The Glory of the Cross

Fr. Demetrios Carellas

“But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.” [1]

St. Paul calls the cross glory. The most humiliating and degrading form of death during his lifetime, he calls glory; his only glory in the world. Why? How does one understand this seemingly foolish statement of the Apostle of the Gentiles? Well, dear children of God, to get a glimpse of this awesome mystery, we must go back; before the crucifixion, before the parting of the Red Sea, before the creation of man. In fact, before creation itself. Yes. We must return to the point when there was no time or creation. And then we’ll move step by step to Golgotha. And hopefully when we reach the foot of the cross, during this very quick journey, we will see a little more clearly as to why the cross is not only the glory of St. Paul, but is destined to be each of us’ only glory in life.

So, since this is kind of a journey we are going to take, let’s begin our journey by saying a prayer for guidance: † O Lord Jesus Christ, Who did journey with Luke and Cleopas down the road to Emmaus, journey with us; as we journey in our minds, seeking to better understand the glory that is the cross. And grant that this may be not just a mental journey, but also a journey which leads into our hearts and gives the joy of the cross a light there that glows forever. Amen.

Once upon a time, there was absolutely nothing. Nothing, that is, except God. But, God was so filled with love, that He could not exist as one person. He existed in a mystery, as the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God, however, wanted to share His love even more than within the Trinity, so He began to create the entire universe. Through His Son, the Father created everything visible and invisible. How? By simply saying, “Let there be...”, and there was. It was so easy for God, in His great infinite love, to create the universe. The Prophet and King, David, was told through God’s Holy Spirit how easy the creation of the vast universe occurred. We read this Psalm [2] every Vespers service, and I’m going to quote some of the verses from it: “Thou stretchest out the heavens as it were a curtain; Thou has appointed the clouds for Thine ascent, and walked upon the wings of the wind; Thou makest Thine angels spirits and Thy ministers a flame of fire; The mountains rise up and the plains sink down unto the place which Thou has established them; He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and green herbs for the service of man; Thou lookest upon the earth and maketh it tremble, Thou touches the mountains and they smoke.” Is it any wonder that in the middle of this psalm, David shouted out with joy, “How magnificent and how magnified are Thy works , O Lord, in wisdom hast Thou created them all, the earth is full of Thy creation!” And the pinnacle of this creation, made in His image and likeness was man; upon whose face He breathed the Breath of Life. And in His great love, not desiring that man should be alone, He formed woman from the rib of man. And then God placed man and woman, as it’s called in the Septuagint, not the Garden of Eden, but the Paradise of Delight. The most beautiful place in all of His creation. And our holy fathers tell us that it was not just a garden, but a church; for here is where Christ our God used to come down and talk with Adam and Eve. Here they lived, they worshipped. They talked to Him in prayer, and they received many good things from Him. Everything was in peace and harmony. There were no wars, no diseases, no natural disasters like Hurricane Diane. God made everything in beauty and in love. And sometimes we lose sight of that: God made everything in beauty and in love. Adam and Eve lived, for a time, like innocent children in the wonderful, garden church. But, the evil one tricked them into the sin of disobedience. They partook of the Tree of Knowledge; the fruit of that tree. And what the serpent promised to be the most delectable fruit was very bitter to them. The bitterness tasted by Adam and Eve would affect all of creation. For now, two things came into the world which God did not create; and this is something else we also forget: God did not create sin, God did not create death. And the Tree of Life, which was also in this garden, which held the mystery of everlasting life, was now put under guard by the Lord. A cherubim with a flaming sword, that turned every which way, was assigned to guard it. Man had lost that path to everlasting life. But, God would give His people little glimpses of the Tree of Life - revealing hints as to both its tribulation and its power.

