By the mercy of God, we have reached the middle of Great Lent. To encourage and inspire us to continue spiritual exploits, the Holy Church today brings our attention to the Life-giving Cross of Christ and reminds us of the sufferings and deeds that our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for our salvation. Memories of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ call us to imitate Christ and feel compassion toward Him in order to achieve participation in His glory and joy of the Resurrection.
Since ancient times the Cross had been foreshadowed in the form of images contained in the Holy Scriptures. The image of the Cross reveals to us the highest wisdom of God, which puts the proud wisdom of the world to shame. Countless blessings were shown to people by the Cross. It suppresses malice and ungodliness. The form and the image of the Cross from the very beginning of the world were the harbingers of great miracles. Thus, Moses divided the sea with a blow of a rod, representing the Cross and with another one he united the waters again, drowning the enemies and preserving the chosen people; in another case, Moses put his enemies to flight by raising his hands in the form of a cross.
If such is the power of just the image of the Cross, then what is the power in the very archetype itself – the Honourable and Life-giving Cross! After the coming of Christ into the world and the crucifixion of the Son of God on the Cross, a great and wondrous change in relation to the cross took place. What had the cross been before Christ was crucified on it? It had been the instrument of the shameful death penalty. That cruel method of execution came to Judea with the enslavers – the Romans. Before the arrival of the Romans, the Jews knew execution by hanging on a tree and about those executed in that way they said, “Anyone hanging on a tree is cursed by God” (Deut. 21:23). Crucifixion on a cross surpassed hanging in cruelty, since it was accompanied by unbearable prolonged torment. One can imagine with what horror and disgust people thought of that shameful instrument of execution before Christ. But, after our Lord Jesus Christ underwent the death on the Cross, redeeming the sins of the human race by His suffering, the Cross became a sacred image for Christians. The tree of the cross acquires honour and glory that no human-made object has ever had. The shameful weapon of death became the object of praise for the apostles – disciples of Christ, the object of reverent adoration and veneration for all Christians, but, at the same time, a temptation and madness for Jews and Hellenes. The Cross of Christ, according to the word of the Apostle, “is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18), that is, the source of His power, the witness to the wise providence of our salvation.
Time passes, but the glory of the Cross does not diminish, does not fade, but, on the contrary, grows and spreads. We read the words of saint Cyril of Jerusalem, speaking of the power of the Cross: “Let us boldly depict the sign of the Cross on everything: on the forehead, on the bread that we eat, on the cups from which we drink, let us depict it at the entrances, at the exits, when go to bed or get up, when we are on the road and rest. It is the great protection given to us, the poor and the weak, as a gift without labour. For this is the grace of God, the sign for the faithful, the fear for evil spirits. “
Today we honour the tree that gave us life, and the entire Christian world is celebrating with joy the memory of the life-giving tree consisting of three parts. Even in times which were far from Christianity, people felt inexplicable joy seeing the image of the Cross, because a good change took place in their souls. Contemplation of the Cross drove away evil passions, gave people grace, peace, help and intercession. For this reason, the prophet David exclaims, seeing by the grace of the Holy Spirit the greatness of the blessed tree: “Exalt the Lord our God, and worship at His footstool – He is holy! (Ps. 99: 5).
Countless blessings have been bestowed upon us by the Cross, seeing of which exudes the highest wisdom and strength, shames worldly pride, suppresses malice and ungodliness. Saint Theodore the Studite writes in his ” Sermon on the Adoration of the Cross”:
“O great gift so solemnly offered today! O unspeakable bliss! Once killed by the devil, we now receive life through the tree; previously deceived by the tree, now we drive away the ancient serpent with the tree. A truly wondrous and glorious change! Instead of death we are given life, instead of corruption – incorruption, instead of dishonour – glory. And therefore, not without reason, the holy Apostle Paul cried out, “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). Saying “the world has been crucified to me”, apostle Paul calls us to flee from the world and sin, to distance ourselves even from our relatives in flesh, if they hinder our godly way of life.
Crucifying oneself to the world consists in cleansing our souls from passions, in expelling evil thoughts from our hearts, which brings us spiritual peace and consolation. One of the God-bearing fathers taught us:
“Make every effort so that your inner activity is in God, and then you will conquer your inner passions.”
The Apostle Paul adds, “Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). The Lord urges us to die to ourselves, that is, to sin, and live for God, that is, perfect ourselves in virtue.
