The Suffering and Salvation of the Cross
The cross is the primary symbol of Christianity. We all make the cross when we pray or when we want God’s blessing or protection. We wear crosses on our necks which some of us never take off. We hang crosses in our churches and in our homes. We have Sundays, like today on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, that are dedicated to the Holy Cross. We sing hymns about the Cross and teach our kids songs, like the one we’ve sung many times here – “When you make the sign of the Cross you remember that God is the boss.” We even build churches in the symbol of the cross like our very own church. The cross is the primary symbol identifying followers of Jesus Christ.
Yet how did the cross become the symbol of Christianity? Think about it. In Jesus’ day, the cross was an instrument of cruel pain, terrible suffering, and miserable death. It was the ultimate symbol of violence and torture, darkness and evil in the world. During the time of Christ people would shutter with fear when they thought about the cross because everyone had witnessed the horror of someone dying the slow and wretched death on the Cross.
Why in the world would the followers of Jesus choose the Cross as their symbol? It seems so strange to believe that a symbol of torture and death would become a symbol throughout the world revered and venerated on Sundays like today.
The answer, I believe, is two-fold and for many of us we will embrace the one joyfully while we struggle with the other. The Cross represents the Divine Love of God, yet the Cross simultaneously reveals the path of salvation for all who choose to follow Christ. "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34)
The first answer of why the Cross represents Christianity reveals to us the unbelievable divine, sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for the world. In the divine plan of God, He would become human and experience the human reality in its totality, which included enduring the worst mental, psychological, and physical suffering and evil a human could bear – rejection by your own people, betrayal by one of your closest friends, abandonment by your dearest disciples, and then the most brutal, painful torture and death. God tasted the deepest darkness of this fallen world.
The Cross was always to play the central part in the Divine Plan of Salvation and it is this earth-shattering event which our Lord Jesus willingly and voluntarily accepted because through it He would save the world. Through the Cross Christ became the sacrificial “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Through the Cross Jesus took your and my sins and the sins of every generation upon Himself and forgave us. Through the Cross our Lord tasted death, entered Hades, and destroyed the power of death over humankind. The forces of Satan and all his darkness no longer would have the final word in this fallen world. We never separate Cross and Resurrection because the Cross only precedes the Resurrection. As we sing in today’s feast, “We venerate your Cross, O Master, and we glorify Your holy Resurrection!” The Cross is only Act 1 in the Play of Salvation. The final Act is the Resurrection!
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have life everlasting. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
Christians throughout the centuries have memorialized the Cross not as a symbol of torture and death, but as a symbol of love and life. Thus, it remains the primary symbol of expressing God’s unfathomable love for His creation and that path of salvation for all humankind. This first answer to our question of why and how the Cross became the universal symbol of Christianity is one that all of us can readily understand and embrace. The Cross of Christ reveals Divine Love.
The second answer to why and how the Cross became the universal symbol of Christianity may be more difficult for us to embrace. By accepting the path of the Cross, our Lord revealed to us our own path of salvation, which includes suffering. To partake in the Divine Mystery of Salvation implies each one of us carrying our own Cross. This Cross we carry will remind us that in this fallen world, we will experience suffering and even death itself. Even though Jesus Christ redeemed the world, we are still waiting for the ultimate consummation with His Second Coming. Until that time, we live in a fallen world where evil and darkness seem to prevail. We should not be surprised by the suffering we face but we need to properly understand it and be prepared for it.
Suffering is not a sign of God’s rejection of His beloved, an abandonment of His children, or the victory of evil. Suffering is simply a part of the path that can purify us on our journey toward God; carrying whatever Cross we may have in our lives can unite us even more to our Savior. The Apostle Paul states it bluntly to the Christians in Philippi, “For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for Him as well.” (Phil 1:29)
Our ultimate goal in life is union with God, and thus, we must walk with Christ and imitate Him not only during the wondrous times of His miracles and healings in Galilee, but also in His anguish in Gethsemane and His painful death on Golgotha. Through the Cross, Jesus showed us the path into eternity – accepting Divine Love no matter what the cost and offering Sacrificial Love for the salvation of others.
Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol explains, “In the Orthodox Church, pain and all kinds of suffering are not abolished for the faithful, but rather they acquire a completely new merit, they are transformed. Through our courage, patience, prayers, and the constant memory of God, this bitter chalice gradually transforms into the sweet chalice of immortality. For this reason, suffering no longer becomes a source of fear and horror for the Christian, but a broad field of labor and battle… If we receive that great gift of God – suffering - in the correct way, it will become for us the source of blessings.
If someone wants to find an answer in this life to the question of why God allowed a certain circumstance to happen, then his mind will undoubtedly be filled with thousands of “whys?” Yet if he were to view his ailments as a necessary trial sent to him by God either in order to be cleansed, or to be perfected, or in order to be crowned in the future life, then he would accept the chalice of suffering from the Lord’s hand as a blessing. This is God’s answer to man. The Lord does not give man the false promise that He will abolish suffering, but promises to transform his pain, and out of a curse create blessing and consolation.”
Remember, we never separate the Cross from the Resurrection. Christ’s divine act of salvation included suffering yet ended in glory. As Saint Paul highlights to each of us, “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Thus, on this 3rd Sunday of Lent which we call the Sunday of the Cross, we remember the words of our Lord, “"If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." We embrace the Cross as a reminder of God’s Divine and Sacrificial Love for all humanity but we also welcome the Cross in our own lives because it gives meaning to whatever suffering we face and offers a blessing which leads to our salvation.
We venerate Your Cross, O Master, and we glorify Your holy Resurrection.
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