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Sermon on the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters!

The service for the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord, remarkable in its depth and wealth of spiritual content, reveals the meaning and significance of the sacrifice upon the Cross, which the Lord brought in atonement for the sins of the human race and after which the life-giving wood of the Cross represents the all-strengthening force in the battle against sins. Let us recall the words of the festive troparion: O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance — the Lord acknowledges us, sinful people, as His inheritance; the Saviour shed His Divine Blood on the Cross for us. And by Thy Cross preserve Thy people — the Life-giving Cross is the guardian of all Orthodox Christians and the affirmation of our life according to the commandments of Christ. A Cross is given to every Christian at Holy Baptism, which accompanies us through our whole life. The Cross foreshadows the final destiny of man: the grave mound. Great is the power of the Life-giving Cross!

Sermon on the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord

In the church hymns of today’s feast, the All-Precious and Life-giving Cross is hymned as the glory of angels, adornment of the apostles, strength of the righteous, praise of the faithful, splendour of priests, victory of the pious, door to paradise, refuge of salvation, hope of Christians, mentor to the lost, asylum for the possessed, physician for the infirmed, resurrection of the dead, wounder of demons, guardian of the whole universe, an invincible weapon, victory in battle, beauty of the church, the means by which the dominion of death was utterly destroyed and we are able to ascend from earth to heaven. While glorifying the Cross of the Lord, the Holy Church calls upon us to kiss the Holy Cross with joy and fear: fear for the sake of our sin, since we are unworthy of holiness, and with joy for the sake of the salvation which was granted to the world by the Saviour’s voluntary sacrifice on the Cross.

This day is both a sad and a joyful one. It is sad, as we can see the Lord Jesus Christ, subjected to the most painful and shameful death, was crucified on the Cross. And, today is joyful, if we understand why Jesus Christ died on the Cross.

 We know that every person is born with original sin, on top of which they commit many sins themselves. However, nothing unclean or sinful may enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Before the coming of Christ, no person could enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and everyone was supposed to perish in hades. It would always have been so if Jesus Christ did not suffer and did not die for us on the Cross. We ourselves could never make amends, but with His Own Blood He washed away our sinful filth.

Jesus Christ not only offered a sacrifice on the Cross for our sins, but also gave us the grace and strength to guard ourselves against new sins. When a rich man forgives an impoverished man his debt, which he has no means of repaying, he is doing a good deed. But he does an even greater good deed when, moreover, he also gives the impoverished man money so that he can again establish his household and live without the help of others.

Look upon the Cross; is not Jesus Christ that compassionate rich man? Did He not even give Himself, His Life-giving Blood and Life, so that we could receive grace from God and begin a new life? If Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross, then we would not have baptism, nor would we have confession whereby the sins committed by us after baptism are remitted. If Christ had not sacrificed His Most Pure Body on the Cross, then we would not have the mystery of Communion whereby we unite with Christ.

It is possible to point out much more that we owe to Christ, that we now have due to the death of Christ the Saviour on the Cross. And what does Jesus Christ ask of us for His suffering? Only that we live according to His teachings and His commandments.

Now, the Holy Church solemnly glorifies the finding of the Precious Cross of the Lord. Originally, this feast day was established by the Church in honour of the joyful event that occurred, as is well known, three centuries after the Resurrection of the Lord. According to the accounts of ancient Christian historians, the finding of the Cross of the Lord was accomplished by the holy emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helen. Having a deep reverence for the Cross, owing to which emperor Constantine won many victories, he wished to build a church on Golgotha. To fulfil this desire, his pious mother, Helen, travelled to Jerusalem, with the strong desire to uncover the Cross of the Lord, whose resting place was lost during the Christian persecutions. It was difficult for the Equal-to-the-Apostles empress Helen to find the Cross, as the Jews and pagans, not tolerating the worship of the Crucified One, were intent on erasing any mention of the Cross of the Lord from living memory. Together with the crosses of the thieves crucified with Christ on Golgotha, the Cross of the Lord was buried in the ground, upon which a pagan temple was erected. By God’s counsel, one elderly Jew revealed the place where the Cross resided.

