Last month we celebrated the Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. It recalled a lecture I gave last year to my church’s fifty-plus group about the Cross right after our Liturgy that Holy Day. I was asked to speak but wasn’t given a specific direction regarding what to speak about concerning the Cross. There is so much to teach about it and I only had about twenty minutes to speak, so I pondered what I wanted to share. This article is what I shared and if I had been thinking properly I would have included this piece in last month’s Theosis.
I had been seeing several articles recently online about how we are losing sixty percent of our young people in the Orthodox Church. I am not sure how valid that number is but it seems that all Christian churches - from the various things I see on various Church websites, articles, news, and other social media - are suffering from this problem. There are multiple reasons for this but one my convictions lately is that one of the major problems we have is how we teach the faith to our children and grandchildren, especially in our homes.
My audience was mainly parents and grandparents so I decided to share some ways in which we can teach about the cross that offer kids something substantive for them to digest. Too often we teach them at a cursory level and they, like all of us, hunger for something deeper. Our young people can handle it so in the spirit of St. Paul I always try to offer “solid food” because they outgrow “milk” quickly. So, I shared some thoughts about the meaning of the cross and what it should me to us. They were thoughts I have shared my own daughter and other kids I teach – or try to when I sense I have an opening when they are in listening and receptive mode. My talk was by no means comprehensive nor was it everything we could say about the cross. It was few thoughts that resonate with me that I hoped would be helpful.
I broke my talk it down into three subtopics that I am called: 1) The Cross and Transformation; 2) The Cross and God’s Love: Understanding God more like a Doctor than a Lawyer; and finally, 3) The Cross and the Commandments
First, if I daresay it, I think the Cross becomes a little commonplace in young people’s thought, and in our thought too in the sense that we are raised in the Church seeing and understanding the Cross in the sense of sacrifice, redemption, and salvation. This is all good of course and is how we should understand it but I think it gets lost sometimes what the Cross meant at one point and why it is so amazing what it means now and what Christ really did on and by the Cross.
This requires a brief history lesson on crucifixion to really put the Cross in context. The way I try to teach it is to remind the young people that crucifixion was an ancient form of capital punishment that existed hundreds of years before Jesus was born. It was designed to kill, but kill slowly to maximize the extent of suffering. People were either nailed or tied to the cross and weakened over several days dying typically from exhaustion and asphyxiation. They basically suffocated. But they could also die from heart failure, pulmonary embolisms, cardiac ruptures, and other things. It’s a terrible way to die.
Further, I explain that despite what we have seen in icons, images, and movies, of Jesus and others, being crucified wearing loin clothes is not accurate for most crucifixions - most people were crucified completely naked. This was because crucifixion was not only meant to kill you slowly with terrible suffering, it was also meant to humiliate you and serve as a strong deterrent to anyone else not to commit similar crimes that led to this horrible fate.
Crucifixion existed at least five hundred years before Christ and was practiced in many cultures besides Rome including among Persians, Carthaginians, and Macedonians. Some sources state that it started in Persia. Alexander the Great introduced it in his empire and Rome eventually perfected it and reserved it for the worst type of criminals as well as traitors and captive armies. It still happens in pockets of the world today apparently if what you can read about online is accurate.
I explained all of this to really drive home that the Cross at one time was associated with a grisly, lowly, and humiliating type of death. I have told my daughter that we don’t have an equivalent in our culture, but the closest association we have are our own forms of capital punishment – lethal injection, the electric chair, firing squad, and hanging. I asked her one time if she could ever imagine thinking of any of those things as associated with salvation and eternal life? It is hard to imagine but that is what Christ did on and to the Cross.
So, the very first thing I try to teach about the Cross and impress on her thought and any other young person I have the opportunity to teach, is about transformation. Christ says in Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I make all things new.” He took the means of the most humiliating, suffering inducing death and transformed it into a symbol of everlasting life. When I teach this, I try to be clear what we, as Orthodox Christians, mean by symbol. Orthodox Priest Father Stephen Freeman explains it wonderfully and I am going to read a quote by him from one of his blogs.
“When the Fathers used the word “symbol,” they understood that something was actually, really and truly made present. A symbol makes present that which it represents…In our modern world, a symbol represents something that is not there, it is a sign of absence. Indeed, because our modern world-view is essentially one of nominalism, we believe that the ancient notion of symbol is simply impossible. It feels like superstition to the modern consciousness.” [I]
The Cross is an ever-present symbol and means of our salvation. This is what our Christian life is about. We are to transform daily and become increasingly like Christ. This is how we understand salvation that Christ made possible through the cross. We call it theosis or deification, where through the participation in the sacramental life of the Church – which means not just what we do on Sunday but our prayer life, fasting, and everything we do daily – we become “little Christs.”
I explain to people just like you transform into a better athlete, dancer, or student, through dedication and commitment to what you have been taught to do by your teachers and coaches, it is the same with the Church. The Church, the body of Christ, Christ Himself working through us, teaches us how to transform. As an added extra teaching about transformation, I think the teaching about Adam and Golgotha, the place of the Crucifixion is very useful. In our Orthodox Tradition, we say that the Cross of Christ stood directly over Adam’s grave. So, Golgotha, Adam’s grave, this place of death, because of Christ and the Cross, became and is a place of life.
There is one other aspect of transformation and the Cross that is important to teach, or to remind, our young people about, and it is suffering. We don’t understand completely the mystery of suffering and why God permits it. But what we do understand is that Christ transformed suffering on the Cross. He made it new. He transformed it into a means to draw closer to Him.
I tell my daughter when she is suffering, no matter how great or how small, it is always an opportunity to pause, reflect, and both remember and feel Jesus’s presence and know that He both understands our suffering and He is the assurance that we will be okay; not okay in the sense that the circumstance always changes and not okay that we will escape circumstances and consequences; but okay in the sense that no matter what happens to us here, we know ultimately it will be a passing and temporary thing because of our faith in Christ.
I want to move on now from transformation to another aspect of the Cross which is that it serves as an ever-present reminder and tangible symbol of God’s love. We, our kids, cross ourselves dozens and dozens of times during Liturgy, when we venerate icons, when we light candles, when we pray in general. We are all taught how to place our fingers and how do to the motion of the Cross. Again, we do it so much it’s easy to forget what all of this really means.
Let’s start with our fingers. Most of us know as Orthodox Christians we put our thumb and first to finger together touching at their tips and fold our ring finger and pinkies down into palm. We have all been taught the three fingers represent the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the two fingers represent the divine and human natures of Christ and the fact that we fold these two fingers downward symbolizes Christ condescending to us and becoming one of us as the means of our salvation.
This may seem so familiar to us that it’s not worth even discussing but is extremely important teaching because of what our kids our exposed to that is deceptive and distorting. Our kids get exposed to many ways of thinking in our pluralistic society to include Christian teaching that isn’t always compatible with what we as Orthodox Christians believe. In some Christian circles, it is taught that God the Father was angry at us because of our sins so God the Son, Jesus, paid the price for us to appease the Father’s wrath. The problem with this is twofold among many. It distorts our understanding of what sin is and worse, our understanding of who God, the Holy Trinity is.