September 14: Sermon Of The Festival Of The Exaltation Of The Precious Cross

The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-creating Cross
Gospel Selections to be read in the Liturgy: John 19:6-11, 13-20, 25-28, and 30.

“Exalt ye the Lord our God, and offer adoration to the footstool of his feet, for he is holy.” (Ps. 99: 5)

This prophecy, dear brethren, written about a thousand years before Christ by the prophet-king David in his Psalms is now being fulfilled to the letter before our own eyes and it is today a historical truth and an accomplished fact.

The All-holy Spirit through the prophet and king inspired by Him commands the Jews and all of us, His Christ’s namesakes and peculiar people, to exalt the Lord our God and to pay adoration to the footstool of His feet. Accordingly, therefore, we, as forming a part of God’s people, have assembled m the holy churches in accordance with an imperative Christian duty, and agreeably with the aforementioned command, and in conformity therewith we have exalted and magnified and glorified the great and worshipful Name of our Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, by means of the divine and sacred liturgy which has just been celebrated and by means of the sweetest God-inspired and honey-dripping hymns, encomiums, and songs of our holy Church, containing inconceivable grandeur and ineffable beauty, and with them, as with spiritual Bowers and roses, we have sprinkled the precious and life-creating Cross of our Savior and have reverently adored Him, because it became the footstool of His adorable and transcendently immaculate feet, to whom, however, the Jews unfortunately fail to pay their due share of adoration in accordance with the order of the Holy Spirit, as aforesaid, because they do not now believe in the God who was crucified in His own flesh.

But what does the Cross of our Lord symbolize and what does it mean? And what sort of idea ought we Orthodox Christians to entertain concerning It? These questions are pertinent to the subject of our present sermon, and the present sermon shall explain them very successfully and clearly but very concisely; and on this account and for this purpose we are called upon to pay attention and to listen intently.

Above all it must first explain briefly the theme of this great festival and holiday which we are celebrating, and why it was dedicated and consecrated to begin with; and thereafter the present subject will be taken up and discussed. So, then, Constantine the Great, who was a peer of the Apostles and the first King of the Christians, having been elevated to the high position of sovereign of the world through the power of Christ, was flaming with the sacred yearning to discover the whereabouts of the Precious Cross, and for this purpose he dispatched to Jerusalem his venerable mother St. Helena, who, by instituting an energetic search succeeded in finding It buried inside a certain hillock, on which the Hebrews were in the habit of throwing dirty refuse; nevertheless, God contrived to have the fragrant herb called sweet basil grow upon that hillock to the honor and glory of the Precious and Life-creating Cross, and for this reason this sweet basil is used in sanctifications and in all the ceremonies and sacraments by the Church, as we all know. But together with the Precious Cross of our Savior were also found the crosses of the two robbers who were crucified with Him, and St. Helena did not know beforehand which one of the three crosses was the Cross of the Savior. In accordance, however, with what was evidently a divine contrivance and act of providence a certain woman died on that day and her corpse was utilized for the purpose of testing all three of the crosses in question.

No sooner had the corpse been laid upon the Precious Cross than the dead woman immediately rose to life again. Accordingly, St. Helena together with all her retinue fell down and adored It, and they carried It into the sacred temple of the church, to which all the Christian population thereupon Bowed together en masse together with their wives and children in order to see and to adore It. But since this was impossible because of the crowding together of the great multitude of people elbowing one another the Patriarch of Jerusalem Macarius ascended the sacred pulpit of the church and raised aloft, or exalted, the Precious Cross and exhibited It to the laity, who thereupon cried out in unison “Kyrie eleison!” From that time on it became a sacred custom to celebrate this festival of the Exaltation. It is to be noted, furthermore, that the sacred and pious yearning of Con­stantine the Great was fanned, and inflamed his heart, as a result of the historical and official and solemn event, the detailed description of which may be summarized as follows.

Maxentius, the idolatrous emperor of Rome, was punishing and torturing the Christians of Rome unjustly. Constantine the Great sympathized with them because he knew about their moral and virtuous character in spite of the fact that they were being subjected to the utmost suffering by the impious and cruel Maxentius for the sole reason that they were Christians and abhorred the carcass of idolatry. The maltreatment of the Chris­tians by Maxentius aroused the just wrath and indignation of Constantine, who served notice upon him to cease torturing the Christians, who had his deepest sympathy, else he would go to war with him. Inasmuch as Max­entius, however, was not persuaded by this exhortation and admonition offered by Constantine, the latter was forced to sever relations and declare war upon him.

But at a moment when the two opposing armies were about to engage in battle, perceiving that the forces of Maxentius were far superior to his own, Constantine was grieved, when, for the purpose of strengthening and encouraging him, a miracle occurred in the sky of the heavens, wherein in broad daylight of noontime there appeared a cross formed of bright and vivid stars beneath the sun and lettered in Greek with the words “En Touto Nika,” that is to say, when translated into good English – not the Latin substitute used by the Roman Catholics – “Gain the Victory with This.” Becoming amazed at the sight of this fearful spectacle in the heavens, the king, including all his generals, were naturally unable to comprehend its significance.

Later, however, our Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him in his sleep surrounded by angelic hosts and told him in a tone of voice befitting divinity and majesty: “Behold, I am the God of the Christians, whom thou hast invoked to thine aid, and I command thee in the morning when thou shalt awake from sleep to give orders that a banner be made upon which shall be inscribed the sign of my Cross, as thou sawest it in the heavens, and to attack thine enemies fearlessly, and the victory shall be in thy favor beyond a doubt because thou bast believed in me.” Overcome with joy, Constantine then told his generals about this vision, and immediately, by his order, the Sacred Flag called the Labarum was constructed, upon which was painted the sign of the Cross.

He thereupon attacked Maxentius and defeated him all along the line. In the attempt to save his own life by fleeing to Rome and while galloping on his horse across the Tiber river, Maxentius was drowned; his army was dispersed and routed. Then Constantine entered Rome in triumph, where he was proclaimed Emperor by the Senate in the place of Maxentius, already drowned, as victor and trophy-bearer, in accordance with the words of Christ. Having stated thus much in reference to the subject in hand, we proceed to consideration of the main subject of our Sermon regarding the idea we ought to entertain of the Cross as Christians.

So, then, let it be said that the Cross symbolizes death, and that such a death called death on the cross, was imposed in accordance with the Mosaic law and prescribed by it as the severest penalty to be inflicted upon condemned men guilty of the most heinous felonies. “Accursed,” said the law, “be everyone that is hanged upon a tree” (Deut. 21 :23). The word “tree” (omitted in the falsified translation offered in the Authorized and Revised Versions) evidently means “cross,” one of the meanings attached to the English word tree. But the judges were obliged to pronounce this awful sentence upon the guilty one only after his guilt had been proved beyond a doubt by the testimony and cross examination of credible witnesses and after the commission of the crime had been duly attested and verified in accordance with the dictates of the law. On the other hand, it is to be specially noted that the law explicitly prohibited judges from condemning the innocent and the righteous, by saying: “An innocent and a righteous man thou shalt not slay(Exod. 23:7).

But the Son of God, after becoming man incarnate, though doing and teaching the divine law, was traduced and slandered as a transgressor and subverter of the law, and was condemned to death on the cross, not because He had committed any crime punishable with such a penalty, for He was sinless, but because He fulfilled most scrupulously and exactly all the law and all the righteousness of God. The most innocent and most righteous Son of God was accounted the most iniquitous and most unrighteous falsely and illegally and unjustly, and He who had committed no sin but, on the contrary, had fulfilled all righteousness was crucified on the cross in the middle between two felons who had been sentenced to crucifixion for robbery. Notwithstanding the indubitable fact that Christ could have avoided this unjust death and could have destroyed and instantly put to death His crucifiers, as God Almighty, yet in order to appear as a human being in all respects obedient to the will of God His Father, and to the established laws of the political state, which did not allow anyone to resist officers and magistrates, He voluntarily permitted Himself to be led like a sheep to slaughter, and endured with wonderful meekness and patience this greatest possible injustice to Himself, in the hope of being justified later by God His Father, who judges in righteousness and with justice and renders a just judgment unto all who are wronged.

In reality, too, God did not delay long in proving that He is indeed a just and righteous judge, and that He who renders a just judgment unto all who are wronged could not overlook His own Son when the latter was really being wronged and treated so unjustly. Even while the innocent blood of His dearest Son was being spilled upon the Cross, the wrath of God was manifested against the murderers of Christ with fearful signs. For three hours straight the sun gave no light and darkness prevailed over the whole earth from the sixth hour until the ninth hour. The veil of the Temple was rent in two from top to bottom. The earth itself was shaken and in the ensuing earthquake rocks were split asunder, and the tombs were opened and many dead men were resurrected to life and stood up and proclaimed to the living the righteous judgment of God. But, nevertheless, it is to be noted that the wrath of God against those guilty of committing unrighteousness and of perpetrating acts of injustice, taken alone, by no means constitutes His righteousness or His justice.