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we are told that Jacob blesses his two grandsons in the sign of the cross.[3] So, right away we know something, that cross and blessing, there’s some meaning there. Moses used the sign of the cross to part the Red Sea. First, he took his staff this way, and the waters parted. And then across like this, and the waters came together.[4] So, now we see that this cross sign has some power. Then another characteristic of the cross came on later. It was a time in the wilderness for the Jews when things were really bad. They had nothing to eat or drink. And they came to a place after three days of not being able to drink anything, and the water was very bitter. The people cried to Moses, and Moses cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. And he took the tree and he cast it into that bitter water, and this tree made that water sweet.[5] Later on in that same life of the early Jews, Moses was to do battle with Amalek, the most hated enemy of the Jews. And he was told by God to go up on a hill and stretch out his arms in this fashion.[6] And as long as Moses had his arms this way, the people of Israel prevailed. But, when he got tired, and his arms fell down, Amalek began to win. So, Aaron and Hur held up his arms throughout the battle. And while the cross shape prevailed, the children of Israel prevailed.[7] Later on in the life of the Jews, after being very disobedient to the Lord, the Lord sent deadly serpents to bite them. And having been bitten by one, many of them died. And so they came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned against God. Do something so that we can be healed of this dreaded serpent.’ So God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze figure of the serpent and put it on a wooden staff and hold it high. Ad all the people who were bit by the deadly serpent that looked at the bronze figure, were healed.[8]

Something is beginning to form about this cross, this tree in the minds of the people. King David called the cross the footstool of the Messiah's feet.[9] And King Solomon said that the Tree of Life is wisdom, and he encouraged everyone to cling to it as to the Lord.[10] And finally Isaiah even went so far to say that the cross would be composed of three types of wood, and it would be placed in the sanctuary to bring more beauty to the sanctuary, and it would be used to make glorious the place of the feet of the Messiah.[11]

So, the Israelis, in new scripture who lived about the time of Jesus, could begin to form an image of some life-giving tree, which would perhaps be shaped like a cross and would be very powerful in the hands of the Messiah. Then Jesus Himself came and preached that the Messiah would have to be lifted up on the cross, and that those who follow after Him would to take up their cross. But, the Jews did not listen carefully to these words of Jesus. They had already decided what type of Messiah was going to come. Someone who would conquer their enemies, and reestablish the kingdom of Israel as the greatest power on the earth. It had to be this type of Messiah. And if He came with some kind of cross-shaped tree, it would be used, obviously they thought, to destroy all the enemies: all the armies who had been enslaving the chosen people of Israel for so long. Can’t you just picture them thinking and saying among themselves, ‘What is this great new instrument of power? When will it make its appearance?” Well, it finally made its appearance. And when it came, everyone including those who had lived for Jesus and with Jesus for three years... everyone shrieked back in horror. What? The Messiah, the invincible Warrior and Deliverer of the Israelites carries a large, wooden cross up a hill to be crucified? He is beaten, He is spit upon, He is crowned with thorns and nailed to the cross where He would die? Where’s the power? Where’s the deliverance? Where is the defeat of the enemies of Israel? I wonder if we can imagine the total despair of the disciples as they huddled in terror behind the locked doors for fear of the Jews. All their hopes died with Jesus when He died on the cross. The cross became for them a symbol of defeat. But, it was in this state of total helplessness and despair that the risen Lord appears to them, and soon they are transfigured as He was - from the valley of despair to the mountain of joy. And they begin to see the cross in a new light. Moses, through the cross, defeated Amalek. Jesus, through the cross, conquered the greatest enemy of all: the evil one. And along with the evil one: sin and death; two creatures of the creation which God didn’t create. The deceiver himself was now deceived. And this is why St. Paul cries out with joy, “O death where is thy sting, O Hades where is thy victory?”[12] In Moses’ time, those bitten by deadly serpents in the wilderness were healed when they gazed upon the bronze serpent raise on a wooden staff. But, now those who fall into sin and death who are bitten by the evil serpent, receive forgiveness and everlasting life when they look upon the cross and the Lord who was nailed upon it. So, the cross becomes to those who believe the symbol of victory. Victory over the evil and his demons. Victory over death through salvation in Jesus. Is it any wonder then why St. Paul calls the cross glory?

