O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance.
Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians
over their adversaries, and by virtue of Thy Cross,
preserve Thy habitation.
(Troparion Tone 1)
This is the first line from one of the stanzas of the Praises sung at Vigil of the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This sums up the totality of the message of the cross. It is the convergence of many things. Over the centuries the Cross has been the center of our Christian faith, and, unfortunately has also been sorely misunderstood by some. What is this Cross that we sing hymns to on this blessed feast? What is this Cross that St. Paul preaches and says is the power of God? Why would the Church commemorate the finding of this Cross by Sts. Constantine and Helen and sing hymns to an device of torture, an inanimate object?
What does it mean when we pray for the Lord to "grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries?" There has been a tendency in modern times to disregard any allusions to the cross having to do with smashing enemies. Unfortunately, if we take all of these out of our hymnody and worship we miss an important element of the cross - the cross of our Lord has the power to crush sin, death, and the Devil. This is what we mean when we sing hymns about destroying our enemies by the cross. Everything is to be understood in a Christo-centric way. When we think of the Psalms of David, we can also apply this same way of reading. Though David may have been writing about real experiences of enemies trying to hunt him down and where he prays for deliverance from those enemies, we now read them in the Church as God delivering us from our enemies that wage war against our souls and bodies - the passions - pride, lust, greed, and all manner of evil. This is what we mean when we pray for deliverance over our adversaries and the preservation of our life, or habitation.
Nor is the cross some sort of talisman or good luck charm that we use as some sort of magic to bring us blessings, wealth, deliverance, or power. The cross is always tied to a personal encounter with the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord, as well as our co-crucifixion with Him. As St. Paul says, "I am crucified with Christ, . It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). Christ Himself says, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mk. 8:34). There is no Christianity without the cross, and no cross without voluntary suffering. Christ bids us to come and die. Die to our sins and be killed, or co-crucified, with Him. It is here that we participate in His death and are resurrected to true life in Him. It is through our baptism that we die to our sins and are raised to newness of life. This is actualized in our real life on this earth in the Church. The power of the cross lies in the revelation of the God-man, Christ, suffering and transforming this into life. Death has lost its power.
The cross of our Lord is so central to our salvation. It is on this tree of shame that the God-man willingly and voluntarily went to His passion and death for our sakes. He reversed everything that mankind had messed up. It is the reversal of the sin of Adam. We continue in this sin because we choose to miss the mark of the image and likeness of God every day. When Adam partook of the fruit of the tree, man died. The wood of the cross is often compared to the tree in the garden of Eden. "The tree has been healed by the Tree." Now in Christ, the heavenly fruit who hung on another Tree, has made it possible our salvation. This is seen in the hymns from this feast:
O most strange wonder!
The cross which carried the most high as a
cluster of grapes full of life
is seen today exalted high above the earth.
Through the cross we are all drawn to God
and death has been forever swallowed up.
O undefiled wood, through thee we enjoy the
immortal fruit of Eden as we glorify Christ.
The cross is always linked to Christ, the one who triumphed
over death and weakness in order to save
the world. It is here that God is revealed in His glory.
In icons of the crucifixion the plaque above Christ
reads: the King of Glory. We hymn, glorify, praise,
and venerate the cross at this feast for what was
accomplished and revealed on this life-bearing wood.
We pronounce with boldness the Gospel - through
death, resurrection - through suffering, life. This is
the preaching of the Holy Apostles that has been preserved
through the Holy Spirit in the life and worship
of the Church. We actualize this in our own lives.
Thanks be to God who has deemed to save us and
reveal Himself to us! "But now the cross is exalted!
Today the power is realized in us” (from Litya
Stichera at Vespers)!
"For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God!" I Corinthians 1:18
"But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." I Corinthians 1:23,24
"When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM." John 8:28
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." John 3:14,15
"And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly." Mark 8:31, 32a
"He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before it shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth... Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand." Isaiah 53:7,10
"O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself." Luke 24:25-27
"Thus if you wish to see the mystery of the Lord look at Abel who is likewise slain, at Isaac who is likewise tied up, at Joseph who is likewise traded, at Moses who is likewise exposed, at David who is likewise hunted down, at the prophets who likewise suffer for the sake of Christ." St. Melito of Sardis
"St. Gregory of Nyssa argued that the Passion of Christ is not 'evidence of his weakness,' but evidence of 'the surpassing act of power, by which this was possible,' so that 'it is necessary to honor the God revealed through the Cross just as the Father is honored.' So far is the Passion from being a mark of weakness, for St. Gregory, that 'the God revealed through the Cross' is not only honored, but honored equally with the Father." Fr. John Behr.