When they began digging up the earth, a wonderful fragrance permeated the air, and then three crosses were unearthed. It was difficult to determine which of them was the Cross of the Lord, since the plate with the inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” lay separately, and thus a higher, Divine testimony as to which was the Cross of the Lord was needed, not merely a human one. Saint Macarius, the then Patriarch of Jerusalem, inspired by counsel from above, ordered that the uncovered crosses be laid upon a deceased maiden. The contact of two crosses yielded no results, however when the third Cross touched her, the dead maiden came back to life. Everyone saw that this miracle was accomplished by the power of the Life-giving Cross, which grants resurrection and life. The unearthed Cross was solemnly transferred to the church in Jerusalem, where empress Helen joyously bowed and kissed the Precious Cross. The renown of the miracle at the finding of the Cross attracted people to the church. Because of the multitude of people, not everyone could see the Precious Cross. So, Patriarch Macarius took the Cross and, standing on an exalted place, raised It up and showed the people, who in joyful delight constantly called out: “Lord, have mercy!”. Since that time, the Holy Church has established an annual celebration of the Uncovering and Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of the Lord.

In commemoration of this event, the Holy Church performs during the festive service the rite of the exaltation of the Cross, during which the bishop in the centre of the church makes a sign with the Cross toward all four corners of the world, lowers the Cross down and elevates It higher, which is meant to symbolise the bitter fall and rise of the human race, their exaltation with Christ from the depths of hades to the Kingdom of God, from death into eternal, blissful life. Thus, the Cross, formerly the instrument of shameful executions, became the instrument of our salvation from sin. Our Saviour was nailed to it by His Divine, Holy Will and love for us. The Cross of Christ, therefore, was not a symbol of evil and shame, but of honour and the greatest good for all mankind. Christ, before His death, said to His disciples: “No one takes My life away from Me, but I lay it down of Myself” (John 10:18).

The Lord, by His free will, gave Himself to death, so that others could live an eternal life, to live with God. Christ voluntarily gave up His life, enduring all the horrors of abandonment, betrayal and torment, for the sake of each of us, because each of us is dear to Him, is loved by Him. We depart from God with our sins, self-love and lack of faith. Therefore, for the salvation of each of us, He would again suffer the full horror of His death on the Cross, as the Saviour said in a wondrous vision to the Apostle Peter during his flight from Rome. Therefore, the Cross is an image of Christ’s love for us, His followers, and at the same time is a sign of our reciprocal love, devotion and loyalty to the Saviour, which is proven not by our words, but by rendering unto God our whole life of arduous, sacrificial love, that may grant life to others. We worship the Cross, which for us signifies victory over evil and death. That is why we should, with special reverence, make the sign of the Cross, since it is the sign before which all dark forces tremble, having been defeated by the armament of the Cross.

The salvific action of the Cross, sprinkled with the Blood of the Lord, spread to the whole human race. Let us point out at least some of the innumerable examples of the power of the Precious and Life-giving Cross.

According to a tale by Saint Prochorus, the disciple of John the Theologian, the holy Apostle healed a sick person who was lying on the way with the sign of the Cross (Life of St. John the Theologian, Sept. 26).

A pious man named Ir, by the instruction of the holy Apostle Philip, inscribed with his hand the image of the Cross of Christ on the injured members of the infirmed Aristarchus,  and immediately his withered hand was healed, his eye regained its sight, his hearing resumed and the patient became healthy (Life of Holy Apostle Philip, November 14).

When Saint Epiphanius, while still unbaptised in his childhood, was once thrown from a raging donkey and severely injured his hip, a certain Christian who found him made the sign of the Cross upon the boy three times and thus healed him (Life of St. Epiphanius of Cyprus, May 12).

But the miraculous Cross of Christ not only heals afflictions, It also makes the human body succumb to no harm from the actions of flames, ferocious beasts, deadly poisons and other mortal dangers.

Thus, the holy righteous Thecla made the sign of the Cross upon “a multitude of firewood and branches gathered under her to burn her”, and the fire did not dare to touch her body (Life of St. Thecla, Sept. 24). The holy martyress Basilissa of Nicomedia guarded herself with the sign of the Cross, and in a furnace “stood for many hours in the burning fire” without any harm (Life of St. Basilissa, Sept. 3). The holy martyrs Abdon and Sennen, doomed to be torn apart by animals, guarded themselves with the sign of the Holy Cross, and the fierce animals, like meek lambs, kissed the feet of the people of God (Lives of Holy Martyrs Abdon and Sennen, July 30).

Under the influence of the healing power of the Cross of Christ, deadly poisons were also rendered harmless. Thus, the holy Bishop Julian, having inscribed the Holy Cross on the cup presented to him by those plotting against him, drank the deadly poison and did not experience any harm in his body (“The Spiritual Meadow,” ch. 94).

