Homily for the Sunday After the Exaltation
of the Precious and Life-giving Cross
Archpriest Alexander Webster
(September 17/30, 2018)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spir­it.

When the Lord Jesus Christ was cru­ci­fied, St. Peter the Apos­tle fled from the Cross!

When the Lord Jesus Christ was cru­ci­fied, St. James the Apos­tle fled from the Cross!

When the Lord Jesus Christ was cru­ci­fied, St. Andrew the Apos­tle fled from the Cross!

In fact, the only Apos­tle who stood fast by Jesus in His hour of great­est tri­al … was St. John—and he was a mere youth! Where were the Apos­tles, the cho­sen dis­ci­ples, those future lead­ers of the Ortho­dox Church? Hid­ing! Scared for their lives! As far from the Cross as they could pos­si­bly be in Jerusalem! Oh, how weak-willed, how human in the worst sense they were at that moment! But they were and are not alone in their shame.

I’ve often won­dered how many of us Ortho­dox Chris­tians in Amer­i­ca today would be will­ing to risk our lives for a cause greater than our­selves. How many of us would be will­ing to suf­fer for our Lord if con­front­ed by a hos­tile power—say, a Hit­ler­ian Ger­many, or a Stal­in­ist Rus­sia, or a fanat­i­cal Mus­lim enti­ty like the Turks of old or Iran today, or some rogue ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion. ISIS, any­one? Or even our own U.S. gov­ern­ment, if it were to turn on us Ortho­dox Chris­tians? How many of us would glad­ly take up the Cross? How many of us would not flee?

I’ll tell you how many—not many!

The Protes­tant the­olo­gian H. Richard Niebuhr crit­i­cized the lib­er­al “social gospel” move­ment in 1937 as advo­cates of this fan­ta­sy: “A God with­out wrath brought men with­out sin into a king­dom with­out judg­ment through the min­is­tra­tions of a Christ with­out a cross.”1

Many of us Ortho­dox Chris­tians, sad to say, are spir­i­tu­al cow­ards who would flee from the Cross before its shad­ow could even dark­en our path. And we have even less of an excuse than the Holy Apostles—even less! You see, until our Lord’s Res­ur­rec­tion, the Apos­tles and dis­ci­ples had no com­pelling rea­son to stand firm­ly in their faith, to sac­ri­fice them­selves for the cause of Christ, to take up their own cross­es. Either they weren’t lis­ten­ing care­ful­ly when our Lord Jesus Christ proph­e­sied about His death and res­ur­rec­tion, or their faith at that time wasn’t strong enough.

But we know bet­ter! We live in the light of the Res­ur­rec­tion! We have some 2,000 years of Chris­t­ian wit­ness behind us! And yet we, many of us, would still flee from the Cross!

Now, I know this sum­mons to the Cross is not a pop­u­lar thing to preach. I know it doesn’t fit the “hap­py, care­free reli­gion” so many of us crave in this coun­try. I know it scares some of us, “turns off” oth­ers, and depress­es still oth­ers. But I also know it’s what the Apos­tle Paul preached! I also know it’s what our Lord Jesus Christ asked of us in the Gospels! I also know it’s the des­tiny God has decreed for us Ortho­dox Christians—each one of us!

In today’s Gospel for the Sun­day after the Holy Cross, our Lord exhorts who­ev­er would fol­low Him to “deny him­self and take up his cross”.2 “His cross” —that means you and I, our own per­son­al cross!

I wear a cross every day. As a priest, I wear this rather large pec­toral cross when­ev­er I’m wear­ing a cas­sock or rias­sa, which is, of course, most of the time. As a U.S. Army chap­lain, I used to wear a cross sewn onto my uni­form, as well as a triple-bar met­al cross attached to my “dog tags” hang­ing on a chain around my neck, under­neath my uni­form. Per­haps you, too, wear a cross. They come in all sizes and designs: sim­ple Roman, triple-bar, Celtic, Mal­tese, Jerusalem.

Elderly man pushing his wife in a wheelchair We wear the cross as a reminder of our fideli­ty to Christ and to wit­ness on behalf of our Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian faith to oth­ers. A ter­ri­ble means of tor­ture, dis­hon­or, and painful, igno­min­ious death has become for us Chris­tians a sym­bol of vic­to­ry, love, for­give­ness, and sal­va­tion!

