The Elevation of the Cross – a reflection

The Elevation of the Cross – a reflection

Symbolens seger: ungefär så uppfattar Ortodoxa Kyrkan dagens fest - korsets upphöjelse

This is analogous to how Christians historically have viewed the elevation of the Cross.

Today we celebrate the story according to which St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Saint Constantine, found the cross of Christ in Jerusalem. This is in some sense a pivotal and symbolic moment in the history of Christianity, as it coincided, roughly, with the end of the 300 years of persecution of Christians by the Romans. Finally Roman royals were tearing down pagan temples instead of killing Christians who refused to offer to the pagan gods. A pagan temple had been built on Golgotha as an insult to the Christians, and St. Helena, mother of the Emperor, had it torn down. Finally the force of the mighty Roman Empire was put to use for protecting Christians instead of killing them. This is seen as a great victory for Christians – something akin to winning a war of independence, or occupying enemy territory.

In their wisdom, the various fathers and hymnographers of the Church since that time have given us an interpretation of the feast which is stubbornly Christocentric – a much needed corrective for anyone tempted to interpret the elevation of the cross nationalistically as being the moment when the Kingdom of God reached its fulfillment in the Christian Roman Empire. The Kingdom of God is in the hearts and minds of the Christians, and no earthly kingdom, however holy the rulers may be, ever constitutes that kingdom (John 4:23). The Roman Empire is no more, but the Kingdom of God is forever.

Rather, we take time on this day to celebrate the victorious Christ who trampled down death by death. We celebrate the calling of Christians to bear their crosses, to be victorious in love and service instead of victorious in war. It is also appropriate that we fast on this day – we struggle, and win, spiritually not militarily.

I am reminded on this day of a sermon I heard recently at Williamsburg Community Chapel, by pastor Rich Sylvester. He was talking about Gideon whom the Angel of the Lord called “mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12). Pastor Rich pointed out that this was ironic because of what Gideon was doing at the time: threshing wheat in a winepress.

you need wind and space to thresh wheat.

you need wind and space to thresh wheat.

Since I don’t thresh wheat, nor use winepresses, I was unaware of the absurdity of Gideon’s actions. I learned something new from Pastor Rich as he demonstrated exactly what was happening in the story of Gideon. Threshing wheat was usually done on a hilltop where wind could blow away the chaff. But a winepress was, by contrast, a deep hole cut in the rock – somewhere protected from the very wind that was needed. Gideon was hiding from the enemy tribe, doing in secret something that was usually done in plain sight. He was acting out of fear, and the Angel of the Lord called him “mighty warrior”.

The word of the Lord comes to us to show us the mighty warriors we can be, and does not necessarily take account of the cowards we sometimes choose to be. The mightiness to which God was calling Gideon is expressed by the Russian word “podvig” which means both a victory in warfare and a great spiritual struggle. An ascetic, an intercessor, a martyr or an every day faithful Christian performs their “podvig” in the same way that a company of soldiers courageously charges into battle. This is the victory we see when the cross is lifted up.

A winepress in Israel

A winepress in Israel

In Gideon’s case the spiritual victory of faith was the key to the military victory. His forces were so laughably small that the victory could only reasonably be attributed to God. He had faith and he won. In our case, the spiritual victory of faith over our cowardly and selfish actions is an expression of the eternal victory of Eternal Life, given to us by Jesus.

On this day we read from 1 Corinthians 1,

BRETHREN, the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart … For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

On this day we celebrate the juxtaposition of the peaceful subjugation of the war-loving Roman Empire by the Christian religion. The Christians did not defeat the Romans in battle. Eventually Christians were so numerous, and the force of the faith as a movement of the people was so great that the only politically expedient thing for a would-be emperor to do was to join the current instead of fighting it. We celebrate the triumph of the peaceful.

We also reflect on the salvation history of the Old Testament – reading, amongst other things, about how Moses lifted up his arms as the Israelites fought Amalek (Exodus 2:17) – and prefigured Christ whose arms were stretched out on the cross. If the Old Testament is a land, the many streams of water that run through it all eventually lead to the ocean of Jesus’ love. The election of Israel was always about the incarnation of Christ. When Israel was victorious it was because it embraced its own destiny, which always raced towards the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The unseen God who lived in a tabernacle amongst the people is the same God who became flesh and dwelt amongst us. In defeat and tragedy, Israel’s failure expressed in microcosm the sin of the world. And the longing of the exiles expressed the same resolute faith as that of Jesus when he promised paradise to the thief.

