Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross

Homily given by Melissa Nassiff on March 22, 2009

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

Today is the Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross.  What does that mean? What is the cross? And why do we have this now, right in the middle of Lent?

If you look around the church, you see a lot of crosses - on furnishings, on vestments, over the altar, carried in procession. Many of us are wearing crosses. And many times during the service, we draw the sign of the cross over our bodies. Obviously the cross is important to us. But do you ever stop to think why? To think what it means?

Well what it means now, of course, is different from what it meant originally.

What do you suppose Jesus' listeners thought when he told them, as we read in today's Gospel,  to "deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me"? After all, when he said that he had not yet been crucified, so the cross had not yet taken on the whole new layer of meaning that his crucifixion gave it. To his listeners at the time it was just a cruel, painful method of torture that resulted in death. It was used to execute criminals, terrorists, enemies of the Roman occupation force. As a matter of fact it was a fairly common method, and apparently had been used for centuries by the Romans and other empires.  People who were crucified were bad guys, objects of contempt.  Evidently, before reaching the place of crucifixion outside the city, they were often fastened to the crossbeam, which was very heavy, and forced to walk through the streets while people spat and jeered at them.

And yet Jesus told his followers to take up their cross. Why would he say that? Isn't that kind of like saying "embrace your electric chair" or "put a hangman's noose around your own neck"?

Well, yes, in a manner of speaking, I think he does say that. The cross was shameful, and he says "ignore the shame; don't be concerned about what people think of you."

The cross was painful, and he says "don't let the fear of pain or discomfort deter you from following me." The cross was heavy and hard to carry, and he says "don't let difficulty make you give up."  The cross ultimately meant death, and he says "make me your first priority; be willing to put me before everything else, even your own life."

So even before his own crucifixion, Jesus told us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Then he was crucified, and now we see the cross in a whole new light.  As a matter of fact, I learned recently, to be able to "see" is the root meaning of the Greek word for God - Theos. Jesus, the Christ, the ultimate "seer" allows us to see all things in a new light.  He allows us to see all things as they are meant to be - transfigured by the love of God.

But first he was nailed to the cross.  I remember when I was a kid, watching "The Robe" or some other one of those biblical epic movies.  Jesus was hanging on the cross and the soldiers were taunting him, saying "if you really are the Christ, the Son of God, come down from the cross" - and I sat there glued to the screen, willing him to come down!  "Come on, show them who you really are," I thought. "You can come down from that cross - you don't have to die!"

Well that was the point, wasn't it. He didn't have to die. He did it voluntarily. As the priest says in every Divine Liturgy, "on the night in which he was betrayed - or rather, gave himself up for the life of the world..."  We are reminded every week that this was part of the plan. He came to live for us, and he came to die for us. Why did he do that? Love. "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that all who believe on him should not die, but have eternal life."

So when he tells us "take up" your cross it's not "bear" your cross as something we have to carry grudgingly or with resignation; he says take it up, pick it up - a proactive, voluntary action.  

Not many of us are called to be martyrs and die as He did, but all of us are called to give up self-centeredness, to sacrifice some of our own pleasure and comfort and acquisitiveness, for His sake and the sake of our neighbors. I think that's why the church emphasizes not just fasting and prayer during Lent, but also alms-giving. If we're going follow him and to be like him, we're going to be consumed with love for our neighbors - not just those we know, but also those we don't  know. And we're going to willingly put their needs ahead of our own.

Until Jesus voluntarily died on the cross, death had the upper hand, didn't it. Ever since Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, our lives have ended in death. But when he willingly gave himself up even to death, Jesus transformed death.  Everything he ever touched was transformed, wasn't it. He gave himself to the waters of baptism, and the water was cleansed. He gave himself to lepers and sick and unclean people, and they were made whole. He gave himself to sinners, to prodigal sons, to publicans - and they were changed. Finally he gave himself to death, even death on a cross - and both death and the cross were forever changed.

Now death no longer has the final word; we now look forward to our resurrection.

And the cross has been changed, from a sign of disgrace to the sign of triumph.  Now it represents our ultimate victory with Christ over sin and death. It represents the power that enables us to fast, to resist temptation, to give up things we want, to put the needs of others ahead of our own. As St. Paul said, "I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me." So we can deny ourselves because He did, and he enables us to do it too. And we can take up our cross and follow him, because he took up his cross.

Today we're exactly half way through Lent. For the past three weeks we have been slogging along the road through Lent, a road that's sometimes joyful, but sometimes difficult. And today we come to the Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross -  a hill in the road where we can look ahead, and see where the path is taking us, and be encouraged. We see not only the Lord's crucifixion, but the three days in Hades where he conquered death, then the resurrection, the ascension, the return to his rightful place at the right hand of the Father, adored by all the heavenly hosts, and beyond that his coming again in glory. We see him pouring out his Holy Spirit to empower his people.  And through it all we see his immense love for us, the reason for everything he did.  The cross represents all of that, and distills it all into a single powerful sign.

So what's our response to this? Well today we "adore" the cross, but that word needs a little attention. We've trivialized it in our common usage, to the point that we talk about how "I adore chocolate," or "isn't that baby adorable!" We tend to forget that the word actually means "To love with one's entire heart and soul" or "to regard with deep respect and affection,"  to reverence, to honor. It actually comes from the Latin words that mean "pray to" or "speak to." So when we adore the cross, we reverence it gratefully and prayerfully.

Now I'd like to leave you with a suggestion:  From now until the end of Lent, at least, whenever you look at a cross, or put a cross around your neck - or even, if you can make yourself take the time, when you cross yourself - do it mindfully, attentively. Think about what the cross means to you - and adore the cross.