The Cross, The Sign and Path of Love

The Cross, The Sign and Path of Love March 15, 2020
fenrirthegrey2: Cross / pixabay

Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden; It has mysteriously been quenched by the wood of the Cross! The sting of death and the victory of hell have been vanquished; For You, O my Savior, have come and cried to those in hell:  “Enter again into paradise” –Kontakion for the Veneration of the Holy Cross

On the Byzantine Calendar, the third Sunday of Lent is that of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. The cross is brought before us. We honor it, acknowledging it as a sign of victory. By death Jesus conquered death, and now the cross, once the sign of death, is now the sign of eternal life.

On this day, we are also reminded that Jesus told us that to follow him and that means we should take on the death-to-the-self represented by the cross if we want to be raised with Jesus in glorious resurrection. Thus, while the focus on the feast is on the greatness of the Cross of Christ, it also connects us with the penitential season by reminding us that we must pass through our own cross in order to experience our own salvation and deification.

Lifting up the Cross as a sign of victory, we should contemplate how Jesus redeemed all things through it. God the Word became man. Through his humanity, his took on himself all the weaknesses of humanity while remaining God. It is in that weakness which he took upon himself that allowed him to be crucified, die, and descend into the realm of the dead. As he was tortured, humiliated, and crucified, he allowed all the evil desires which flow from the hearts of humanity to come together upon him. All the power of sin, all its hate and rage, was free to do to him as it wished. Such evil could kill him, but then he would be beyond its power. Evil never has the final say. Its powers are limited.

Thus, as the high priest, Jesus allowed himself to be used as the sacrifice needed in order to exorcise the power of sin by letting it come to its own end. His death became the death of sin itself, as its power was exhausted. In humility, he took the suffering of humanity, the suffering it felt at the hands of sin in order to show that in and through such weakness there always lies the greater strength and power of God’s love. He gave himself to humanity and to the Cross. He did not exalt himself as he became the high priest who gave his all for all, rather it is by allowing himself to be sent to the Cross that he became appointed the high priest who could and would show himself to all:

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.  Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.  And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was.  So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”;  as he says also in another place, “Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek”  (Heb. 5:1-6 RSV).

Love is powerful. When someone gives themselves over to others out of love, such love is not destroyed; instead, it grows in strength as it becomes more true to itself. “Love is sacrificial by its very nature; the power of love is the measure of the sacrifice. God’s love is immeasurable and inexplicable in its sacrificial character, which partakes of the way of the cross.” [1] Love renders itself to the beloved. Where something is held back from the beloved, it is because there is some lack in that love. In true love, all is given; in the true love of God, then, we find God giving himself entirely to us for our sake, holding nothing back. The sign of the Cross is the sign of God’s love; he lets himself become helpless on the Cross so we know he held nothing back and gave his full self to us so that we could and would do whatever we would like with him.

When we understand the love, which God shows to us through the Cross, when we see the Cross is a sign of God’s love for us, we begin to understand something, however slightly, of God’s activity in eternity. The Cross shows us that God, in his eternity, is love, and is self-sacrificial in that love. It is because he is self-giving, as the economic revelation of the Cross indicates, God can share himself with creatures with wills of their own:

The world is created by the cross of God’s love. It is also saved by the cross, for, in its creaturely infirmity, the self-sufficient world contains the possibility of sin and of falling away from God, which is unrestrainable. Once it occurs, this falling away always to the fatal disintegration of the world. In response to this possibility, God in his pre-eternal counsel already raises the cross of sacrificial love in the divine incarnation for the sake of the salvation of the world: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). [2]

He shows us on the Cross that he truly loves us and has made us to be free, so free, that he is willing to take all the ill-will, all the hatred and torture which we can give him, and still come back to us with his greater, more glorious love in return. He shows us that he is not separate from us. He does not keep his distance from us because of what we have done. He has become one with us and suffer the afflictions which we have brought to the world in order to show his love is without limit.

And yet, then, we too are called to follow after Christ. The Cross is a sign of glory, a sign of victory, a sign of love. We need to follow the path of the Cross to find that glory, to find that victory, indeed to find the love which lies at the heart of our existence. We are made in the image and likeness of God. To find our fulfillment, to find our glory, we must embrace the path of the Cross, the path of love; if we do, if we die to the self, we will transcend death and will be able to see the kingdom of God with its power and glory before our earthly demise:

And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?  For what can a man give in return for his life?  For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mk. 8:34 – 9:1 RSV).