We also celebrate the triumph of the defeated. Orthodox Christians do not see the crucified Jesus Christ as a tragic figure. Rather, Jesus voluntarily allowed himself to be killed so that the power of sin and death could themselves be defeated. The deceiver was deceived – thinking that he had defeated the Son of God. But when the Son of God, the living God, entered the grave, death and sin and suffering were all defeated permanently. Jesus was in charge the whole time.

The victorious King who is crucified for the sins of the world.

The victorious King who is crucified for the sins of the world.

We celebrate the victory of the resurrection when we see the cross because the victorious power of God who became man is just as powerful when it is expressed in faith and patience as when it is expressed in lightning and thunder. The one who holds his tongue is as mighty as Sampson who brought down the temple of the Philistines (Judges 16). The mother who patiently rocks her screaming baby in the middle of the night, though she longs to go to sleep, is a heroine just as Yael who pounded a tent-peg into the head of the enemy (Judges 4). The enemy is sin, is sloth, is selfishness and faithlessness. By the power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, we become a new creation in any given instance. When we share in Jesus’ sacrificial self-emptying, we become “partakers of divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

The following are a selection of hymns that the Orthodox Church sings today to celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ over our every-day weakness and sin. May our lives be radiant with the light of the resurrection when we take up our cross to follow Him!


O Christ God, Who at the ninth hour tasted death in the flesh for our sake, put to death the arrogance of our flesh and save us!

When the Thief saw the Author of Life hanging on the cross he said: If God had not become flesh, He would not have been crucified with us, nor would the sun have hidden its rays. Nor would the earth quake. But You O Lord, Who are the upholder of all, remember me in Your Kingdom.

Prayer of St. Basil the Great
God, Lord of hosts and Maker of all creation, who in Your great compassion and mercy sent down Your Only-Begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, for the redemption of mankind and by His precious Cross destroyed the record of our sins, triumphing over the source and power of darkness: O Lord and Lover of mankind, accept also the thanksgiving and fervent prayers of us sinners. Deliver us from every dark and harmful transgression and from all the visible and invisible enemies that seek to destroy us. Nail our flesh to the fear of You, and do not incline our hearts to deceitful words or thoughts, but wound our souls with love for You, that always looking to You, guided by Your light, and seeing You, the eternal and ineffable Light, we may give You unceasing praise and thanksgiving: to the Father without beginning, with Your Only-Begotten Son and Your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

As the Cross is lifted on high, it urges all of creation to praise the undefiled Passion of Christ, Who was lifted up on it. For by the Cross He killed the one who killed us, and brought us back to life when we were dead. He adorned us in beauty, and in His compassion made us worthy to live in heaven. Therefore we rejoice and exalt His name, and magnify His infinite condescension.

Moses prefigured you, O precious Cross, when he stretched out his hands on high, and put the tyrant Amalek to flight. You are the boast of the faithful, the support of those who suffer, the glory of the Apostles, the champion of the Righteous, and the preservation of all the Saints. Therefore, beholding you raised on high, creation rejoices and celebrates, glorifying Christ Who has joined together through you that which was divided in His infinite goodness.

O most venerable Cross, attended by ranks of rejoicing Angels, as you are exalted today at the divine command, may you lift up again all those who through the stolen food had been cast out and were sunk in death. Therefore, as we venerate you in faith with heart and lips, we draw sanctification from you and cry aloud:
“Exalt Christ, the God transcendent in goodness.

Come, all you nations, let us fall down in worship before the blessed Tree, by which eternal justice has come to pass! For he who deceived Adam by a Tree
is caught by the lure of the Cross; and he who held under his tyranny the creature endowed by God with royal dignity is brought down in a headlong fall.
The serpent’s venom is washed away by the blood of God, and the curse of just condemnation is undone when the Just One is condemned by an unjust judgment. For it was fitting that the Tree should be healed by a Tree,
and that by the Passion of the passionless God what was wrought on the Tree should destroy the passions of man, who was condemned. But glory to Your dread dispensation for our sakes, O Christ the King, through which You have saved us all since You are good and the Lover of mankind!

Today the holy saying of David truly has come to pass, for behold, in the sight of all, we venerate the footstool of Your undefiled feet, and, putting our hope in the shadow of Your wings, we cry aloud to You, O all-compassionate Lord: “May the light of Your countenance be marked as a sign upon us! Exalt the horn of Your people by the Exaltation of Your precious Cross, O Christ of many mercies!”

The Tree of True Life was planted in the Place of the Skull and upon it the eternal King has worked salvation in the midst of the earth. Exalted today, it sanctifies the ends of the world, and the church of the Resurrection celebrates its consecration. Angels in heaven rejoice, and men upon earth are glad, crying out and saying in David’s words: “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at the footstool of His feet, for He is holy and grants the world great mercy!”

