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.
If we ever hear our kids express this type of thinking, we need to remind them that in Orthodoxy we don’t understand sin as some sort of legal problem involving some sort of debt to be paid. We understand sin as a sickness problem that results in death that requires a cure. We understand God as more of a doctor not a lawyer, at least for now. Christ announced Himself in Luke 4:16-19, quoting Isaiah 61, as a healer and a physician. I say for now, because Christ will eventually be our judge – our lawyer so to speak though His judgment will be nothing more than the truth of our hearts and actions. But for now, He is still actively seeking to save us. He seeks to make us like Him. He wants to heal and cure us. When Jesus died on the Cross and was resurrected, it was the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit operating as One. They are of one will. God is unified with Himself as Three Persons, not divided.
The Cross is God’s expression of love for us. God defeated death on the Cross. I explain that even though we still physically die, sin has been defeated; death it is not permanent if we unite ourselves to God through the sacramental life of the Church. Through this we enjoy to some degree, a foretaste, of the peace of joy of God in this life, but we understand will live forever with God where there will be no sin, sickness, and death. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit operated as one on the Cross is also important to understand because we never want our kids to see God as the bad guy. God is not an angry father who has a loving son that saves us from Him. God is the good guy. The devil, evil, is the bad guy.
I often remind my daughter that God loves us so much He created us with free will. We can choose whatever we want even if it not God. That’s what the Gospel or good news is all about. We are free. The devil deceived us and sin entered the world. I remind her that sin is sickness that is not curable by us. So, God sacrificed Himself out of love to give us the cure. God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – defeated evil on the Cross and now gives us means, if we choose, to accept the cure. I also explain to her that we live in time between the initial defeat of evil, where it is defeated but not eradicated, and the final defeat of evil where it will be eradicated and cease to exist. God is still our savior who wants us to choose the cure He offers us through the Cross.
Now I want to the third and final part of this podcast called the Cross and the Commandments. The Cross is actually a great way to teach about what Jesus refers as the greatest commandments as well as the Ten Commandments. But first we need to explore some parts of early Genesis to do so. Genesis 2:18 reads:
“And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”
Right after this,
Genesis 2:19 reads:
“Also, God formed out of the ground all the wild animals of the field and all the birds of heaven, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. Thus whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.”
So what do these two important Scripture teach us that is important to share with our kids? Genesis 2:18 reminds us that we are complete without each other. Sin has not entered the picture at this point and Adam is with God alone in a very intimate way but it is not enough. God designed us to not to be individuals who don’t need other and just God; but rather as complete persons who become persons through our relationship to Him and each other. Genesis 2:19 shows us that God loves us so much He allows us to participate in His creation. He created the animals but letting Adam participate in creation by allowing him to name them.
We need to understand all of this in Genesis 1:26. It reads:
“Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Dominion implies stewardship. We are to be good stewards and have dominion over the gift of the created world, not have domination as if we are in fact owners. So in these three foundational Scriptures of Genesis, which are exemplary of the entire Genesis creation story, we learn that God created us to love Him, love each other, and love creation.
So how does this relate to the Cross and the Commandments? It’s actually pretty simple. When asked about what were the greatest Commandments, Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-38, Mark 12:29-31, and Luke 10:26-28). He is repeating Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. I ask the kids to consider what Christ says in when we look at the content and the order of the Ten Commandments. The first four instruct us how to worship God, the fifth one instructs us to honor our parents – I tend to dwell this one a bit with my daughter especially when experiencing the lovely teen age attitude - and the final five are about how we should treat each other.
I was taught once by an Orthodox priest long ago that the vertical axis of the Cross, and our vertical motion of crossing ourselves, among the many things it means, reminds us of our relationship to God; whereas the horizontal axis the motion of moving our hand horizontally reminds us of our relationship with each other. Further, one of the ways we love God is to take care of the gift He has given us, the world. This ties the ten commandments what Christ says are the greatest commandments to the cross and in a way that make sense for kids and serves as a good reminder to remember its above loving each other too as well as God. We are responsible for loving God so that we become more Christ-like, so people experience Christ through us, and we thus help each other deepen our union with Christ.
 To be both fair and clear, Orthodox icons are not meant to depict literal accuracy but spiritual truth.