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.”1The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1959 (1937), p. 193
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”.2Mark 8:34 “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.
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.3On Idolatry 12 in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 12Another 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.4Ibid., Sermons 159.5
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.”5Homilies on Matthew [16:24], sec. 2, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, series 1, volume 10
Our Lord declares, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me6Mark 8:34What “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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.