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The Way of the Cross
A Sermon on the Sunday After Exaltation
My brothers and sisters, we stand together today in the presence of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of Christ! The Holy Church commands us to display the Cross not on the Feast of the Exaltation alone, but also during the entirety of the afterfeast — for truly, as St. Isaac the Syrian writes, “the Cross is the door to mysteries,” and it is not possible for us to comprehend such mysteries in a brief amount of time. So let us take advantage of this opportunity which the Holy Church is giving us, and as we gaze upon the saving wood of the Cross, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to us at least some small portion of the heavenly mysteries which it contains.
In the shadow of the Cross, nothing in all of life is as it once seemed. In the presence of the Cross, all worldly pride and all earthly wisdom are seen to be only shame and folly. Since the dawn of time, since the Garden of Eden, mortal man sought for immortality but could not find it — and now, the Immortal One has deliberately chosen to clothe Himself in flesh, precisely in order to suffer a shameful death. Throughout all human history, men sought to win glory and renown by taking up arms and slaying their enemies — and now, the Son of God and King of Glory comes meekly as a lamb to the slaughter, not in order to slay His enemies but to be slain by them, out of love for them, in order to make them into gods.
Let us cast our minds back to Great and Holy Week, to those final days when Christ “stedfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) in order to ascend the Cross, and let us listen with fresh ears and open hearts to the words of the Savior! He has just been feasted as one who, before many witnesses, resurrected a stinking corpse. He has just been greeted triumphally by the multitudes as a conquering king, as one who is about to finally drive out the foreign oppressors, and restore once again to its rightful place the shattered and shamed Kingdom of Israel. Even some from among the Gentiles are approaching the disciples, begging to be allowed to come and see this great prophet of God. And the Lord Himself now declares that “the hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified” (John 12:23).
But — although they had already been forewarned, again and again — with what confusion and consternation must the disciples have heard the words that Christ then speaks concerning the hour of His glory:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be. Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.
John 12: 24-27
On the road to the Holy City, just before the Triumphal Entry, the disciples had been quarreling over which of them would sit next to Christ when He arrived at the hour of His glory. Now that hour has come, and now Christ invites “any man” to be with Him where He is — and yet the disciples all scatter and flee, to the very last man. Christ’s hour of glory has now come — yet His soul is troubled, and He speaks of His death.
Because as it turns out, the Cross itself is the glory, the “divine glory of Christ,” as the Holy Church exultantly sings on this Feast of the Exaltation. And as St. Paul himself says:
God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
My brothers and sisters, how often do we comfort ourselves with the thought that Christ came to this earth in order to grant us resurrection — and of course this is true! But let us not forget that as He went to the Cross, Christ had already proved through Lazarus that He could grant resurrection to whomsoever He willed. Let us recall that some among the prophets, too, had raised the dead. And let us above all remember that our death itself was originally granted to us by God in His mercy after the Fall, as St. Gregory the Theologian teaches:
Here too [man] makes a gain, namely death and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus, his punishment is changed into a mercy, for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.
Oration 45 (On Easter)
After all, if Christ came simply to resurrect our bodies, what need was there for Him to die also? No, it is clear that bodily resurrection alone is not enough for our salvation — though it is indeed both necessary and wondrous, and I do not at all mean to belittle the miracle. But the fact remains that there was far more at work in the great task Christ came to accomplish:
Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
Christ came to free us from this world, to destroy the dominion of the devil, and to unite fallen mankind to Himself. As the prophesies foretold, Christ came to bring an end to tyranny and to usher in His Kingdom. But as He said to Pilate:
My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight… but now is my kingdom not from hence.
At the beginning of Great and Holy Week, all the people were in expectation that He would bring about an earthly kingdom. But their hopes were dashed, and in bitter disappointment they began to cry out: “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” and begged for Barabbas in His place, “who for a certain sedition made in the city… was cast into prison” (Luke 23:19). Christ was not the sort of Messiah they wanted, and so they begged Pilate for another, for one they thought would meet their own expectations and give them the desires of their own hearts.