The perfect and exact righteousness and justice of God is constituted by and consists in the award or restoration of what is right to the one who has been wronged. Life had been taken away from the Son of God unjustly and wrongly, and life had to be restored to Him manifold, for what had been taken away wrongly and unjustly had to be returned doubly and quadruply and quintuply, according to the Mosaic law. So God, who judges righteousness, restored life to His Son by resurrecting Him from the dead on the third day, as well as the lives of all men who have believed in Him ever since the foundation of the world or who shall at any time in the future believe until the end of the world.

Christ not only received back His life, which had been taken away from Him unjustly, but He received also the right to vivify all those who believe in Him; and in this way the Cross of Christ became the life and salvation of the world. At the same time It became a disgrace and mortal wound to the Devil tyrannizing the world, for the Devil was condemned, on the charge of having perpetrated the injustice, to lose all the authority which, as the ruler of the world of sin, the Devil had acquired by deceit and fraud, and through the Cross he was denounced and deprived of his man-slaying authority. Accordingly and on this account the demons hold the puissant form of the precious and vivifying Cross in horror. The Cross of Christ expresses the perfect virtue of Christ – the virtue of obeying the will of God His Father even to death and of disobeying the will of the Devil, who neither by means of the attractions of the world nor by means of the most cruel and painful tortures of death on the Cross was able to deter Christ from obeying the will of His heavenly Father.

The Cross of Christ expresses the perfect wisdom and the perfect power of God as well as His extreme righteousness and infinite mercy. It expresses His wisdom because It became a trap to the trapper of men, the Devil, who was thereby put to death after he had put to death the One whom he succeeded in having crucified unjustly. It expresses His power because it was through the Cross that the One unjustly put to death was resurrected from the dead, and the one who had unjustly put Him to death, as well as his accomplices and God-slayers the Jews, was put to death in his turn. It expresses God’s righteousness and justice because it shows that God renders to everyone in accordance with his works. To Christ, who was unjustly dishonored notwithstanding that He had done only things that were righteous and just, He rendered honor and glory everlasting, while to the Devil, on the other hand, who did unrighteous and unjust things by dishonoring Christ, He righteously and justly rendered disgrace and ignominy, and likewise to the God-slaying Jews. Finally, It also expresses mercy because sinners who believe in the Cross of Christ receive mercy and are saved.

It is for this reason and on this account that the Prophet chants: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” and “Truth hath come forth out of the land, and righteousness hath shone down from heaven” (Ps. 85: 10-l I). For this reason and on this account we too eulogize the Cross of the Lord by saying: “The Cross is the guardian of the whole inhabited earth. The Cross is the beauty of the Church. The Cross is the stronghold of kings. The Cross is the foothold of the faithful. The Cross is the glory of angels, and the sore of demons.” The Cross, in fact, is the badge of Christ’s followers that serves to distinguish them from the Devil’s followers. All those who adore and glorify the Cross of the Lord and make the sign of It upon their bodies are followers of Christ. All those, on the other hand, who dishonor the precious Cross with profanity and blasphemy and all those who fail to make the sign of It upon their bodies, whether they be ashamed to do so or be otherwise inclined to show scorn, are followers of the Devil.

We followers of Christ ought not only to make the sign of the precious and vivifying Cross upon our bodies but also to keep It enshrined in our hearts, so that, if need be, we may die like Christ, like the Holy Apostles, and like the holy martyrs, in behalf of the righteousness and justice of God, or, what amounts to the same thing, be led to obey God and to disobey the Devil, while mortifying our flesh together with its passions .and evil desires. The Cross is the finest adornment of our souls internally and of our bodies externally: Christ, too, is the boast, the joy, and the glory of pious and orthodox Christians. Through It and through Him we can overcome the Devil and his demons, and can bring ignominy upon their followers. Honor, glory, and adoration are due to the precious and vivifying Cross of our Savjor. Accordingly, and for this reason, we chant joyously: “Thy Cross we adore, O Lord, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.”

