Every religion and every ideology has its own symbol. For the Buddhist it is the lotus flower. Judaism has the Star of David and Islam the crescent. In this century the communists were known for the hammer and the sickle and the Nazis the swastika. In our day the Democrats have the donkey and the republicans the elephant.
Given that background some people are surprised to learn that in the beginning Christianity had no recognized symbol. In the earliest days, Christians recognized each other by declaring “Jesus is Lord” In similar fashion, we greet each other by saying “Christ is in our midst!” or “Christ is among us!” It took several generations for the Cross to become the universal symbol of our Faith. If you visit the catacombs of Rome, you will discover the crude drawings on the wall made by the earliest Christians in that city as they retreated underground during times of persecution. They drew pictures of Bible stories and they drew the fish, which stood as a secret anagram for the Greek word IXTHUS, which means “Jesus Christ, Son of God.” But in those early days they didn’t draw the Cross. That would come later.
The Cross did not become the common symbol of Christianity until the second century, when the custom of making the Sign of the Cross on the forehead arose. By the time of Emperor Constantine, the Cross had become well-established as “the sign” of the Christian Faith.
In some ways, it is a strange symbol because crucifixion was such a terrible and horrifying torture and form of execution, one which was much hated and feared in the ancient world. Unlike modern methods of capital punishment that are designed to produce a quick death, crucifixion was meant to guarantee that the person on the cross would die a slow, agonizing death, sometimes hanging on the cross until his bloated body fell to the ground.
Over the centuries, many unbelievers have sneered at Christianity for worshipping a man who died on a cross. The German philosopher Nietzche called Christianity a religion for weaklings. He mocked the idea of a God who could be crucified. Nietzche was not alone in his scorn for Christianity. There were many before him and many who came after him, even to our day, who criticize and scorn the Faith which we profess and proclaim. To the world, the Cross is a symbol of shame; to the devout Christian, the Cross is THE symbol of salvation.
So what exactly does the Cross mean to the world? There are three answers to that question. The first answer is this: the world is offended by the Cross. “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The Jews “stumbled” at the Cross because most of them were looking for a political leader who would deliver them from the heel of the Roman Empire, whose rulers governed ruthlessly and with an iron fist. Jesus dealt with this misunderstanding several times in His ministry, which is why he repeatedly told people not to spread the news of His miracles. He didn’t want to start a political movement that would overthrow Rome. He intended to start a spiritual revolution that would overthrow Satan’s power. At one point, a group of people came to Jesus and attempted to make Him king by acclamation. He sent them away because He had no time or use for such things. He knew that seeking political power would be a distraction to His mission.
The Jews simply could not imagine a crucified Messiah. It is difficult for us to understand what crucifixion meant to the Jews. Today, we have sanitized the Cross and domesticated it. We gold-plate it and wear it around our necks. We put it on earrings and other jewelry and on our stationery. We hang ornate crosses in our sanctuaries and temples and place them on top of our steeples and domes. We build churches in the shape of the Cross. All of this would have been unthinkable in the first century. So terrible was a crucifixion that the word was not even spoken in polite company. That is why the Jews were scandalized by the Cross. They could not conceive of a God who would allow His Son to die that way.
The Greeks were another matter. They didn’t practice crucifixion so they didn’t have the problems that the Jews did. They tended to look to philosophy as the answer to the deepest problems of life. The notion of man hanging on a cross to save the world was just utter nonsense to them.
The world has not changed its opinions much in two thousand years. It still doesn’t understand the Cross. The Cross, and all that it entails for the Christian, is either repugnant or laughable for a lot of people.
The second answer to the question, what does the Cross mean to the world is: the world is judged by the Cross. The Cross strikes at the heart of human pride. It brings humanity to its knees, and confronts us with the reality that in sacrificial and voluntary self-giving comes redemption and salvation. There is nothing more powerful than the power of the Cross. There is no doctrine harder to accept than the doctrine of the Cross.
The Cross stands as a guidepost showing the way to a better life. Not the life of this world but of the next. The Cross stands as a sentinel proclaiming that we must go the right way, or else we will be in trouble. Many people cling steadfastly to their own self-righteousness and then wonder why so many things go wrong in their life. The Cross stands in judgment over the sinful pride of the human race. Just as Christ was stripped of His robe before He died, even so must we be stripped of ours.
When Christ died on the Cross, he didn’t die alone. Two thieves died with Him. We often focus on the thief that cried out, “Remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” (Luke 23:43). We know that man was saved because Jesus told him, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). But let us not forget there was another man hanging beside Jesus. He cursed and swore and blasphemed the Son of God. He died as he had lived, a wretched sinner, unforgiven. One thief saved, that none would despair. One thief lost, that none would presume. The cross that saved the one would doom the other.
The third and final answer to the question, “What does the Cross mean to the world?” is: the world is saved by the Cross. What men call foolishness, God ordains as the instrument of salvation. What men mock, God raises up as the only means of salvation.
Let us go back for a moment to the Old Testament, to the Book of Numbers and the time of Moses and the People of Israel and their wandering in the wilderness. After 40 years in the desert, they were tired of the heat and the sand and the long marches from one place to another. Even the manna seemed disgusting to them. Finally, they had had enough. God heard their complaint and sent fiery snakes among the people. Many were bitten and many died. Panic swept across the tribes and they came to Moses and said, “We were stupid to complain after all that God has done for us. Please pray to the Lord that He would remove these poisonous snakes.” When Moses prayed to the Lord, he was instructed to make a bronze snake and put it on a tall pole where the Israelites could see it. Then God said, “Anyone who has been bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” And that’s what happened. Anyone who looked upon the serpent lived. Those who did not, died. That is how it works with the Cross. When we look upon it and have faith, we live. But if we do not look upon, if we do not believe, then we die.
