Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection we glorify! (A hymn sung in place of “Holy God” in the Orthodox Liturgy on the feast of the Exultation of the Cross)
Exaltation of the Cross—A sermon
Beloved of God, as we celebrate this feast of the Exaltation of the Cross; let us consider what the Cross means for us. Today in the Gospel we read of the event of our Lord’s crucifixion. But what does this mean for us. Well, one thing that should be evident is that the Cross is a manifestation of the love of God for man. Our Lord Jesus Christ voluntarily gave Himself up to death, to a painful and shameful death of being nailed naked to the Cross. He is God, He could have avoided this, but this was God’s plan for our salvation.
When anyone does us a favor, or some good thing for us, or gives us a gift, don’t we feel indebted to that person? Don’t we feel love for that person in return for the favor done to us? Then how much more should it be so with God. When one of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, willingly suffers for us to the point of death, the death of the Cross, how can we do otherwise than return love, for love?
The Holy Apostle John the Theologian writes of this: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). “Hereby we have known love: because He laid down His life for us” (I John 3:16). “In this was manifested the love of God in us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:9-10).
So the Cross is a motivation for us to love God, and indeed we cannot help but do so. This, then, is one spiritual exercise for us: to ponder the sufferings of our Lord on the Cross. This can be done by reading the Gospel narrations on this, or the services of the Church on the Cross, like Holy Friday, the Sunday of the Cross during Great Lent and today’s feast. But there is something more to the Cross; to love God for the saving work of the Cross is one thing, but to be on a cross is something more. This is when our faith is tested. Will we endure in the time of temptation? The Elder Joseph the Younger of Vatopedi Monastery on the Holy Mountain writes very nicely about bearing a Cross in his teaching on trials. So he says:
Trials or temptations (peirasmoi) have been so named because they produce experience (peira) in those who are tried. As to their nature, they comprise all the distressing events in life, from the smallest pain to the greatest of all which is death. In a word, we call them a cross, because just as a cross tortures a man and puts him to death, so distressing things in general lay him low and destroy him. Tribulations do not have their origin in the creation that was from the beginning, but are parasitic, consequences accompanying our fallen state.…
But blessed be our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who transformed the terrible threat and conspiracy against our nature….[Through] the martyrdom of His Cross, the comprehensive cross, the whole profusion of sadness and the totality of trials—all these were transformed from then on into means and methods of salvation for us. Since then and in perpetuity, all the throngs of the righteous, all the clouds of martyrs, all the choirs of the saved and all those who will press on towards life until the end of the age will look upon their trials with gratitude as the most practical method of attaining Life. (Elder Joseph the Hesychast by Elder Joseph, pp. 66-7)
So bearing the crosses that come upon us greatly help in the process of salvation. But crosses are not only exterior, there are also interior crosses which are perhaps even more profitable for salvation. St. Innocent of Alaska writes of this:
Whoever wants to be a true disciple and follower of Jesus Christ must, without fail, bear internal crosses as well.
Internal crosses can be found at all times, and more easily than external ones. You have only to direct your attention to yourself and to examine your soul with a sense of penitence, and a thousand internal crosses will at once present themselves. For instance, consider: How did you come to be in this world? Why are you in this world at all? Do you live as you ought to live? And so on. Pay due attention to this, and you will see at first glance that, being the creation and work of the hands of the Almighty God, you exist in this world solely, with all your actions, with all your life and with your whole being, to glorify His holy and great Name. But you not only fail to glorify Him, but on the contrary you offend and dishonor Him by your sinful life. Then recollect and consider: What awaits you on the other side of the grave? On which side will you be at the time of Christ’s dread judgment, on the left or the right? (Indication to the Way of the Kingdom of Heaven, St. Innocent of Alaska, pp. 28-9)
In such a manner does St. Innocent continue to speak of internal crosses. Such reflections help in a process of purification and lulling of the passions, it is a personal repentance. But where does all this lead us? Our response of loving Christ because of His sacrifice for us on the Cross is one good thing. Then bearing the crosses that come our way is something more. Then the voluntary taking up of an interior cross of penitential prayer is again something more. But where does this lead us. Does this yet lead us to something more?
It should, it should lead us to a universal repentance, since by the acute perception of our own fallen state we also have a perception of the fallen state of mankind. So the natural response would be to pray for the salvation of others. And so if we really develop this perception and this prayer for our fellow men, then the content of our heart would be the desire for the salvation of all. Thus we would mount a cross together with Christ, we would be in Christ, and co-crucified with Christ, for the world. A spiritual child of Archimandrite Sophrony—Fr. Zachariah—expressed the opinion that the content of the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ when He was in Gethsemane was the salvation of all. And when He was crucified the content of His heart was the salvation of all. When He was buried and when He rose, the content of His heart was the salvation of all. Finally, when He ascended and sat at the right hand of the Father, the content of His heart was the salvation of all. If we also have this same content of heart, then we would be in Christ, we would be co-crucified with Him through painful prayer for the salvation of the world. Then the words of the Apostle John the Theologian would apply to us: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” (IJohn 3:14).