And what of us, dear brothers and sisters? How many of us, in our heart of hearts, really want another sort of Christ, one who only asks that we be nice to each other, and who promises in return that we will all get to go to a nice happy place after we die? How many of us (perhaps unconsciously) imagine that the Kingdom of Heaven is a place where we will all live forever with all the many delightful things which we are fond of in this life, a place exactly like this world only without all the unpleasantness, a place where we will finally have everything just the way we like?
If this is what we believe, if this is the substance of our hope, then we are not Christians. And when we come face to face with the real Christ, we too will beg in vain for some Barabbas instead — for a Christ who will only give us what we want.
No, Christ did not come simply in order to let us live forever (after all, the poor and wretched souls in Gehenna will live forever too!). He did not come simply to tell us to be nice people. He did not come simply to tell us that all our suffering will soon go away.
It was not such false and empty pleasantries that Christ came to bring — no, He came to bring us “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
He came to bring us the Cross.
And make no mistake — this greatest of all possible gifts is no mere passive spectacle. Yes, God has freely given us the Kingdom, and “the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God; and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” But let us attend to what the Apostle immediate afterward says!
…if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
In the eyes of this world, there is no greater evil than suffering. There is no greater tragedy, no greater injustice, no greater enemy than suffering. And quite simply, my dear brothers and sisters, it is precisely for this reason that the world cannot bear Christ, and cannot bear Christianity — so let us beware of any so-called Christ and any so-called Christianity with which the world can possibly be at peace!
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
I Corinthians 1:18
The Cross cannot be anything but folly to this world and to those who love it, to those who look for nothing beyond its borders. Even for believers, it is and will always be an exceedingly “hard saying.” As Fr. Seraphim (Rose) once wrote:
Let us not, who would be Christians, expect anything else from [the world] than to be crucified. For to be Christian is to be crucified, in this time and in any time since Christ came for the first time. His life is the example — and warning — to us all. We must be crucified personally, mystically; for through crucifixion is the only path to resurrection. If we would rise with Christ, we must first be humbled with Him — even to the ultimate humiliation, being devoured and spit forth by the uncomprehending world…
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.
Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works
Why, we might ask? Why must we also suffer, why must we also be crucified? Did not Christ come to do for us what we could not do for ourselves?
Of course this is true. But though He came to do it for us, He did not come to do it instead of us: He came to do it with us.
And this indeed is the crux of the matter: the Cross is the one place on this earth where we can truly meet Christ, where we can truly be with Christ, where we can truly unite ourselves with Christ. For it was on the Cross that He “being found in fashion as a man… humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:8). And this humility and this obedience were shown forth precisely on the Cross for no other reason than His surpassing and overwhelming love, as St. Isaac the Syrian writes:
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.
Nowhere else on earth can love be found with so much purity and power and grace as on the Cross of Christ. And therefore there is nowhere else on this earth for us to so truly meet Him, and to so wholly unite ourselves with Him, as on the Cross. There is nowhere else on this earth for us to so entirely become filled — as Christ was — with overflowing and self-emptying love.
Salvation is indeed the free gift of God. But it is a freedom, as one of the poets once wrote, “costing not less than everything.” It is as our Lord Himself said: “So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
But this is no mere arbitrary demand, no harsh and capricious penalty, no grievous cause for sorrow and despair. Yes, there is a price to be paid. But even the price itself is part of the gift. As the great Leader of the Apostles St. Peter writes:
Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin; that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God… Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.
I Peter 4:1-2,12-13
Just as “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), so too there is no greater joy than to become a partaker in such divine and transcendent love. Let us never forget that it was “for the joy that was set before Him [that Christ] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Therefore, as we gaze one final time upon the Precious and Life-giving Cross as it is exalted in all the churches of the world for us to see, let us with eagerness and joy make our own the words of the Apostle:
Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
And likewise those of St. Paul in the Epistle lesson appointed for this Sunday:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
And as the Holy Church Herself sings:
As the Lord went to His voluntary Passion, He said to His apostles on the way: ‘Behold! We go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man shall be betrayed — as it is written of Him.’ Come, therefore, and let us also journey with Him, purified in mind. Let us be crucified with Him and, for His sake, die to the pleasures of this life, so that we may also live with Him and hear Him say: ‘No longer do I ascend to earthly Jerusalem to suffer. But I ascend to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God. And I shall raise you up to the Jerusalem on high in the Kingdom of Heaven.’
Sticheron for Great and Holy Monday