The Holy Life-giving Cross of the Lord
~sermon from Saint Philaret of New York
“Rejoice, Life-Giving Cross, invincible victory of piety, and door of paradise, confirmation of the faithful, rampart set about the Church. By it the curse is destroyed, and the reign of death is trampled down. Those born of earth are raised to heaven. Invincible weapon, adversary of demons, glory of martyrs. True ornament of the saints, haven of salvation, bestowing on the world great mercy.”
With these words (and many others), the Church today magnifies and glorifies the Life-Giving Cross, the weapon of our salvation.
We all know, of course, that the Life-Giving Cross is our main holy object, our main spiritual treasure. And the Church glorifies this holy object in a special manner.
During the course of the entire year, on Wednesdays and Fridays, in Church hymns and practically on every Sunday, the Cross is glorified. It is brought out triumphantly three times during the year for veneration: in the summer, on the first of August [o.s.], we commemorate the procession of the Cross out from the cathedral in Constantinople and along the streets of that royal city; on the 14th of September [o.s.] we commemorate the main feast, the Triumphant Exaltation of the Cross; and on today’s feast, we commemorate the Cross in the middle of the Great Fast.
Why is it that the Church, namely on this day, the third Sunday of Great Lent, so particularly offers us the Cross for prayer and veneration?
In the Old Testament, there was an episode when the Hebrew people who were wandering in the desert under the leadership of the prophet and God-seer Moses. They were wandering along in the desert for a long time without water and began to grow weak from thirst. Finally they came upon a spring with water. Exhausted, and at the height of their suffering they ran to this spring, but alas, the water turned out to be so unbearably bitter, that it was impossible to drink. They called out to Moses. Moses directly turns to the Lord Himself in prayer, pointing out to Him the woeful state of the people and this spring of water which was impossible to drink from. The Lord indicates to him a tree which he must with prayer immerse into the water of this spring. When Moses did this, a wondrous change occurred with the water, and it became pleasant to the taste and refreshing, as it happens only with the best and purest sources of water.
And it was this particular miracle, as the Holy Fathers of the Church point out, that was a pre-figuration of how the Life-giving Cross sweetens the turbulent and bitter waters of the sea of life in which you and I now find ourselves.
But particularly now, during the Great Fast, the Church reminds us of the Cross and offers it to us, in order to give us courage and strengthen us for the continuation of our podvig (spiritual struggle) of carrying our cross.
Of course, for him who does not fast, this is incomprehensible – he sees no need for this reminder; but for him who observes the fasts, he knows that human frailty becomes apparent during this labour of fasting and that a person grows weak; and in order to encourage him and spiritually strengthen him, the Church reminds him of the Cross, of what the Lord Jesus Christ did for mankind, how He took upon Himself our sins, nailed them to the Cross, became nailed Himself to it and through His sufferings upon the Cross, obtained for us our salvation and clemency from Divine Justice.
This is particularly understandable for great fasters and ascetics, true monks in strict monasteries. In such places they fast strictly, harshly, not sparing themselves. Some of them spend entire days completely without food and drink. And in order to strengthen human frailty, which weakens with such fasting feats, ascetics turn to the wood of the Cross. It speaks to us of what the Lord endured for us, and by this gives us wings for new labours, new podvigs.
But remember, when we bow down in veneration before the Life-giving Cross, venerate it and kiss it, as our holy object, as our treasure which sanctifies us, we must always keep in mind remembrance of what occurred on the Cross.
The mystery of the Saviour’s podvig on the Cross consists in His being nailed to the Cross in His Human nature and in this nature he received all the sufferings of crucifixion. But at the same time, since He was not merely a man, but God-man, His divine, omniscient nature revealed to Him the full knowledge of all the sins of all people of all ages. And of ours as well. And when He was suffering there, grievously experiencing in these torments the sins of all mankind, our own sins were also there in front of Him, and He sorrowed for them and received crucifixion for them – for the sins of each one of us.
Concerning this, the Holy Fathers tell us the following: since the power of His podvig on the Cross, its salvific effect, extends over all times, and consequently touches all mankind’s sins, then each time, when you and I commit a sin, it is as if we increase the suffering which the Lord endures on the Cross for us. The Holy Fathers said this directly; that sinners who sin without repentance are crucifying the Son of God a second time, as if nailing Him to the Cross again, as if personally participating in the terrible blows under which the nails of the Cross pierced the body of our Lord.
There is an account concerning the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God “Unexpected Joy”, where it is said, that a certain man, a sinner, often walked by an Icon of the Mother of God in Constantinople. Despite the fact that he was on his way to commit his sins, yet with faith and reverence glorified Her, pronouncing the angelic salutation “Rejoice O Virgin Theotokos, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art Thou among women.” And then one day, after such a greeting, he suddenly sees with terror, how the image seems to have come alive, that the Mother of God and the Saviour seem to be alive on it, and from the wounds of the Saviour, actual blood is streaming. He began to shake, and falling before the image in terror, he asks the Mother of God: “Mother of Mercy, intercede for me a sinner before Thy Son, that He would forgive me my lawlessness.” And She answers him: “You call me Mother of Mercy, yet you are not merciful to My Son, for each time when you sin impenitently, you nail Him a second time to the Cross.” The sinful man implored and persuaded her. She obtained forgiveness for him from Her Son – what an lesson this is for us!
Remember this O Christian, and when bowing down before the cross and kissing it, pray to the Lord, that the Lord, through the power of the Cross, would strengthen you in your battle against sin, so that you might not sin without feeling shame or regret and through this unrepented sin, not nail again your Lord to the Cross. Amen.