The Cross is the heart of the Gospel and the Gospel is the reason for our existence. We have nothing to boast about apart from the Cross of Christ. We cannot lay claim to any special intelligence or any special merit or any special outward beauty that recommends us to God. St Paul put it so eloquently when he said in Romans 3:23, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” No difference! What he is saying is that there is no difference between me and you. No difference between a judge and a drug addict. No difference between a prostitute and a refined graduate of Vassar College. No difference between a gang member and the most devout and upright member of the Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace. Apart from the grace of God poured forth from the Cross, we would all be going to hell.
The Church gives us this day during Great Lent to contemplate and remember the Cross. Lest we forgot what we will be commemorating on Holy and Good Friday, let me provide you with a bit of a refresher in the way of a medical description of death by crucifixion: Imagine yourself At Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. The cross is placed on the ground and you are thrown backward with your shoulder against the wood. The Roman Legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of your wrist. Once he has found it, he drives a heavy, square wrought iron nail through your wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action, being careful not to pull your arms too tightly, allowing you some flex and movement. The cross is then lifted into place and fastened onto the upright set into the hill.
Your left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving your knees flexed. You are now crucified. As you slowly sag down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shoots along your fingers and up your arms to explode in your brain. You push yourself upward to avoid this stretching torment. But now you feel the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves of your feet. As the arms fatigue, cramps sweep through your muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push yourself up to breathe. Air can be drawn into the lungs but not exhaled. You fight to raise yourself up in order to get even one small breath.
Now come hours of unending torture: cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation; searing pain as tissue and skin is torn from your back as you move up and down against the raw timber. Then another agony begins: a deep, crushing pain within your chest as your heart cavity fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.
It is now almost over: the loss of fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump thick, heavy blood into the tissues; the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. Finally, you feel the chill of death creeping through your tissues. You welcome its approach. Not a very pretty way to die, is it? I tell you this so that when we come to the day of Holy and Good Friday, we will have no misconceptions at all about what took place on that day. But the Cross means more than physical suffering and death.
The Cross is essentially a confrontation with sin. The Cross means that our old life is over and a new life has been given to us. It means that we make a decisive break with sin and set out to become true disciples of Christ. The Cross is God’s way of saying, “You can have your sin or you can have my Son, but you cannot have both. You must make a choice.”
To die to the world means that the things that used to seem so important - the drive for money, the compulsion to power, the need to dominate, the desire to win at any cost, the lust for sexual fulfillment, the desperate search for the approval of others – no longer rule your life. You live by a new standard and that means saying goodbye to the old way of life and embracing joyfully and decisively the new way.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). Those words mean exactly what they say. Unless you deny yourself and enter by the way of the Cross, you are not a genuine disciple of Christ.
As Orthodox Catholic Christians, we must lift up the Cross every day because it is the only message we have. The Cross is a message of hope and promise; of salvation and deification; of renewal and redemption. All around us are people who carry a heavy burden of sin and helplessness. They are sick in their hearts from the burden they carry. You can see it in their eyes, read it in their faces, and hear it in their voices. They long for something better, they wonder, even if they do not admit outwardly, how they can be free of their burdens and sins. Where can they go? The Church has the answer, and the answer is found in the Cross of Christ.
When Jesus said: “I am the light of the world” and “I am the door,” He was speaking of the Cross. You cannot go to heaven unless you enter by way of the Cross.
Is it any wonder that St. Paul gloried in the Cross. It is God’s plan to save us from disaster. Let me ask you a personal question. What sin is keeping you from God today? Is it anger? Is it lust? Is it a heart of unbelief? Is it an addiction to sex, drugs, or alcohol? It is an uncontrollable temper? Is it cheating? Is it stealing? Is it adultery? Is it abortion? Is it pride? Is it greed?
Let me tell you the best news you have ever heard. It does not matter what your “sin” is. It does not matter how many sins you have piled up in your life. It does not matter how guilty you think you are. It does not matter what you did this past week. It does not matter how bad you have been. It does not matter how many skeletons rattle around in your closet. The Cross is God’s answer to your deepest needs and anxieties.
That is what theologians mean when they talk about the “finished work” of Jesus Christ. When Jesus cried out from the Cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30), He meant the penalty for sin had been paid in full. What Jesus accomplished in His death was so awesome, so total, so complete, that it could never be repeated. Not even by Jesus Himself.
All that we believe as Orthodox Catholic Christians is wrapped up in the Cross of Christ. It is the central truth of the Christian Faith. The Cross is our message, our hope, our confidence. It is our badge of honor and the emblem of suffering and shame. Though the world despises the Cross, we rally to it and celebrate it and revere it. In this sign, and this sign alone, we will conquer. Therefore, let us love the Cross, adore the Cross, preach the Cross, stand by the Cross, and never be ashamed of the Cross. Hold it high as the banner of our salvation. Lift it up as the hope of the world. There is no power greater than the power of the Cross. It is the only power that can lift men and women out of their sins, release them from their condemnation, give them new life, and set their feet in a new direction. Christianity is supremely the religion of the Cross. Though the world may not want to hear it, we must preach it over and over, and then urge men and women everywhere to run to the Cross of Christ. When we preach Christ crucified, rebel souls will lay down their weapons and join us in worshipping Him as Savior and Lord. Someday, in heaven, we will sing together: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” This is our message to the world – that Jesus Christ died on Good Friday and on Easter Sunday He rose from the dead.
We adore you, O Christ, and we praise You; for by Your holy Cross You have redeemed the world.