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Exalt the Cross by Ascending It
A Sermon on the Exaltation of the Cross
My brothers and sisters, we celebrate today the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of Christ, the feastday of our monastery and the second of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church year. It is remarkable that at the outset of the Church new year, not a single day passes between the afterfeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos and the forefeast of the Exaltation of the Cross. This is by no means any mere happenstance — for our salvation begins with the Mother of God, and in her with mankind’s willingness to, at long last, finally show humble obedience to the will of God. And — since true obedience is always “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17) — the Mother of God leads us immediately to the love of God; that is, she leads us to the foot of the Cross.
The Cross is the ultimate answer to all of mankind’s greatest questions. Who is God? What is love? What is the meaning and purpose of our life in this world, and how are we to come to terms with the inevitability of our death?
But though we may know — in an abstract and intellectual sense — that the Cross is the answer to all such questions, nevertheless this answer might often seem somehow to be missing as we go about our daily lives. We may know that it is out there, somewhere, and yet we are unable to keep it always before the eyes of our heart, we are unable to make our own its promise to be — in the words of the festal hymnody we have just heard — the “guide of the blind, physician of the ailing, resurrection of all the dead.” In other words, we find ourselves very much in need of this present feastday.
But, my brothers and sisters, we cannot simply sit idly by and wait for a real spiritual life to arrive, served to us on a silver platter. Our faith is not just another of the products of consumerist culture, but something for which we ourselves must strive with all our hearts. If we find that the power of the Cross is missing from our lives, then we must become like St. Helen and actively seek it out, laying aside the cares of this life in order to set out on pilgrimage in search of “the one thing needful” (cf. Luke 10:42).
What does this mean, and how are we to accomplish it? Let us listen to the words of St. Theophan the Recluse:
When the Lord was taken down from the Cross, the Cross remained on Golgotha, and then it was thrown into the pit that was in that place, where this instrument of execution was usually thrown, together with other refuse. Soon Jerusalem was razed and all of its edifices were leveled to the ground. The pit containing the Cross of Christ was also filled over. When the pagans rebuilt the city (the Jews were forbidden to come near the place where it was), it happened that on the place where the Cross of Christ was hidden, they placed an idol of Venus, the pagan Goddess of fornication and all manner of lusts. This is what the enemy suggested to them. This is how it is with our inner cross. When the enemy destroys the spiritual order in the soul, this is our mental Jerusalem, and then the spiritual cross is thrown down from the Golgotha of the heart and is covered over with the garbage of the affections and lusts. Lustful self-pleasure then rises like a tower over all our inner peace, and everything in us bows down to it and fulfills its commands until grace shines upon us, inspiring us to cast down the idol and lift up the cross of self-crucifixion.
On this feastday, the Precious Cross is brought out into the center of every Orthodox church in the world, and we the faithful come and prostrate ourselves before it as we sing hymns glorifying the Son of God Who was crucified for our sakes. And it is both right and necessary for us to do so! But as we each approach the Cross let us consider whether we are perhaps drawing near to it with our bodies, even as we flee desperately from its presence in our lives. Let us consider whether we perhaps honor and glorify the Cross with our lips, even as we do absolutely everything in our power to avoid “the suffering of death” through which such “glory and honor” always come (cf. Heb. 2:9).
My brothers and sisters, Christianity is not a spectator sport! Despite what the Western theologians and televangelists preach, the Cross is not something that Christ endured on His own so that we ourselves might escape from it. On the contrary! The Cross is something that Christ endured precisely so that He might be with us, everywhere and at all times and in all things. Even in suffering. Even in death. Through the Cross Christ descended even into the depths of hell itself, in order to fulfill the promise He spoke to us through the psalmist:
If I go up into heaven, Thou art there; if I go down into hades, Thou art present there.
If I take up my wings toward the dawn, and make mine abode in the uttermost parts of the sea
Even there shall Thy hand guide me, and Thy right hand shall hold me.
And I said: Surely darkness shall tread me down, and the night shall be turned into light in my delight.
For darkness will not be darkness with Thee, and night shall be bright as the day; as is the darkness thereof, even so shall the light thereof be. (Psalm 138:7-11)
The Cross is nothing other than the union of the unutterably transcendent God with us, His beloved and wayward children, even and especially amidst the most wretched, pitiful, and depraved conditions into which our sins have cast us. But as great and awesome a mystery as this undoubtedly is, it nevertheless will avail us nothing if it is not, in fact, a union. Christ sacrificed everything to be with us… but will we choose to be with Him?
My brothers and sisters, if we wish to truly bow down before the Cross, if we wish to truly exalt it on high on this great and holy day, then we must become willing to do so “in spirit and in truth” (cf. John 4:24): that is, we ourselves must becoming willing to ascend it. There is and can be no other path to God than this. The Lord Jesus Christ meant it when He said: “If any will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it” (Mat. 16:24-25).
This is indeed a hard saying. It is as the blessed Fr. Seraphim (Rose) once wrote:
No wonder, then, that it is hard to be a Christian — it is not hard, it is impossible. No one can knowingly accept a way of life which, the more truly it is lived, leads the more surely to one’s own destruction. And that is why we constantly rebel, try to make life easier, try to be half-Christian, try to make the best of both worlds. We must ultimately choose — our felicity lies in one world or the other, not in both.
God give us the strength to pursue the path to crucifixion; there is no other way to be a Christian.
In our moments of doubt or of weakness, we might find ourselves asking: “Why? Why does God demand so much of us? Why could He not have given us some easier way?” But if we really mean it when we ask such questions — that is, if we truly desire the answers, and do not simply wish to complain — then all we must do is listen to these words of St. Isaac the Syrian:
But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son over to death for its sake.“ This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself. Yea, if He had had anything more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own. Because of His great love for us it was not His pleasure to do violence to our freedom (although He is able to do so), but He chose that we should draw near to Him by the love of our understanding.
The God of love has laid down His life for us on the Cross, and He offers us that same life freely and unstintingly. That we must lay down our own lives in order to receive His is not some matter of harsh justice or arbitrary whim; it is simply a matter of love. The answer to all our questions and all our doubts is simply this: “This is My commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).
But let us also not forget that when Christ spoke these words to us, He also said: “These things have I spoken unto you, that My joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11). For even Christ Himself “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). To the world, the Cross is misery and shame and defeat; but for us Christians, the Cross is joy and glory and victory, because it is while hanging on the Cross that we truly become one with Christ.
And so, my brothers and sisters, when we come face to face with the Cross in our lives — whether in the form of trials and temptations, or of assaults from our sins and our passions, or of the scorn and derision of the unbelieving world — let us not become distressed, or confused, or disheartened. It is not a sign that God has forgotten or abandoned us, or that something has somehow gone terribly wrong. On the contrary, let us instead rejoice and give most fervent thanks, for it is the greatest of gifts and the holiest of opportunities which God is offering us: the chance to truly learn to love, the chance to truly become a Christian, the chance to truly be like Him. “For,” in the words of St. Paul, “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18).
Let us not forget this great truth, of which both the world and we ourselves are so much in need! Let us recall the example set for us by the holy, glorious and right-victorious martyrs, who converted the unbelieving world not simply through their deaths, but above all through the joy with which they freely and courageously went to their deaths. Through this they bore witness to the reality that Christ, the last Adam Who truly makes all things new (cf. Rev. 21:5), has healed the curse of the tree by the Tree of Cross, and has made even death itself the doorway to Paradise. May God therefore grant to each one of us also such joy and freedom and courage, as we ourselves on this great and holy day renew our struggle to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow Him. For truly, “through the Cross joy has come to all the world.” Amen.