In a similar way, Venerable Benedict made the sign of the Cross on a phial, and the poison-bearing vessel shattered, as if hit by a stone (Life of St. Benedict, March 14).

For those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and recognise the power of His suffering on the Cross for sinful humanity, the sign of His Cross constitutes great power and protection from all evil and misfortune, from the wiles of the opponent to our salvation, the devil.

After this, brothers and sisters, it is impossible for us not to address our conscience and to inquire from it whether we believe and live as is required given our designation as Christians, who are called on to become the heirs of eternal life, redeemed by the Blood of the Son of God.

In times of pursuit and persecution, Christians always valued those treasures that the pagan world threatened to rob them of. The Holy Church instructs every Christian throughout their lives to guard themselves with the sign of the Cross. But, how is this instruction actually fulfilled? Looking at how Christians occasionally make the sign of the Cross upon themselves, one has to wonder, or even be horrified by the negligence with which this is done. The Holy Scripture damns those who neglect the sacred things: Cursed is the man who does the work of the Lord carelessly (Jer. 48:10).

Think about the correctness of making the sign of the Cross upon yourselves, through which we, in a way, declare of ourselves: “I am a Christian; I believe in Christ; I have been baptised into Him; I hope and trust in Him.” The sign of the Cross is that mark by which God directs His merciful attention to us, pouring out His saving grace. O, how sin those, who instead of correctly and earnestly making the sign of the Cross upon themselves, portray something completely unlike either the Cross, or a bow or a prayer, that is, they robotically move their hand, without understanding the meaning behind it. Demons rejoice in such hand-waving. Concerning those who perform the sign of the Cross with reverence, it is written in the works of the holy fathers: “And whoever crosses themselves fervently, putting their hands on their brow, stomach and right shoulder, and then on the left, angels rejoice in seeing such, with the true Cross depicted upon their faces.”

How to explain the sad neglect regarding the signing of the Cross? Most likely, such hand-waving is being done because there is neglect in the soul and absent-mindedness. This suggests that such a person is feeble in faith itself, forgetting about the Saviour being crucified on the Cross and about His suffering, about the One Who freed us from the dominion of the devil and bestowed upon us eternal life. Christ calls to all Christians: Take up your cross and follow Me. Thus, apostles, martyrs, and venerable ones, and all the saints joyfully followed Christ. They willingly sacrificed for the Lord all the benefits of the world, their very lives and were not deceived in their hope, inheriting the eternal and blissful Kingdom, according to the words of the Apostle Paul: If indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together (Rom. 8:17).

We, the Old Believers, must not fail to recall the example of the courageous confessors of Old Orthodoxy carrying their cross: the Boyarynya (noblewoman) Theodosia Morozova, her sister Princess Evdokia and those martyred with them. This is how protopriest Avvakum describes their feats: “They put aside their feminine weakness, and perceived masculine wisdom, and thus went forth to their torment, to suffer for the sake of Christ.” And in response to the proposal of the tormentors to abandon the old faith, they answered: “For that which is of our fathers we are ready to die. But even if we die, we will not betray the true faith!” This is how the great zealots of ancient piety fulfilled the words of the Gospel: Take up your cross and follow Me. They were crucified together with Christ, and the world was crucified for them, according to the Apostle.

Why do most people not follow Christ nowadays? Perhaps this happens because of unbelief or lack of faith, because of predilection for the mutable benefits of this temporary life, because of pride or laziness, because of spiritual ignorance and neglect for salvation. Saint Cyprian wrote about this in his time: “Christians gave themselves up to the spirit of the world. Peace has lulled their faith. All have begun to worry about the mundane and temporary things. And these bonds, these chains burdened the faith, hindered the soul and made it booty and food for the serpent, which feeds upon the earth by the sentence of God” (“On the lapsed”). The discourses of St. John Chrysostom speak of the same thing: “If someone were to come to us from elsewhere and learned well the commandments of Christ and the disorder of our life, then I do not know how they could imagine Christ’s enemies as being worse than us, because we travel by such a road, as though we had resolved to go against His commandments” (“First Book on Compunction”).