First of all, we need to realize that the path to the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force, by rejection of oneself, by hardships and suffering. This path was commanded by Jesus Christ, this is what the Apostle Peter says about it: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). If we consider ourselves followers of the Lord, His disciples, then let us direct our path in His footsteps, crucify our flesh with passions and lusts. “For, – as Holy Hierarch Gregory Palamas writes, – he, who is nailed to the cross, cannot have impulses to sin. So it is necessary to ascend to the height of the cross, so that it does not happen, that, bringing ourselves down, we separate ourselves from Christ crucified on it.” He further argues: “If you see in yourself a cruelly struggling thought of fornication, know that you have not yet crucified yourself. How can you crucify? Fight against passions and occasions for them; avoid seductive glances and inappropriate intimacy with someone who tempts your soul; reduce the material that feeds lust – excessive consumption of wine, gluttony, verbosity; with a contrite heart, call on God for help against the passions.”
So how can we not honour and exalt the Cross, which announced victory over sin and death? The death of Christ was sacred and saving, and therefore the Apostle Paul says, that we “were baptized into His death” (Rom. 6:3). Thus, we too, having accepted the likeness of His death, will be participants in the Resurrection.
Christ set three conditions for those who wish to follow Him at their own will. The first is to deny oneself, the second is to take up one’s cross, and the third is to follow Jesus (cf. Mk. 8:34)
What does it mean to deny oneself? This means that a Christian decides to forget all the blessings of this world for the name of Christ, for the confession of the true faith, to endure all misfortunes and troubles firmly and unshakably, to guard against all sin, to correct his sinful life by repentance and always be ready to endure vexation, humiliation and death itself for Christ’s sake.
In order to fulfil the call of the Lord, “let him deny himself”, it is necessary for us, if we desire eternal salvation, to humble our sinful self-love, according to the Saviour’s commandment. We must reject our sinful desires, learn to renounce the delight of sinful flesh, limiting ourselves in everything, strive with all our strength to curb our flesh, which is insatiable, lustful, crafty and so hard to tame. And in order to make it easier to deny ourselves, not to agree with our sinful desires and not to fulfil them, let us more often look at the Cross of Christ and remember that Jesus Christ died for our sins in order to give us forgiveness. For the forgiveness of the sins of each of us, Christ had to descend from heaven, suffer and die on the Cross. When we try to fight with sins, let us imagine in our thoughts, what torments Jesus Christ endured for our sins!
Commanding us to deny ourselves completely, that is, deny the sin that the devil puts into our souls, the Lord calls us to renounce all deeds of the devil, any kind of serving him, all his pride. But we, being addicted to the fleshly life, seem to get accustomed to sin, get used to it. Instead of starting a decisive struggle with sin, breaking with it forever, we sometimes take only half measures, and according to the prophet Isaiah, “your sinful acts separate between you and God” (Is. 59:2). Let us look at the examples of many saints who had previously been sinful people and, with the help of God, were able to enter resolutely and irrevocably into the struggle with sin, with passions, with the devil. How sincerely they loved God, renouncing their carnal life for Christ and the Gospel! Sometimes, loving our flesh, loving the blessings of the sinful, vain world, we forget about the inevitability of death, dreaming of many years of life in prosperity, in pursuit of pleasures, forget about our immortal soul, forget that it is infinitely more important than the whole world with all of its treasures that will pass like a shadow. The Lord calls us to deny ourselves, that is, to turn away from ourselves, to pass ourselves by, following Christ. But it is possible to turn away, to divert our attention from ourselves, only if we draw our attention to something else, more important. It is impossible just to turn away, without directing one’s attention and heart inclinations to something different. How, then, can we fulfil the commandment of the Saviour – to deny ourselves? We must start with something simple and accessible to everyone. We need to look around: who needs our love, mercy, compassion, help, care, pity? Going to these disadvantaged people with love and help, we will simultaneously go to Christ, carrying His Cross, for His Cross is His love, due to which the Lord is ready to sacrifice Himself for us, and, following Him, we at the same time will forget about ourselves, being absorbed in the care for others – care, which is not only ours, but also Christ’s!
Second: “Let him take up his cross”, said the Lord. He did not point to His Cross, which He carried for the human race, because it is beyond the power of an ordinary person, – but to the cross, which is given as a life destiny to everyone on earth. One must patiently carry his own cross and constantly have in mind the final outcome of this life; one must strengthen oneself with the thought that perhaps hundreds and thousands of others bear an even heavier cross. We all must carry our cross of trials without complaint, staying spiritually awake and suppressing our carnal desires, overcome temptations and not grumble in sorrows at the Wise Providence of God, which arranges everything for our salvation.
