Why the Crosses around our Neck?


Sermon preached by Dimitri Newman on Sunday, April 7, 2024

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

Christ is in our midst!

What a strange symbol we wear as Christians: this cross around our necks. The cross was a tool of torture and execution in the Ancient world, most famously used and perfected by the Romans. It was an agonizing way to die; it involved “scourging and carrying the cross and then long hours nailed to the cross, suffering from the wounds of the nails, weakness, thirst, suffocation, heat and cold, constriction of the muscles, and the gradual, drop-by-drop loss of blood.” People of the ancient world understood crucifixion to be the worst possible way to die and the Romans were very inventive with their practice. When Rome laid siege to Jerusalem in the year A.D. 70, they crucified nearly five hundred people and “the soldiers, out of rage and hatred amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures…[and] space could not be found for [all] the crosses, nor crosses for [all] the bodies” (Josephus) .  

To accompany the physical pain, there was a deep shame that the victim also had to endure. The whole ordeal was done while the victim was naked and he would have had to endure mockery, insults, and degradations from the  crowds which would gather to watch the spectacle. There was also a cultural element of shame associated with this punishment: in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 it  is written “22 “If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” Many followers of  would-be messiahs abandoned their crucified leaders who were often trying to incite rebellion against the Romans because of their interpretation of this passage. Even to this day, the Muslims, who view Jesus as an important prophet, cannot accept that He died on the cross, for it would be too shameful for a prophet to die in such a manner. 

So then why do we wear this instrument of suffering and death around our necks? It would seem inappropriate, almost an insult to those who had to suffer through this torture to do so. The cross for us, has become something more than its original design. For one it reminds us of our own sufferings. Who among us has not heard about the need to “bear our cross;” our personal sufferings that we must go through. Sometimes it is hard to understand why we have to go through this suffering. Fr. Michael Keiser of blessed memory, who was an Archpriest and chair of the Department of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Archdiocese of America, proposes four reasons for why there is suffering in the world:

The first is that suffering exists because sin exists. Through sin the world became disordered and “disease, sickness, pain, and death are now roaming the hallways of our lives…[and] earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes are part and parcel of a cosmic catastrophe.” 

The second is our union with Christ. As it says in Matthew 10:22 “you will be hated by all for My name’s sake.” For the early church, in the time of martyrdom, this meant physical suffering and torture at the hands of various persecutors. Today, in the west, this is of course more of a spiritual and mental suffering; standing up for what is right, when the rest of the world seems against you. Advocating with all of your might for what you believe in, till you are exhausted and cannot see yourself continuing the fight. This is also suffering. 

The third is suffering for our own benefit. Sometimes God will allow us to go through something difficult or painful because in the end it will lead us to repentance and salvation. Our suffering can break us down to allow something greater to spring forth. Kyle, a young man I met at prison ministry, used a seed as a metaphor to explain this. He said that a seed needs to be buried in the earth, into darkness, to then break apart, before the flower can break through the ground to look at the sun. 

The fourth and last reason Fr. Michael puts forth for our suffering is our own stubbornness. Simply put, sometimes we cannot get out of our own way and all the paths out of our sufferings are put before us, but we do not take those steps required to leave it. Sometimes we are too lazy, sometimes we are too scared, and sometimes we refuse to ask for the help we need to do it. 

The cross, however, was more than suffering for Christ. Christ, through the cross, “broke down the barrier of sin…that separated man from God.” He suffered for our sakes so that we might also rise with Him. The Cross is the ultimate tool of our salvation and it cannot be separated from Christ’s Resurrection on the third day. The cross leads to something glorious, to resurrection and paradise. It is the weapon with which Christ trampled down death, by his death. Richard Rohr, Franciscan friar and ecumenical teacher, puts it this way: “ultimately, nothing is going to end in tragedy and crucifixion…new life breaks through for those who are willing to see and to cooperate with this universal mystery of resurrection.”

During lent we put ourselves through ascetical practices, denying ourselves many good things. This of course looks different for each of us depending on what is spiritually beneficial for us, but this period should involve struggle and a little bit of suffering. The Church has set the third Sunday of Lent as the Veneration of the Cross. It stands in the very middle of lent as a reminder of why we are struggling through this period. It stands in the middle as a tree, offering its shade, a staff and support to help us through, to encourage us along the way. It is a promise that our small suffering that we are willingly taking on will be of spiritual benefit for us. 

One of the verses from the Great Vespers of the Cross explains the significance of the Cross so well for us: Rejoice, life giving cross of the lord, you never conquered battle trophy of piety, support and staff of the faithful, the wall surrounding the church, and the door that leads to paradise. To you has corruption been made to vanish and be no more, death’s mighty power has been vanquished and swallowed up and we have been raised from the earth to celestial things.O truce-less foe of demons and our weapon invincible, you are the glory of Martyrs and true adornment of all the saints, calm port of salvation, that which grants the great mercy of God unto the world.

St. Gregory the Great said “The knowledge of the Cross is concealed in the sufferings of the Cross.” So the Cross of Christ shows us that we must persist through our suffering. It is also an encouragement for us to help others in their suffering. So the crosses we wear around our necks bring all these things to mind and should never be just a nice gold “t” on a chain. The cross on one hand embodies the idea of one’s personal suffering, and on the other hand shows us, through Christ’s death upon the cross and His glorious resurrection, that there is something beyond our suffering and thus it has become for us a symbol of victory, a battle standard against sin and death. 

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen