin Martyr the saint (150 A.D.) and by Tertullian (200 A.D.). The latter in fact says characteristically: "We Christians, in all our travels and moves, in every departure and return, when we put on our garments and shoes, when we bathe and when we sit at the table, when we light our lamp, when we are seated or laying down, in all of our actions in our daily lives in general, we make the sign of the Cross".  This custom, he continues, "has its beginnings in the Tradition of the Church; it was toned up through customary practice, and should be preserved faithfully."

 

4. How we sign ourselves with the sign of the Cross

With the sign of the Cross, the entire theology of the Church and the entire essence of the Orthodox faith is depicted.  The Orthodox Christian joins 3 fingers together (image 1 below), he then touches them against his forehead first (image 2), then against his abdomen (image 3), and finally, he touches his shoulders horizontally, from right (image 4) to left (image 5).

                

With the three joined fingers on the forehead we reflect and confess our faith in the One, Triadic God. When we place them on our abdomen, we do so as a representation of the Son, Who was born of the Virgin Mary.  When, finally, we touch our shoulders, we do so as a representation of the Holy Spirit, which is characterized as "the arm of the Lord" (John 12:38) and as  "power from on high" (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8).

With the remaining 2 fingers joined together (image 1) in preparing to make the sign of the Cross, we represent the incarnation of Christ and the inseparable union of His two natures, thanks to which human nature was cured and raised to the heights of Theosis (deification).

 

5. The armor of the Cross

But the sign of the Cross is also the testimony of the new life on the part of the person who has been reborn, "in Christ".

With the sign of the Cross, we "seal" the main members of the body with a protective wall and thus dedicate them to God, in order to render them instruments for Christ and the Holy Trinity. We seal our mind, our heart, and all our strength and we express that dedication of our selves even more intensely together with the phrase:  "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

With the sign of the Cross, finally, we become participants in the passions and the Resurrection of Christ; we mortify the old self and everything that has to do with the works of the devil, and we are raised up together with Christ into a new life. "The Cross of the Lord signifies the abolishment of sin", as Saint Gregory Palamas says characteristically. "This is why one of the God-bearing fathers, when asked by an unfaithful person if he believes in the Crucified One, the saint replied 'Yes - the One Who crucified sin'..."

From all the above, we can understand why the Cross is a true suit of armor for a Christian - Christ's suit of armor - a formidable weapon, which the demons are terrified of.

This is why we Orthodox Christians make the sign of the Cross in every circumstance: when we pray, when we go to sleep, when we wake up, when we begin a project, and when we complete it. When we depart for a journey, when we pass outside a sacred Temple... generally, in all our life.

The Precious Cross is not - as we said - a magical medium at the disposal of man. An inner participation is imperative also. First of all, we must sign our body with the sign of the Cross visibly, not negligently, and in accordance with the order of our Church:  With the three fingers joined together so that it will be as though the Cross itself were touching us.

This sacred sign must furthermore be accompanied by absolute faith in the Holy Trinity and the fact of Christ's Incarnation, as well as in His crucifixional death and His life-giving Resurrection. In other words, faith in all of the salvific dogmas of our Church, which we proclaim with the sign of the Cross.

An what is more, it must be accompanied by the absolute hope in God's inexpressible love and mercy, but also by our irrevocable decision to crucify and abolish our own sinful self, and to accept God's grace in order to hereafter consciously live a renovated life and an inner metamorphosis.

 

Previous // Contents // Next

Article published in English on: 21-12-2013.

Last update: 21-12-2013.

UP