The path of our salvation inevitably lies through suffering, through sorrows, through temptations, since only through trials our faith is strengthened, because the way of the cross, which Christ commanded to us, is the path of suffering. Suffering purifies our soul, elevates it, and makes us wiser. Only through suffering can a person understand what the mercy and love of God is. The Cross of the Lord is a symbol of love for us, for love is always sacrificial, always crucified. The Lord, Who is love, stretched out His arms on the Cross, as if wanting to embrace the whole world in the sacrifice of love.
Our love should always be sacrificial, because the true love is when a person sacrifices himself, exactly himself, for the sake of the one he loves. Therefore, if we love God, we must sacrifice ourselves for sake of Him and our neighbours, as He sacrificed Himself for us. The Lord loves us as we are, sometimes weak and sinful. He, who created us, wants us not to live by our own wishes, but to follow the path of salvation, voluntarily carrying our cross. The Lord gives everyone a saving cross that one is able to carry. He knows what kind of suffering a person can endure in order to be cleansed from sins and ascend to spiritual heights, for Christ, strengthening us in our way of the cross, said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11, 30). Let us remember that temporary torment for Christ during our earthly life frees us from eternal torment after death.
We need to understand and acknowledge that everything that happens in our sorrowful life is given to us for our salvation, that the path of a Christian is the path of suffering. A Christian should not grumble while suffering, but, on the contrary, should thank God, recognizing himself worthy of sorrow and suffering to atone for his sins. All saints lived in sorrow, being strengthened and purified by them. Let us recall the life of Saint Alexiy, the man of God, who voluntarily carried the cross of renunciation of family well-being, enduring reproach and adversity with meekness, humility and joy.
The Apostle James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (Jam. 1:2). This joy in sorrows and temptations is given to a Christian if, grieving over his imperfection, he tries to purify himself from sin and puts into his heart the thought of the salvific power of the cross and suffering. The Lord ascended to heaven through the Cross; He commanded this path to all of us Christians. Suffering is a blessing, the Church affirms, for we ascend into the Kingdom of God only through it, only through carrying of the cross. When we are in sorrow and suffering, our prayer should not be about God delivering us from them, but about the Lord giving us strength to carry our cross and relieving its burden.
Sorrow is inseparable from the life of a Christian, this is why in the commandments of the beatitudes, that is, of spiritual joy, Christ says, blessed are those who weep, blessed are those who endure reproach, blessed are the persecuted. Christianity is the only faith in the world that glorifies suffering, while the world seeks to enjoy sinful temptations and therefore does not accept but rejects the cross, avoiding suffering. Being in this world, seeing its beauty and temptations, we are called to remember that all this is temporary, that the Heavenly Fatherland awaits us. Yes, the world is bitter, there is so much suffering in it, but people love and attach themselves to it, they are captivated by its delight, they look for its joys and pleasures. However, we must know that those who seek only joys will face sorrow, as the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in the Gospel describes.
“Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Ps. 34:19), says psalmist David. The question may arise: why does the Lord send sorrows and afflictions to the righteous? By this, the Lord tests their faith and at the same time shows those around them their great patience and humility, their love for God. The righteous themselves, overcoming sorrows, becomes only harder and stronger, like a tree that is open to many winds and storms, becomes more powerful and firm, sinking its roots deeper into the earth.
But to seek temptations voluntarily is also a sin, as well as avoiding sorrows and temptations. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask, “Lead us not into temptation”, that is, we ask that God will not allow us to fall into such temptations, in which our faith can be shaken and we can fall into grave sin. And if the Lord gives us a chance to be cleansed through temptations, trials and sorrows, we ask Him that in them He would not allow us to fall and depart from Him.
Carrying the cross is the way to the salvation of our soul. The time of earthly life is given to us by the Lord in order thet we learn to carry our cross with hope, perseverance and determination. The Lord gives various types of afflictions of the cross – martyrdom, illness, poverty and destitution, loss of the loved ones, marriage and loneliness, caring for sick and old people; reproach and humiliation and many other various afflictions on the cross. We must carry our cross from youth with humility and prayer that make it easier to bear the cross. Whenever we bend under the weight of the cross, remember how our Lord Jesus Christ carried His Cross. Or, more precisely, how He carried our Cross, for He suffered for our sins and He took our sorrows and burdens upon Himself.