But is that all that our Cru­ci­fied Sav­ior means when He bids us to take up our cross? Is wear­ing a cross enough? Is ven­er­at­ing the Holy Cross in church today enough? Is singing, “Before Thy Cross we bow down in wor­ship,” enough?

The sec­ond cen­tu­ry Church Father Ter­tul­lian of Carthage — in his ear­li­er, Ortho­dox years — explained the Lord’s sum­mons this way: “Your cross” means your own anx­i­eties and your suf­fer­ings in your own body, which itself is shaped in a way like a cross.3 Anoth­er Church Father in the West, Cae­sar­ius of Arles in Gaul, offered this insight in the fourth cen­tu­ry, from the Lord’s per­spec­tive:

What does this mean, “take up a cross”? It means he will bear with what­ev­er is trou­ble­some, and in this very act he will be fol­low­ing me. When he has begun to fol­low me accord­ing to my teach­ing and pre­cepts, he will find many peo­ple con­tra­dict­ing him and stand­ing in his way, many who not only deride but even per­se­cute him.4

But the “Gold­en Mouthed,” St. John Chrysos­tom, in his com­men­tary on the par­al­lel Gospel say­ing in Matthew 16:24, wrote this, which may give each of us pause:

“Let him take up his cross;” set­ting forth the reproach­ful death; and that not once, nor twice, but through­out all life one ought so to do. “Yea,” saith He, “bear about this death con­tin­u­al­ly, and day by day be ready for slaugh­ter. For since many have indeed con­temned rich­es, and plea­sure, and glo­ry, but death they despised not, but feared dan­gers; I,” saith He, “will that my cham­pi­on should wres­tle even unto blood, and that the lim­its of his course should reach unto slaugh­ter; so that although one must under­go death, death with reproach, the accursed death, and that upon evil sur­mise, we are to bear all things nobly, and rather to rejoice in being sus­pect­ed.”5

Our Lord declares, Whoso­ev­er will come after me, let him deny him­self, and take up his cross, and fol­low me6 What “cross” has our Lord assigned to you? What is your per­son­al cross?

Per­haps you have a chron­ic ill­ness or phys­i­cal defect that sim­ply won’t go away. That may be your cross!

Per­haps you have a weak­ness for a par­tic­u­lar pas­sion or vice such as anger, or lust, or glut­tony, or envy, or pride. That may be your cross!

Per­haps there was some­thing ter­ri­ble you did or some­thing good you did not do ear­li­er in your life, which you deeply regret and which sim­ply won’t fade from mem­o­ry, the guilt per­sist­ing and con­vict­ing you of sin, even after you’ve con­fessed it in Holy Con­fes­sion. That may be your cross!

Per­haps you have a bad mar­riage or a poor rela­tion with a son or daugh­ter or moth­er or father or broth­er or sis­ter, and, no mat­ter what efforts you make, noth­ing seems to help. That may be your cross!

Per­haps some­one you know and love suf­fers from a fatal dis­ease or a bur­den­some hand­i­cap, and there’s noth­ing you can do about it except pray for that per­son and care for that per­son. That may be your cross!

What­ev­er your per­son­al cross hap­pens to be, know that you have one. Each of us Chris­tians has one — per­haps more than one. It stands square­ly in the door­way to the King­dom of Heav­en. There’s no way around it. If we wish to enter our Lord’s King­dom, we will, soon­er or lat­er, have to pick up that cross and car­ry it with us into the King­dom.

May our Lord God and Sav­ior Jesus Christ give each of us the strength to do so.

Amen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Father Alexander Webster, Dean of Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary The V. Rev. Arch­priest Alexan­der F.C. Web­ster, Ph.D. is Dean of Holy Trin­i­ty Ortho­dox Sem­i­nary and Pro­fes­sor of Moral The­ol­o­gy. He holds a Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh. A retired mil­i­tary chap­lain, he has authored numer­ous books and arti­cles on Chris­tian­i­ty and the moral­i­ty of war.

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