But, there's more, dear brethren which we should point out regarding the glory of the cross. For that is why we’ve journeyed all the way back before time and creation. God, the Son, through Whom this vast universe - I’m going to pause a minute to look at this vast universe. I read an article in Newsweek about two weeks ago. They had taken a photograph (how they did it I don’t know) of the center of the Milky Way. And they showed a picture and in the center there was this hole (it looked like a hole) 30,000 light years across. Any physics majors know that it takes the speed of light travels at 186,000 miles a second. So, it takes light from one end of that hole to the other 30,000 years to get to that spot going at the speed of light. And that is only part of the Milky Way. So, you can imagine how big the universe is. The God who created this vast universe then, and all of its content with ease, with the greatest of ease and with love, through Whom all mankind was created with ease in God’s image and likeness, Who Himself took upon our flesh in the womb of the Virgin... this all-loving, and all-compassionate, and all-powerful God chose the cross as His instrument of salvation for us all. And we must exclaim like the hymnologists do in some of the hymns: O great mystery! Tell me, beloved, can anything in the universe be glory then next to the cross of Jesus? Now, if this is something that you just can’t grasp now, it’s something that you have to think about everyday. What happened? All of this creation by the most magnificent God Who can’t be explained, Who Himself becomes man and He chooses the cross as the instrument of salvation, how can anything else then on earth be glory but that?

I want to take a peek at the second half of that statement. Through His glory, the cross, the world is crucified to him (that is St. Paul) and he to the world. The world here, as St. Chrysostom tells us, is not heaven or earth, but the affairs of life: the good, the bad and the indifferent affairs of life; the praises and the rebukes; all the materialism; the knowledge or lack of it; the feign whatever. They are all dead to St. Paul, and he to them through the cross. But, for this to be coming true, for each of us, the cross has to become my personal glory too. And this can only happen if I totally abandon myself and submit my life completely into God’s hands. In other terms, I am being called to pick up my cross, and to taste the bitter vinegar of suffering... Not to hide from it, but to accept it... Not to cover it up, but to embrace it... Not to run away from it, but to ascend to it. Look at our Lord Jesus. St. Chrysostom tells us: ‘He did not descend from the cross not because He could not, but because He would not. For Him Whom the tyranny of death could not restrain, how could the nails of the cross restrain?' He could overcome death. So if He wanted, He didn’t have to be nailed there. He was there because He wanted to be, by His choice.

But, we have nothing to fear. We are not being called to become masochistic here. Far from it. We are being called to accept suffering as a part of this temporary existence so that the power of the cross can be made manifest in us to comfort us, and to change our sorrow into joy. Unfortunately, most people today do everything to avoid inconvenience much less suffering. A few examples: We now have remote controlled TV, so we don’t have to strain to walk three steps to change the channel; We now have garage door openers because to lift the garage door may cause a cramp in my arm; We are told that there are new diet pills or types of diets which we can get on which tell us we can eat whatever we want, and still lose ugly fat. We live in a world where a person chooses either to deny suffering and pain or to handle it with his or her own powers and abilities. A sign in a hospital the other day that I noticed led me to ponder on this dilemma. It said: Pain Control Center. And I thought, I just made up a hypothesis of what this could be where anybody who’s suffering, they run into this pain control center, you see them coming inside and then they pop out the other side and they’re very happy. Of course, that’s not what the pain control center was for, but we really have that type of dilemma in our lives today. Some people try to conquer all of their problems through the power of positive thinking, to quote a very familiar thing you heard today. The ‘I’m okay and I can do it’ syndrome, and when this fails the backup is the pain control squad. It’s called an action when the person drinks heavily, may go into drugs, may catch a very prominent disease of workoholism (bury everything in the work, in order words), lives a loose and carefree life. So, this is how we choose to solve the problems. We either attack them with our own strengths or we call upon the pain control squad. The cross provides us with an alternative way of drinking the bitter waters of life. Instead of denying our suffering, or seeking to personally conquer our pains, we are called to take them to the foot of the cross. And in that state of total helplessness, like the disciples were in that locked room, we’re called to cry out to God to send down the cross’ power upon us so we can have that victory.