So, brethren, come, let us seal this slight encomium of the precious and vivifying Cross, whereby we have been saved from everlasting death, with the following prayer to our Savior Jesus Christ, the sweet and worshipful God, in regard to our sins, at the same time reminding Him of this all-venerable and almighty Tree as a means of propitiating Him on the occasion of this great festival of Its universal exaltation, which prayer is couched in the following words:

O Dominator, Lord Jesus Christ our God, Thou who art the good and man-loving being, Thou who out of Thine infinite goodness and love for the creature of Thy hands didst condescend to suffer death, and a disgrace­ful death on the cross at that, in order to save him from everlasting condemnation and from everlasting death.

Now, therefore, O man-loving and merciful Lord of heaven and earth, spare Thou Thy creature, who is a slave to God-odious sin, and give him genuine, sincere, and steadfast repentance, and inspire in him a clean confession of his sins and a will to perform works worthy of repentance, or, in other words, works of righteousness and of justice and of goodness and of benevolence for his salvation and for the glorification of Thy great and adorable name.

Yea, 0 Dominator of all things, hearken unto us sinners and Thine unworthy servants who have assembled in this sacred precinct with a view to hymning and glorifying Thy precious and vivifying Cross and Thy holy and glorious Resurrection, and allow us and all pious and orthodox Chris­tians remission of our sins and the right to inherit Thine everlasting glory and kingdom, O Lord Jesus Christ, everlasting King of the Universe, and sweetest Savior. Though Thy crucifiers the Jews are ever and anon scandalized at Thy Cross apparently because of their being so callous-hearted, while, on the other hand, the idolatrous and faithless and unbelieving Greeks falsely so-called deem the Mystery of Thy Cross to be foolishness, ignoring the fact that It became and is the source of salvation of the world believing in It, and, as a third point of reckoning, the impious and faithless of this age blaspheme and deny It apparently because they are instruments of the man-slaying Devil, yet we who through Thy grace and mercy have been deemed worthy to be Orthodox Christians and faithful Greeks boast of our dependence upon Thy Cross and adore It, being well aware that by virtue of It we have been saved from the curse of the law and from everlasting death-wherefore we shout to the top of our voices along with heaven-roving Paul as he preaches exuberantly: “But far be it from me to boast, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6: 14).

We believe and confess that Thou art the Wisdom and Power of God in accordance with the confession of Thine apostle Paul, and that Thou art the Son and Word of the living God in accordance with the testimony of Thine apostles Peter and John and the testimony in general of Thy holy Church, since the gates of hell shall not prevail against her, as Thine all-holy and most veracious mouth hath said. In like manner and with the same confidence we believe and confess, and we preach in accordance with Thy words, that that brazen Serpent which was elevated on a wooden pole in the wilderness by Thy servant Moses in conformity with Thy command (Num. 21 :8-9), signified and prefigured Thee, our theanthropic Savior and redeemer. Just as that Serpent was elevated upon the wooden pole, so wast Thou, O Dominator of all things, elevated in the flesh upon the wooden frame of the Cross. Accordingly, just as all those among the Hebrews who had been bitten by sensible serpents could look upon that brazen Serpent and be cured of their deadly wounds, so and in like manner those who believe in Thee and gaze upon Thy precious Cross, and who adore it as well as Thy holy and glorious Resurrection, can be cured of the wounds inflicted by supersensible serpents, or, in other words, by demons, and can be cleansed from filth and from the burden of their sins.

Since, indeed, Thou earnest into the world, as Thou hast said, not in order to judge the world, but in order to save it, and in order that none among those believing in Thee might perish, but in order that everyone believing in Thee might, on the contrary, have life everlasting, we who believe in Thee and who adore Thee conclude with good reason that through Thy grace and Thy mercy we are among the saved and among the heirs to everlasting life and to Thy kingdom. But we realize the fact that if this faith of ours is not to be formal and dead, but, on the contrary, alive and effective and genuine and fruitful, it must be accompanied with works of Christian love, for the execution of which strengthen and help and fortify us always, we petition Thee, O almighty and all-good Savior, to become pleasing in Thy sight in all matters relating to the doing of good, for without Thy strengthening aid and Thy blessing and Thy grace we can accomplish no good work, as Thou hast expressly and clearly said: “Without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). For to Thee belongeth the glory and the power, the honor, the adoration, and the worship in common with Thy beginningless Father and Thine All-holy Spirit for ever and ever: Amen.

This lesson is from the book titled “A Short Heortodromion (Or Festival)” by Apostolos Makrakis, republished into English in 1951 by The Orthodox Christian Education Society

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