Why does the Cross and the sign of the cross have such a terrifying power for demonic forces? Because the Cross testifies to Satan about the greatest power of God – the power of humility. The devil fell away from God through pride, and the Lord defeated the devil with His humility. The sight of the Cross, on which the Lord showed His greatest humility and thus defeated the enemy, is unbearable for the devil. Sometimes, due to the lack of humility, we can hardly endure afflictions, forgetting about the consolation in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our growth in humility is the path to God, to the salvation of the soul, because Christ Himself gave the image of humility. If we follow the path of humility, then this is the path to Golgotha, and through it – to our co-ascension to heaven, the path to our co-resurrection with Christ.
By His sacrifice on the cross, the Lord helps us to deeply and firmly assimilate the grace-filled, saving truth that there is no other way to heaven except for humility and voluntary acceptance of suffering for Christ. Therefore, in order to enter the Kingdom of God, we need to diminish ourselves, to endure unpleasant circumstances of life, illnesses and sorrows without grumbling, cutting off discontent, overcoming our lusts and passions, and so gradually, step by step, year after year, learn to endure, and through patience, gradually acquire the humility that will give us salvation. We must learn to thank the Lord for the sufferings of the cross in our lives, for even pagans thank for the good deeds. We should address God in times of sorrow and misfortune with these words: “Glory to God for everything!” St. John Chrysostom says that those who endure sorrows with gratitude to God will receive an equal crown with the martyrs, and adds: “One “Glory to God!” in sorrow and misfortune means more than a thousand thanks in happiness.” As grapes, when pressed and put under weight, turn into wine, so our soul, oppressed by sorrows, reaches eternal habitations, the holy fathers say about patience.
Walking along the path of the cross, we can learn the fruits of humble carrying of the cross: this is the victory over devilish temptations, healing from mental and physical illnesses, cleansing from sins, gaining peace of mind and patience. Having tasted the fruits of the cross, we can say with joy together with Apostle Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Bearing sorrow without complaint is especially important in our day, when many are filled with despondency and grumble. In the first centuries of Christianity, the ascetics were saved by enduring persecution and bodily torture.
Torments for the name of Christ, for His truth, for the holy and true faith elevate a person to the dignity of holiness. Now, when the Lord, by His mercy, has delivered us from such temptations, our salvation consists in repentance and resigned bearing of everyday sorrows. Saint Theodosius the Great once predicted that in the last times, when people would be alien to each other like animals, zeal for God and monastic feats would become scarce. The Lord will allow little tribulations, and those who stand in this trial will be saved.
At the same time, we should remember that not all torments free us from eternal torment, but only those we endure without grumbling against God, as was the case with the pious repentant robber on Calvary.
The Lord named the third condition for those who wish to be saved: “and follow me”. It is only for the sake of the Saviour that we need to endure and have meekness in adversity, to strive for all the virtues – not for the sake of self-interest and vain greatness, but at our will, deciding to follow Christ and endure everything for His sake. To follow Christ means to imitate Him, to try to live as He commanded, to do as He did.
The cross that we worship today means for us God’s victory over evil. The cross is our banner, weapon and shield; it is given to us from holy baptism. That is why we must treat it with reverence, venerate it, and zealously make the sign of the cross on ourselves. By the cross, we conquer all the dark forces who know that Christ at Calvary defeated them. At the same time, when we make the sign of the cross, we, as it were, take the Cross of Christ on ourselves and decide to follow Him in the way that He showed us: Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me.
Brothers and sisters! Let our life be the carrying of the cross, which for us is the sign of victory. Let us bow reverently with love and trembling before the Cross – the symbol of our salvation, remembering the sufferings that our Lord Jesus Christ endured on it for our salvation, so that we can attain the Kingdom of Heaven, after we are co-crucified and die, resurrect together with Him and enter into eternal life. Let us give our life as a sacrifice of the cross out of love for our neighbours, until it is time to commit it forever into the hands of God.
Looking at the Holy Cross, which is lying today in the middle of the church, and kissing it, let us strengthen ourselves in the feat of fasting and prayer. Let us bow to the Holy Cross with all our life, soul and heart, in order to triumphantly achieve the joyous and bright day of the Resurrection of Christ, singing: We worship Your Cross, O Lord, and we glorify Your Holy Resurrection!