We must turn ourselves over to love. When we do so, we will find God, for God himself is love. He will take all that is good, all that truly reflect his goodness and love, and bring it into his glory, while all that is evil, all that which God has not made, will find itself discarded and returned to the nothingness from which it came:

Whatever of good he has, let him commit to Him by whom he was made; whatever of evil he has, he has made it for himself. The evil that is in him God made not; let him destroy what himself has done, who has been thereby undone. “Let him deny himself,” He says, “and take up his cross, and follow Me.” [3]

This is why we must deny ourselves: because we have made room for that which should not be, and have included it in our own understanding of ourselves. We have become tainted from sin; we have let unlove and the sin which flows from it to act as a parasite on our being. We have confused ourselves, mistaking the parasite of sin as being a part of who we are. We think it is something which must be preserved. We become attached to it and so no longer really know who we are. Sin, then, is formed by us, not God, and it establishes itself in us and our consciousness. To get rid of it, we must let ourselves be taken over to the Cross, to detach ourselves from all notions of who or what we think we are, cutting away the parasite of sin and allowing then God to take us in (through Jesus) and be reformed. Then we will be able to find our true selves- the selves we had in God’s eternal memory before we were even born.

Thus, we must detach ourselves from all that we think we are, from the world around us, not to deny the world, but to find it as it really is in the light of God’s glory. We have so many distractions in the world as we look into the world in and through the shadows of sin, shadows and phantasms which we take to be true and hold onto as if they were real. But the mirage of sin will never satisfy. The more we grasp after it, the more desperate we will become as we find all that we seek is always beyond our grasp. What we think it will give to us we will never fully receive. We must not seek after the shadow of sin; we must seek after the reality which lies outside that shadow. And so, Tauler tells us, once we detach ourselves from all the external phantasms, God is able to draw us in, reshaping us through such detachment (another way of understanding the way of the cross), find ourselves gathered in him and receive all that he has meant us to receive in the fullness of truth and glory:

He calls us back from our vagaries and distractions, out external business, the use of our senses, and faculties, words, and actions. He calls us back from our interior preoccupations and opinions, our phantasies and desires, our inclinations and perceptions, our willing and our love. And once all these forces have been gathered up, God draws us to Himself, but only after all our attachments have been shed. This whole process is indeed a heavy Cross, all the heavier in proportion to our attachments.[4]

In the midst of our struggles, in the midst of our detachment and move towards God, we will slowly awaken to our true selves as reflection of God’s love. We will realize in our experience that the Cross truly is the sign and power of love. It becomes the place where all that is unlove, all that is sin, can be placed. By its power, we will be able to unload ourselves of all our imperfections and become pure reflections of love. Once this is done, we will realize the power of love found is revealed in the Cross and the beatitude which it brings:  “The cross is the power of love. And this love is authentic joy triumphant forever. “[5]

When we follow the path of the Cross, we will find Jesus is there before us. He is ready to give us his mercy and grace to help us through our own death to the self. He has opened the way for the kingdom of God to be realized in and with us, in and around us. He is the way, the truth, and the life, even as he is the light of the world. In him and with him shines the light which dispels the darkness; in the light of the Cross, sin comes to an end:

 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:14-16 RSV).

The Cross is the sign of Christ, the sign of his victory, the lamp which shines forth his light, the light which we need to see the world as the kingdom of God. The more we embrace the way of the Cross, the more Christ’s glory will shine forth in us and in the world around us. The more we distance ourselves from the darkness of sin, from all that is selfish and unloving, the more the power of that light can shine in and exalt us. This is why Bl. Henry Suso says:

The cross signifies that a truly detached person should always be disposed, both outwardly and inwardly, to self-surrender in everything that God wants him to endure, no matter where it comes from; that he be inclined, dying to the self, to accept it all for the praise of his heavenly Father. Such people are inwardly noble and outwardly attentive. [6]

We will find our way to the Father through the love demonstrated to us on the Cross. We must embrace the Cross ourselves. We must cast aside the darkness. Then the light will shine in us, making us inwardly noble, even as it will awaken us to the truth of God’s creation. We will able to experience the kingdom of God in its fullness. And when we do so, we will surrender ourselves and give our all to all, like Christ, only to receive all in return. The phantasms which we embraced will be shown to have been naught. And then we will realize the kingdom of God was always with us, even as God’s love has always been with us since the foundation of the world.

[1] Sergius Bulgakov, Churchly Joy. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 89.

[2] Sergius Bulgakov, Churchly Joy, 89.

[3] St. Augustine, “Sermons on New-Testament Lessons” in NPNF1(6):409.

[4] Johannes Tauler, “Sermon 59” in Sermons. Trans, Maria Shrady (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 164-5.

[5] Sergius Bulgakov, Churchly Joy, 90.

[6] Bl. Henry Suso, “The Exemplar” in The Exemplar With Two German Sermons. Trans. Frank Tobin (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 316. [Little Book of Truth].


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