When the Patriarch Jacob crossed his hands while blessing his children, he foreshadowed the mighty symbol of Your Cross. Having this as our unshakable safeguard, we drive out with almighty strength the ranks of demons; and, casting down by it the arrogance of Belial, we put to flight the all-destroying power of hateful Amalek. Now as the Cross is lifted on high, we the faithful piously offer it to Your goodness for the cleansing of our sins, crying out in a loud voice: “Have mercy, O Lord, Who took flesh of the Virgin; take pity, O Good One, on the wise creation of Your hands!”

Let us proclaim today a festival of song, and with radiant faces and with our tongues let us cry aloud: “O Christ, You have accepted condemnation for us,
and, being spat upon, and scourged, You were robed in purple and ascended the Cross. Seeing You, the sun and the moon hid their light, the earth quaked in fear,
and the veil of the Temple was torn in two. Grant us Your precious Cross as our guardian and protector, driving demons away, that we may all embrace it and cry out: ‘Save us by your power, O Cross! Sanctify us by your radiance, O precious Cross, and strengthen us through your Exaltation; for you have been given to us as the light and salvation of our souls!’”

Moses prefigured the power of Your precious Cross, O Christ, when he put to flight his adversary, Amalek, in the wilderness of Sinai; for when he stretched out his arms in the form of a cross, the people prevailed. Now the outcome of these deeds has come to pass for us. Today the Cross is exalted, and the demons are put to flight. Today all creation has been set free from corruption, for through the Cross all the gifts of grace have shone upon us. Therefore, rejoicing, we all fall before You and cry: “How marvelous are Your works, O Lord! Glory to You!”

Rejoice, O Life-bearing Cross, the invincible trophy of godliness, door to Paradise, firm support of the faithful, a wall that encompasses the Church! Through you corruption has been destroyed and abolished. The power of death has been swallowed up, and we are raised from earth to Heaven. You are a weapon that cannot be vanquished, the adversary of demons, the glory of the martyrs, the true adornment of saints, and the haven of salvation, which grant the world great mercy.

Rejoice, O Cross of the Lord, through which mankind has been delivered from the curse! You are a sign of true joy, you that shatter our enemies by your Elevation.
O Cross, worthy of all honor, you are our help, You are the strength of kings.
You are the power of the righteous. You are the majesty of priests. All who sign themselves with you are freed from danger. O rod of strength, under which we like sheep are tended, you are a weapon of peace around which the Angels stand in fear. You are the divine glory of Christ, Who grants the world great mercy.

Rejoice, O guide of the blind, physician of the sick and resurrection of all the dead; you have raised us up when we were fallen into mortality, O precious Cross! Through you corruption has been destroyed, and incorruption has blossomed forth. We mortals have been deified, and the Devil is completely overthrown. Today, as we see you exalted by the hands of bishops,
we exalt Him Who was lifted up upon you, and we fall down in worship before you, drawing rich streams of great mercy.

Your precious Cross, O Christ God, which Moses of old prefigured in his own person when he overthrew Amalek and put him to flight; which David commanded to be worshipped, calling it your footstool. This Cross we sinners worship today with unworthy lips, and praise You, Who deigned to be nailed upon it, and we cry to You: “With the thief, make us worthy of Your Kingdom, O Lord!”

The First Antiphon

God, my God, attend to me! Why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. You dwell in the sanctuary, the praise of Israel. (Ps. 22:1-3)

Refrain: Through the interecessions of the Theotokos, Savior save us!

The Second Antiphon

O God, why have You cast us off forever? (Ps 74:1)
Refrain: O Son of God, crucified in the flesh, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!
Remember Your congregation, which You have purchased of old! (Ps 74:2)
Refrain: O Son of God, crucified in the flesh, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!
Remember Mount Zion, where You have dwelt! (Ps 74:2b)
Refrain: O Son of God, crucified in the flesh, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!
God is our King before the ages; He has worked salvation in the midst of the earth. (Ps 74:12)
Refrain: O Son of God, crucified in the flesh, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!
The Lord reigns, let the people tremble! He sits enthroned upon the Cherubim; let the earth quake! (Ps 99:1)
The Lord is great in Zion; He is exalted over all the people. (Ps 99:2)
Bow down in worship to the Lord in His holy court! (Ps 99:9)
Extol the Lord our God: worship at His footstool for He is holy! (Ps 99:5)

As You were voluntarily raised upon the Cross for our sake, grant mercy to those who are called by Your Name, O Christ God; make all Christians glad by your power, granting them victories over their adversaries by bestowing on them the invincible trophy, Your weapon of peace!