The Way of the Cross

One day 50 years ago, after suffering many years in the work camps of Siberia, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian intellectual and dissident, had fallen into despair.  Like other prisoners, he had worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter.  His days were filled with backbreaking labor and slow starvation.  On this particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much.  Sozhenitsyn saw no reason to continue living and trying to fight the system.  He thought his life was meaningless since he would die in this Siberian prison.  His life made no difference to the world.  So he gave up.  Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to the side of the work field and sat down.  He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and if he did not respond, the guard would beat him to death.  He had seen it happen to many other prisoners.

As he was waiting, head down, he felt a presence.  Slowly, he lifted his eyes and saw a skinny, old prisoner squat down next to him.  The man said nothing.  Instead, he took a stick and traced the sign of the Cross at Solzhenitsyn’s feet.  The man then got back up and returned to his work.

As Solzhenitsyn stared at the sign of the Cross, his entire perspective changed.  He knew that he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire.  Yet in that moment, he understood that there was something greater than all the evil he saw in prison.  There was something even greater than the Soviet Union.  He knew that the hope of all humankind was represented in that simple Cross.  And through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.  The Cross shone forth light in the midst of the greatest darkness.  Solzhenitsyn slowly got back up, picked up his shovel, and went back to work.  Nothing outward had changed, but inside, he saw a sign from God - he received hope. Years later, Solzhenitsyn’s writings would enlighten the entire world, telling them not only about the horrors of the Soviet prisons, but also witnessing to the depth of the human soul, the sovereignty of God and the hope of the Cross.

Today, on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, we remember the Cross of Christ. We will have a procession at the end of the Liturgy where we lift up the Cross and sing out, “We venerate your Cross, O Master, and your holy resurrection we glorify!” No symbol is more representative of what we believe than the Cross. We all wear crosses. We make the sign of the cross. We hang crosses in our homes, in our cars, and throughout our Churches. The Cross is central to what we believe and who we are!

In times of despair, hopelessness, and uncertainty, as with Solzhenitsyn, we turn to the Cross and we find meaning. Although Solzhenitsyn did not have a logical reason to hope, he understood that the power and meaning of the Cross is beyond logic and reason. God’s hope is sometimes inexplicable!

In ancient times, people equated the Cross with torture, suffering, and death.  It was a cursed sign.  And yet, when Jesus willingly accepted the Cross and died a criminal’s death, he changed the Cross from a symbol of death and despair into a symbol of life and hope! Christ used the fruit of the Cross, death itself, and destroyed the greatest evil. As we sing at Easter time, “By death He has trampled down death, and granted life to all.” This is why we Christians continually make the sign of the Cross, and place Crosses around our neck and throughout our homes! Because the Cross represents a symbol of love, joy, hope, power and ultimate victory. 

First, the Cross reminds us of the LOVE God the Father had for the world.  The Bible says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.”  God loved the world so much that he allowed his son to be cruelly killed on the Cross as a sacrifice for our sins and as a means to destroy death itself! What greater love is there than to allow your own son to be killed in order to save others, yet God did that for us!

The Cross reminds us of the JOY of paradise.  Many hymns of our church recall how Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise because of the forbidden tree.  And yet it is also a tree, the tree of the Cross that has opened the doors of paradise once again for all believers. Understanding this is the beginning of true and everlasting joy!

The Cross reminds us of a HOPE that is greater than the darkest despair.  When Jesus was crucified, his disciples fell into despair.  They had abandoned, denied and betrayed Jesus.  They had placed all their hope in him, and now he was dead.  For three days they lived in utter agony.  And yet, after the resurrection, they understood the Cross in a new way.  It no longer symbolized despair, but represented hope for all people. Death is not the end, because the resurrection will come!

The Cross is a symbol of POWER.  Often in the world, it appears that evil conquers good.  Yet the Cross reminds us that sin will not have the last word.  Evil will not last forever.  For us Orthodox, the Cross and the Resurrection are inseparable.  Maybe evil and suffering appear to win at first, but the resurrection will come. The struggles of today will not last.  God will have the last word!

The Cross is a symbol of VICTORY.  Through the death of Jesus on the Cross, the greatest evil, death itself, was destroyed.  When Jesus died and entered Hades, the devil trembled.  The evil tool of the Cross became a tool for destroying the power of hell itself.  Many of our hymns describe the devil trembling when he sees Christ himself enter into Hades and cries out, “My spirit trembles, and now I must cast out Adam and his posterity.  A tree brought them to my realm, but now the tree of the Cross brings them back again to paradise.”

Ultimately, Satan no longer has power over humanity.  He can no longer keep us captive in hell for all eternity. The Cross is our reminder of that victory “Death has been swallowed up in victory!” as St. Paul proclaims, “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” So we hold up the sign of the Cross today as a symbol of love, joy, hope and victory.

In today’s Gospel lesson however, we also hear Jesus give one more very clear meaning for the Cross. The Cross shows us the PATH OF LIFE we must walk each and every day. “If anyone wants to be my disciple,” Jesus says, “he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The Cross reminds us that we must walk a life of sacrifice for the other, a life of self-denial, and a life of unconditional love for the other. We will never discover the abundant and rich life in Christ without first dying to our own desires and wills, and placing Christ before all else.

The life of an authentic Christian is surely not easy. That is why the Cross symbolizes, par excellence, our path of salvation. Yes, we may be called to suffer. Yes, we may be called to walk a painful path. Yes, we may even be called to die. Yet, it is all doable for one reason – through the Cross we know joy has come into the world!

A life of self denial, sacrifice, and the cross is not a masochistic life, but when understood and lived properly, it is a life of great joy, of incredible discovery, of authentic abundance. The Church teaches that the more we deny ourselves and give away, the more we will receive. When we learn to carry our cross and die, we will then discover a true, resurrected life.

We venerate your Cross, O Master, and Your holy resurrection we glorify.

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