What are some of the bitter waters we have to drink in this life? Let’s look at a few: What about broken relationships? Between a parent and a child, where over the years communication just fades away, where it’s almost nonexistent or maybe nonexistent. And a big wall goes up between the two. And let’s say the parent begins to hate the child, and is very upset. Or relationships between the two close friends that go sour. Or what if two people supposedly in love, married after years, then one of the partners says: ‘I want out; I don’t love you anymore.’ That’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow in life. How do we handle that? Well, if we take the ‘I’m able to do it myself’ routine, we build a wall up, and we say, ‘I’m better than this person, they’re at fault.’ Or we may go into the ‘why me’ syndrome, and try to get everybody’s sympathy. And our bitterness then is multiplied because we get hatred in our hearts for this person who loved us and doesn’t love us anymore. What we don’t see is that we don’t love them either. Because if we did, the fact that they stopped loving us wouldn’t matter. I’ll say that again: The fact that they stopped loving us doesn’t matter. So the cross tells us, how do we handle this? We put Jesus’ cross there and we see Him on the cross, and we hear Him say: “Forgive them.”[13] Now He is righteous, we’re not. And He loves everybody, and we don’t. So, in light of that confession of our Lord, we see a new dimension about love. The joy of love is not from the receiving it from man, but in being able to give it to man without expecting anything in return. And that type of love only comes from God, and He gives it through the cross to those who will do it.

What about a sudden physical crisis? That’s a pretty bitter pill. You’re very healthy and happy, and then you’re told you have cancer. Or you’re very athletic or very beautiful and you’re in a car wreck and you’re disfigured and deformed forever. What does this world have to offer you? All the same syndromes: ‘I’m great’ routine... the pain control squad. Why go that route? Why not take it to the cross? And in the cross you’ll see that Jesus loves you and you’re precious to Him no matter how you look or no matter how you live in this temporary life. And then death can’t touch you. Physical pain... disease... has no control. Because you know this isn’t home... you’re visiting. And you know that this type of thing only brings you closer to coming home sooner. But, you can only find that through the cross.

The death of a loved one. Another bitter pill. So many people I’ve met who try to overcome that by denying the death. It’s as if they keep the dead person alive. I had a situation not too long ago where the parents just couldn’t accept the death of the child. They couldn’t picture the child’s body going into that cold ground. One of the parents wanted to have the child cremated and kept on a mantle so it would always be there. You have to weep... you have to feel sorrow for that type of thought because it’s based on this world here. You take that dead person to the cross, and you find that the cross has destroyed death. You find that the person is asleep and that there will be a day when everyone will wake up and we’ll be together again with Christ; not for a few years, but for eternity. You can’t get that hope in this world, only the cross can give you that hope.

Loss of wealth and position. That’s happening a lot today cause many people are out of jobs. I see so many people suffering in that respect and they become very bitter. They feel that the world had shortchanged them and it’s not fair. And all that time that they waste in bitterness, they could have gone to the cross and heard the Master say, “Seek the Kingdom of Heaven first and everything else is going to be added to you.”[14] Then they would have enough strength to get through each day and, believe me, something would happen because the power of the cross is great and mysterious.