Bishop Michael Semenov, in his sermon “On the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord”, talks about the inner strength of Christians during times of persecution: “they say that, in the Old Belief, once the eight-pointed cross, which was previously removed even from prayer-houses, was again solemnly raised atop bell towers, fervour for their faith, love and mercy has waned, not to mention how men have disfigured their beards. Is this the case? I do not know, and I do not wish to engage in convictions. I only wish to say that the exterior elevated condition of the “cross” – the gold and gems, and flowers on the sign of the Son of Man – does not in itself signify the true triumph of Christianity. The highest place a man can give to the cross is a place in his soul and on his shoulders, bearing it and pursuing the first Cross-bearer. And so this cross is constantly in danger; and in times of outwardly peace, more so than ever… A lot of attention, vigilance of will and spirit is required to carry this cross high in order to protect it from desecration.”

“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself,” as the Lord teaches us. To reject oneself, according to the commandment of the Saviour, is to conquer within oneself passions, sinful inclinations, attraction towards sin and all evil. All people, including the great righteous ones, were not free from the temptations of passions, and were in many ways similar to us. Only they did not allow their passions to rule over them, and in due time they tamed and suppressed them. If, by their natural weakness, they fell in the struggle with their passions, they quickly arose, and with renewed strength and experience they engaged them in battle, until they overcame them. Thus, they ascended higher and higher; therefore they are magnified as zealots and valiant warriors, equal to the angels.

In the bitter fate of our earthly existence, we are all tested by grief and burden. However, some through the cross of earthly deprivations, misfortunes and sorrows ascend up to heaven into paradise, just as the good thief, who endured torment with repentance and by invoking Christ. Others, like the second, evil thief, enduring the cross of temporary sorrows and suffering, descend into hades for eternal torment, since they do not repent of their sins and do not follow Christ.

But the followers of Christ not only have to carry their cross in the footsteps of the Saviour, but must also be crucified on it, according to the Apostle: Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24). Because as soon as a person has broken the commandments of God, sin lives within him, which, like a heavy stone, has crushed his heart and all his senses, and has obscured his reason. Within man there is a continuous struggle between the immortal spirit, which was breathed into him by pre-eternal God, and the flesh, which must be nailed to the cross in order to achieve salvation. But this does not mean that we need to torture and mutilate our body. No, the body itself does neither evil nor good. We need to crucify that evil that lives in our flesh; we need to put to death, as the Apostle teaches, our members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry (Col. 3:5).

In general, all passions, all evil impulses are enemies living in our flesh, fighting against the laws of God. We must conquer them with the help of God. And for this it is necessary to, according to the word of the Apostle, put on the whole armour of God, the breast-plate of righteousness and take the shield of faith (Eph. 6:13-16), that is, you need to arm yourself with virtues. For example, armed with humility, we will overcome pride; armed with abstinence, we will overthrow fornication and sensuality; armed with fasting, we will put to death satiety and drunkenness. You especially need to arm yourselves with Christian love, which, according to the Apostle, is the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14), because love directs us to do what is truly beneficial for our salvation, to conscientiously fulfil our duties before the Lord and our neighbours. So, brothers and sisters, let us strive to crucify our flesh with passions and lusts, to bravely fight against sins, so that here, on earth, we may taste of the sweetness of that bliss that God has prepared for those who love Him. But if we choose to work for sin and do not crucify our flesh, then know that it will crucify us instead; if we give way to our passions, then they will become our tormentors and destroyers; they will eventually lead us into the grave, for the wages of sin are death (Rom. 6:23), and from the grave into the underworld. Behold the result of earthly suffering, should a person not repent while they are alive.

Only through many sorrows may we obtain the Kingdom of God, which lies within us. The first step toward this is repentance, changing one’s will from evil and sin to good. It requires a constant, sometimes painful struggle with our passions, which elevates us onto the Cross for crucifixion together with Christ. A Christian must unite with the tree of life; they must engage their passions in battle whilst rejecting self-pity, and self-crucify. Wondrous is this path: it takes away, but, in taking away, it gives; it amputates, but, in amputating, it grafts on; it kills, but by killing, it grants life. The Cross of Christ is a great blessing and labour, by which death is trampled upon and life is granted. Let us pray to the Lord that He may send us the determination and strength in the feat of spiritual warfare, which delivers us from passions. Let us look with faith and hope upon the Life-giving Cross, reciting: “By the power of Thy Cross keep us, O Lord.”

Brothers and sisters! Carrying our cross, let us pursue the Lord under the sign of His Cross, serving the Prince and Effector of our faith, Who granted us salvation by His Divine mercy, philanthropy and redemptive death on the Most Precious and Life-giving Cross. Let us bear our cross with humility, patience and gratitude, so that on the day of our death we may hear the joyous voice of Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven: Where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honour (John 12:26)!