This is the eve of the Sunday of the Cross. Tonight at Vespers we watched as Archbishop DMITRI carried the cross from the altar to the icon stand in the center of the Church. The congregation, following the lead of the bellowing deacons, sang the toparion repeatedly: “Oh Lord save Your people and bless Your inheritance, Grant victory to Orthodox Christians over their enemies, and by virtue of Your Cross preserve Your habitation.”
Why the Cross, and why now? As the Archbishop reminded us, we venerate the Cross in the center of the Great Fast because it reminds us what all of this is about. It isn’t about restriction, it isn’t about comfort, and it isn’t even about growing. It is about living, but the kind of living that only takes place when we participate with Christ to the point of sharing in His crucifixion. My Lenten troubles and my ascetic feats are nothing compared to death on a cross, and even this is nothing without participation with Christ.
The fact is that we can easily avoid our cross, and we can easily avoid Christ. It looks good, reasonable, and healthy. After all, avoiding our crosses so often look like avoiding death. We need to be close enough to Christ, and be under enough obedience to see how we can follow him to our death, knowing that we have the same power in us that rose Christ from the dead.
In our historical perspective we often only see the crucifixion in light of the resurrection, but before we can get there we need to see – in its stark reality – the cross.
After tonight’s service we drove home past several phenomenal architectural church buildings. One of them had a rather typical sign on its electronic marquee: “come grow with us”. To a certain extant, this message is opposed to the Cross. As Christians we could be easily saying: “come die with us”. We are after all the Church of the martyrs.
Fr. Joseph Huneycutt suggests that the only appropriate Christian bumper sticker is the cry of St. John the Baptist, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Any religion can get on board with the resurrection, but the crucifixion – which even Plato saw to be the unavoidable consequence of a Divine Incarnation – is something that is distinctively Christian. As the troparion says, is “by virtue of Your Cross” that preserves the Kingdom of God. It is not a humanistic fixation of growth, it is not news of a get-out-of-jail-free grace, but the incredible story of a real man who is fully God climbing on a tree to die and trample down Death.
Hard to swallow? Yeah, it is for me too.