What about some real examples of situations like this? I read about a woman, young woman, who knew this particular man (he was a doctor before he became a priest and then a bishop). And she happened to come into his office one day when she was fifteen, and she saw the Gospel book there, and she said, “What are you doing reading that stupid book?” And he looked at her and he said, “Have you ever read it?” And she said, “No.” And he said, “Well, do me a favor. Before you judge what the book is like, read it.” Well, she did, but she read it with that attitude that ‘I’m in control.’ And it locked in. She started thinking, “Well, things are so great.” She was a very attractive girl, too. And she was feeling the power of the Word. She got married a few years later. And about a week after her honeymoon, she went to the doctor because something was bothering her. And she found that she had an incurable disease. A disease that not only would waste her away, but would disfigure her. And there was no cure. Well, at first, she turned to The Word and she was very strong in it. And she wrote this particular person, who was now a bishop, and she told him, “Oh, now that I’m on my back, I see even greater powers!” And he said, “Don’t trust in your powers because right now you’re trusting in yourself. You’ve got to let go of that self-will, because it may not be this way always.” Well, it happened: Her husband couldn’t take it anymore, so he left. And so she was in a state of total despair, and she cried out to God. And He came to her at that moment in a way He had never come to her before. And she had somebody write this note to that bishop: “I am finished. I can no longer ascend to God, but it is He Who comes down to me.”

There was a priest in Alaska, this happened last Easter. Alaska is a very treacherous area with the islands. Children are lost there forever. Maybe the tide sweeps one out or something happens, and they lose maybe a couple of hundred kids a year. One priest had a seven-year-old boy, and just before Pascha, they lost him. But, he sang “Christ is Risen” with tears in his eyes. And he told another priest, “I didn’t think I could do it. I told God, ‘There’s nothing left, I have nothing. I’m totally in despair.’ But, when I reached that point, I felt power. And I said ‘Christ is Risen’ in a way I’ve never said it before. And I knew at that point that my son was not dead. Physically? Yes. But, my son is not dead, because he’s with Christ.”

Then, there’s the loss of material things. Well, the best example of that for me is good old Prophet Job; who when everything was taken away from him, he made this statement: “As it seemed good unto the Lord, so it has come to pass, blessed be the name of the Lord.”[15] Now do you see what’s happening here, in these examples? Where the world would say, ‘Oh, Disgusting! terrible!’... All that bitterness through the cross is turned into sweetness. And only the cross can do that.

If there is a punch line to all of this, it’s now: Until I can experience and you can experience the bitter pain of the cross, then we can never know the sweet joy of the Resurrection. Whose pain am I talking about now? My pain? No. I’m talking about the pain of my Lord Jesus. That’s whose pain I’m talking about. Have you ever stopped and meditated on that hymn that we sing every Holy Thursday, “ Σημερον Κρεμαται?”: “Today He, Who suspended the earth upon the waters, is hung upon a tree.” We can add so many of our own: He, Who fed the universe with His hands, now finds nails like this one; this size, this type of nail;[16] nails in those hands, which fed the universe! He, Who wrapped the clouds in the air with light, is wrapped in mockery! He, Who is the King of kings, is crowned with thorns!... We must be able to see what He did for us. We must be able to take His pain. Because that’s when we get an awareness of something that is so critical to all of our lives: that He didn’t die on the cross two thousand years ago for the world, though He did, but that’s so impersonal. What happens in that revelation of that instant that the pain of Jesus is this: He died for me... He did this for me. Personally. And the only thing you can say after something like that is, “Oh how he loves me.” And then for the rest of your life, there’s a little pain in your heart because you know: He’s not worthy of any suffering. But, you’re worthy of everything. Like the good thief said on the cross, “We justly are condemned, but not Him.”[17] Then you’re able to see: His suffering goes beyond everything. He, Who existed before time and creation, suffered personally for me. And at that point the cross becomes my cross. At that point, I can take the cross of Jesus and cast it into the sea of all of the afflictions that hit me in life no matter what they are. And in light of the awareness of His suffering: Although the suffering we face will cause us pain, somehow in that pain we’ll always find joy. Somehow, in all that bitterness, we’ll always be able to find sweetness. We become imitators of Jesus; Who, when He was suffering His totally unjust passion, did not fix His eyes on the hands of those who beat Him, or the mouths of those who falsely accused Him, or the feet of those friends who abandoned Him in His greatest time of need. No. He fixed His eyes on the hands of the Father, Who gave Him the cup to drink, and He ascended the cross. When we see the cross for what it really is in our lives, it helps us not to look side to side. Because when we are hurt, the first thing we do is look at why we were hurt. Who hurt us? And we focus on this person, or that event, or this disease, or whatever. But, if we look right at the cup - at the hands of the Father holding the cup - and say, “He gave it to me. I don’t know, I don’t know why... I don’t understand it... It hurts... But I do know this: If He gave it to me, then I have to take it. And I also know this: If He gave it to me, what now seems bitter and unbearable is going to become sweet.” We become like the Prophet Ezekiel, when we abandon ourselves before that cross. Listen what happened to him: In one vision, he said, “I look and behold, a hand stretched out to me, and in it a volume of a book. And he unrolled this book before me. And in it the front and back were written upon; it was filled with writing. And what was written upon it was lamentations, mournful song and woe.” He saw a book filled with pain. “And He said to me,” God said to him, “‘Son of man, eat this volume.’ So He opened my mouth and caused me to eat the volume.” And listen to what he says next, “So, I ate it. And it was in my mouth as sweet honey.”[18] What appeared on the surface to be disgusting, God told him to eat it, and he did it. And it became sweet because he obeyed the Master.

