Sermon on the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross
Reader Vitaly Permiakov
(September 14/27, 2017)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Today we celebrate the festival of the Holy Cross. In ancient Jerusalem, on the second day after celebrating the dedication, or consecration, of the Holy Sepulcher, the Church of the Resurrection, bishops and priests would bring out the relic of the True Cross, discovered by Empress Helena, and would show it, elevate it before the eyes of the people.
However, this notion of a feast of the cross may seem paradoxical to our mind: the cross in the ancient world was an instrument and symbol of inhumane torture and death. A crucified man died of exposure and shock in full view of his enemies. Yet we, Christians, celebrate the Cross of the Lord in a festival and we praise it as the “preserver of the whole universe,… the glory of angels, and the wound of demons.”1
At yesterday’s vigil we glorified through the hymns of the Church that wood upon which our Lord was crucified by his enemies. We greeted the Cross as our friend and protector, saying to it, “Rejoice, O Life-giving Cross!”2 We bowed down before it in worship as before the King. For upon it, our Lord Jesus, our King and God, was pleased to dwell willingly; there he, as Priest, offered himself as a sacrifice to deliver us from death. The glory and power which was present in the old Temple now abides in the Cross, the place where the very own body of God was placed. On this Cross our Lord spoke the words, It is finished.3 That is, his work of salvation, his dispensation was done, finished, completed with his death and resurrection.
Yesterday, we washed this wood with fragrant water to signify that when this tree was covered with the drops of the Lord’s blood, it became life-giving and a source of holiness. We elevated it in four directions, as a sign of the Lord’s victory over death which he accomplished for us through the shameful death that he endured, but which for us became a new life that was freely given to us through Christ.
St Paul says today, The word of the Cross is foolishness for those who are perishing, but for us, who are being saved, it is the power of God4 and further: for Jews demand signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to us who are the called – Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.5 The wisdom revealed from the Cross is not the wisdom of this world but the revelation of the divine mystery, the divine plan to restore us from our fallen, corrupt, mortified state and to call us back to the kingdom of the Father. The Cross, the vehicle of death, is itself the eloquent word of God, from which the Word of God himself speaks to us, stretches his arms to invite us into his embrace, to call us to return to God: like the Wisdom of God speaking in the book of Proverbs, so we can hear our Lord speak to us – come, eat of my Bread, my crucified and risen Body; come, drink of my wine, my Blood spilled for you, and become not foolish but wise. Abandon death and all its ways, and choose life, the life which I give you by dying for you.
“Take up your cross (daily) and follow me.“8 Of course, the new way of life for us who confess ourselves as Christians is to live in a righteous way: to endure wrongs, to fulfill the commandments, be watchful, focused, and doing our duty. This alone could be difficult enough for all of us, for we to various degrees live lives of compromise: sometimes we pray, go to church, try to serve God, but then we also like to have time for ourselves, to do what we want. All the time we make compromises with ourselves and with the world. But the Word of God does not compromise – God calls us to himself, wanting to save us all, even though we fail to call out to him.
He calls us from his Cross, revealing that there is a superabundance of the gifts, love, wisdom and mercy of God, an overflowing fountain, a mystical ocean of divine dispensation, of eternal life which we receive in Christ when we are baptized with him and when we partake in the Eucharist of the Body that was broken and the Blood that was spilled.
The holy apostle speaks further in the same epistle: consider your own call, brethren: not many of you were wise, not many were powerful, but God chose what is foolish in this world to shame the wise, things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are, that no one may boast in the presence of God.10 The true servant of God sees himself as having nothing, realizing his weakness and lowliness, but in this weakness, like in the Cross or in the sufferings of martyrs, the power of God is made manifest more clearly. The true disciple of Christ sees his own life as a divine gift which he does not own but which was given to him. Just to live and breathe is a gift from God, a gift of grace without which we would dissolve into dust, but to live the life in Christ is an even greater gift given to us by our Lord from the Cross. The immortal Word of God came to die for us that this abundant gift may be granted unto us if we are prepared to receive it, if we realize that we are nothing and we have nothing. Only through Christ are we able to receive this great gift, the resurrected life. Therefore, on this day we rejoice, “for through the Cross, the joy of salvation came to all the world.“11
Thus, as we behold and bow down before the image of the holy wood of the Cross sanctified by the body of our Saviour, our crucified and risen King of glory, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, let us reflect upon this great mystery, which we are deemed worthy to receive. Let us be thankful for the gift of this earthly life that we have, but even more let us be thankful for the gift of eternal life that is opened for us through the revelation of God’s immeasurable mercy and love on this life-giving tree. Amen.
Dr Vitaly Permiakov is Assistant Professor of Dogmatic and Liturgical Theology at Holy Trinity Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.
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