This week's sermon in advance...

Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross
March 30, 2008

There are crosses, it seems, everywhere in our culture, on the sides of roads, around people’s necks, on bumpers and buildings everywhere. Rock stars wear them as bling, cemeteries have them for hope, and bikers wear them as tattoos. A cross inspires veneration in one and loathing in another. In art they sometimes become masterpieces and other times the visual expression of an artist’s contempt. They are simultaneously present in many places and banished from the public square. They are everywhere found and seldom understood, even by those who claim the faith they symbolize.

So what is a cross?

In its origins the cross was a tool of execution used by cultures before them but perfected by the Romans. It was a junction of two pieces of wood roughly in the shape of the letter “t” designed to promote a lingering death by torture and asphyxiation with a maximum amount of public spectacle for those sentenced to die under Roman law. Its effect as propaganda was immense because it displayed Roman authority and the consequences of rebellion and this is probably why the title “King of The Jews” was written over Jesus’ head in all the common languages of the region as a reminder of what would happen to those who defied Caesar. The savagery of this method of execution was so profound that it was inflicted only on foreigners, Roman citizens like St. Paul, no matter how great their alleged crime, were executed by a swift beheading.

And it was because of Jesus’ death on such a device that representations of it became the predominant symbol of Christian faith. To the early Christians the meaning of what occurred in that death transformed what the larger culture certainly saw as a representation of a dishonorable life and end into a symbol of victory, life, and hope. Although the earliest Christians already possessed an iconography of various symbols, lambs, fish, the good shepherd, none had both the power and depth of the simple representation of two lines crossed. We Orthodox continue this veneration of the cross because we see what the Romans had perfected for torture as the very place where our Lord voluntarily gave up his life and in doing so broke the ultimate power of sin and death and in doing so provided a way for us to be restored to union with God.

The cross for us, as Orthodox is not a place of punishment where an angry God, offended by our sins receives a sacrifice sufficient enough to turn away his wrath. The cross is not the place where Jesus stepped in to deflect the angry blows of God directed towards us. These images are understandable because this is what the Romans designed the cross to be; an instrument of punishment, but it is not our Orthodox understanding.

When you see a cross in the Orthodox setting you see Jesus, not flayed and tortured like in the movie “The Passion of the Christ” but already dead, peaceful, and remaining full of grace and power. Certainly the sufferings of Jesus were real but we, as Orthodox, already see beyond them as Jesus did and we are aware of the timeless significance of those hours on the cross even as we see Jesus’ body at rest.

We know that where others see defeat and death we see victory and life. Where some may see another triumph of the Roman empire and the religious leaders who brought Jesus to trial we see the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in the aftermath of conquering everything that has kept we humans broken and apart from God. Even as Jesus’ lifeless body is on the cross he is entering the realm of death and pillaging it, removing all who would respond from the grip of hades. The thief is already in paradise and hell shudders.

The world sees powerlessness but we see the most amazing display of power. The world sees brokenness but we understand that healing has come. The world sees the strength of darkness, but we know that in three days time a light will come that can never be overtaken by the night. In that cross we already see the seeds of the resurrection and so even in the middle of this disfiguring moment there is hope.

And from all of that a well of gratitude should spring up in us. God in love entered our world to teach us how to live and out of love voluntarily allowed himself to endure suffering and death so that its ultimate power could be broken and we could be restored. Even sin and pain and death are not so powerful that they could not be swallowed up in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. One day we will know this for ourselves because in union with Him even death can never have the final word on our destiny.

In this middle of Lent, when the novelty of the fast has grown cold and when, if we are facing our sins a kind of weariness may set in, we have this day to look into the distance and see the cross, the tree of life, and take hope. In a few short weeks we will be singing “Christ has risen from the dead trampling down death by death…” and knowing that alone you will understand the cross we venerate today.

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