When we come before that cross abandoned, looking for power, then we become like St. Paul, and we can say as He said: “I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me. And the life I live now, I live for Him Who died for me, who gave Himself up for me.”[19] So, this is what we’re called to do. We’re called to be the possessors of the greatest power beyond creation because Creator Himself made it so: The cross, the tree of life. We have to remember that God never promised us an escape from life, but He promised us a full life, and with a cross. Sometimes big, sometimes small. But, if you look at life in this world as a whole, dear brothers and sisters, and you’re honest with life, and you take the facades away and the phony faces, you have to see that life can be one of two things: it can either be agony or a struggle. The two words in Greek are very close: Αγων and Αγωνια. But, the difference in their meaning is magnanimous. With the cross, life becomes a struggle. But, it’s a struggle that has a promise of joy and everlasting life and even sweetness in this world; sweetness in pain. Without the cross, life becomes agony. Doesn’t make you wonder sometimes why we choose the agony? Why we choose to be bitter? Why we choose to think we are in control? Why we choose to hurt when others hurt us? When we have this other alternative, where the Master Himself gives us the power to overcome it all. As St. Paul says, “...we become more than conquerors.”[20] And look what happens: The flaming sword in front of the tree and the cherubim move away. The first time it moves away is when the thief came up. He came marching up, according to the hymnology of the church, with the cross. And as soon as they saw he had the cross, then the cherubim and the sword moved back and opened the door of Paradise. So, let us pick up that cross. Let us dip it into the sea of life, so that our bitternesses can become sweet. Let us take and raise it and lift it up high, as Moses did over Amalek, and keep it up so that all the real enemies of our life - the evil one, sin and death - will be conquered and destroyed. Let us take the blood from that cross that is offered to us every Liturgy...[21]

References

[1]Galatians 6:14

[2]Psalm 103. Note: All references to the Psalms will be given according to the Septuagint text. If you would like to look them up in another Bible, just add one to the Psalm number. The verse number will remain the same.

[3]Genesis 48.

[4]I apologize for the inconvenience in not seeing the visual, but this sermon was transcribed from a tape. I cannot duplicate the arm motions.

[5]Exodus 15:22-25.

[6]See footnote 4.

[7]Exodus 17:8-13.

[8]Numbers 21:4-9.

[9]Psalm 98:5.

[10]Proverbs 3:13-18.

[11]Isaiah 60:13.

[12]1 Corinthians 15:55.

[13]Luke 23:34.

[14]Paraphrased from Matthew 6:33.

[15]Job 1:21 (from the Septuagint text).

[16]See footnote 4.

[17]Paraphrased from Luke 23:41.

[18]Ezekiel 2:8-3:3.

[19]Galatians 2:20.

[20]Romans 8:37.

[21]I apologize for this but here is where the tape cuts off at the end of his workshop.

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