The Way of the Cross
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
“The hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You.” These words of our Lord Jesus - offered in the Garden of Gethsemane on that night that he was betrayed, when He fully understood what lay ahead with his arrest, his unjust trial, the torture, and finally death by crucifixion - these words reveal how Christ understood that the path which led to God’s glory was a path of sacrifice, a path of self-denial, and even a path of death. Jesus was accepting crucifixion and death because he knew that “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Jesus believed that his suffering and death would not be the end, but the beginning of something new. Out of death would come life and it would be for the glory of God!
The Cross is the most fundamental symbol of Christianity. We see it everywhere in the Church, in our homes, and anywhere there are Christians. We make the sign of the cross when we pray. We identify Christianity with the Cross, because through the Cross the sins of the world were forgiven; through the Cross death itself was destroyed; through the Cross joy came into the world and God was glorified. The Cross is ultimately a sign of victory and hope, even though it is simultaneously a symbol of denial, sacrifice, and death.
Here lies the great paradox of our Christian Faith. New life comes from dying in Christ. Abundant life comes from self-denial and sacrifice. The greatest meaning of life comes from learning to serve the other, sacrifice for the other, even die for the other.
This may all sound harsh and difficult. Some will surely think, “The life of the Cross doesn’t seem like a life I want to live.” That’s why St. Paul clearly stated, “The message of the Cross is foolishness to the world.” And yet, for serious Christians, here lies the wisdom of God! We discover deep meaning through sacrifice and self-denial.
“If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This doesn’t seem like a very enticing invitation. You know, sometimes our Lord’s words even appear frightening or discouraging. “Deny yourself?” That’s not a very popular idea in today’s world. “Take up your cross?” What does it mean to take up something that, during the time of Christ, was a symbol for torture and death? “Follow me.” What exactly is this path that our Lord invites us to follow? And what will it mean for our lives?
On this 3rd Sunday of Lent, in the middle of our Lenten journey when some of us may be getting tired from our fasting and our increased spiritual disciplines, the Church lifts up the symbol of the Cross, not as a means of discouragement, but of encouragement! When we understand what it means to take up the Cross or when we understand that by “denying ourselves” we allow Christ to supplant our ego with His divine love, then we can comprehend this saying of our Lord in its fullest sense.
First of all, let me share one of my favorite stories that beautifully encapsulates the essence of the Cross.
One day 50 years ago, after suffering many years of despair in the death camps of Siberia, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian intellectual and dissident, had fallen into despair. Like countless other prisoners of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn had worked in the labor camps day after day, in rain and snow, throughout summer and winter. Backbreaking labor and slow starvation filled his days. On this particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much. Sozhenitsyn saw no reason to continue living and trying to fight the system. He saw his life as a meaningless journey leading towards death in this Siberian prison. His life made no difference to the world. He saw no reason for hope. So he gave up. Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to the side of the work field, sat down and lowered his head. He knew that at any moment a guard would come and scream at him, ordering him to get back to work. If he didn’t respond, the guard would mercilessly beat him to death. He had seen it happen too many times to other prisoners.
Suddenly, in this darkest moment of despair, waiting for death to come in a brutal manner, he felt a presence. Slowly, he lifted his eyes to see, not a guard, but a skinny, old prisoner who squatted down next to him. The man said nothing. Instead, with his finger he traced the sign of the Cross at Solzhenitsyn’s feet. Then, without a word, the man got up and went back to the fields.
Solzhenitsyn describes staring at that Cross – in a moment that transcended time – and realizing that his entire perspective of life, his worldview, suddenly changed. Of course, the reality of suffering in a concentration camp did not change. He understood too well that he was only one man railing against the all-powerful Soviet Empire. Yet in that moment of epiphany, he realized that there was something greater than all the evil he witnessed in prison; there was something even greater than the all-powerful Soviet Union. Looking upon that simple, crude cross drawn in the snow of Siberia, Solzhenitsyn found meaning and hope for humanity. Through the Cross, he understood a power and presence greater than any evil. The Cross radiated a light in the midst of his greatest personal darkness, and thus, gave him reason to get back up, pick up his shovel, and return to his labor. Nothing outward changed, but inside, he received a sign from God – the Cross filled him with hope and strength and purpose in life.
Years later, Solzhenitsyn’s writings would enlighten the entire world, exposing to us not only the horrors of the Soviet gulag prisons, but especially revealing to his readers the depth of the human soul, the hope that comes from the Cross of Jesus Christ, and the sovereignty of Almighty God over all of life.
On this 3rd Sunday of Lent, which we call the Sunday of the Cross, we will have a procession at the end of the Liturgy where we lift up the Cross and sing out, “We venerate your Cross, O Master, and your holy resurrection we glorify!” No symbol represents better what we as Christians believe than the Cross. That is why we all wear crosses. We make the sign of the cross. We hang crosses in our homes, in our cars, and throughout our Churches. The Cross symbolizes what we believe and hope in, and ultimately, who we are and how we should live!
In times of despair, hopelessness, and uncertainty, as Solzhenitsyn so vividly described, we turn to the Cross and find meaning in life. Although Solzhenitsyn didn’t have a logical reason to hope, he understood that the power and meaning of Jesus on the Cross defies logic and reason. God’s hope and power offers sometimes inexplicable, yet very tangible!
In ancient times, people equated the Cross with pain, suffering, and death. The Cross was a sign of the worst torture one could suffer. It was a cursed sign. And yet, when Jesus willingly accepted the Cross and died a criminal’s death, he changed the Cross from an image of death and despair into a symbol of life and hope! Christ accepted the Cross, and death itself, in order to destroy the greatest evil, death itself. In a few weeks, on Pascha night, we will repeatedly cry out with joy, “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and granting life to the world.”
The destruction of death and granting life to the world - here lies the meaning of the Cross. And not only does the event of the Cross brings meaning to the world, but even the path of the Cross helps us discover this ultimate road to life. Our Lord showed us this way when He willingly “denied himself.” He denied His own desire in the garden of Gethsemane, shortly before his betrayal and crucifixion, when He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will, but your will be done.”
Through this prayer, and the acts that followed, Jesus showed Himself utterly obedient to our heavenly Father’s will, and He set the supreme example for all of us, His disciples, to imitate. Through self-denial and loving sacrifice, our Lord reveals to us the path that leads towards a meaningful life. We should not focus the brief years we have here on earth by striving to fulfill our desires, our wants, our passions, and even our dreams. The abundant life which Jesus promises is about something much greater than our own personal ambitions and satisfactions. Life is about participating in God’s divine plan for humanity; it’s about living in union with Him, and acting as His ambassadors to the world. The more we learn to deny ourselves, and sincerely pray, “Your will be done, not mine but Yours O Lord,” the faster we’ll learn the way of not only the Cross, but the way of Resurrection as well!
Discovering this path of Cross and Resurrection is precisely what this holy season of Lent is all about! Our 40 days of fasting and self-discipline, of abstinence and increased prayer, of adjusting our lifestyles to be more in line with things that are holy, true, honorable, just, pure, and commendable – these are all essential tools we use to understand the importance of “denying ourselves”, and to help us enter more fully into the life of the Cross.
A life of self denial, sacrifice, and the cross is not a masochistic life, but when understood and lived in a Christian sense, it is a life of great joy, of incredible discovery, of authentic abundance. The Church teaches that the more we deny ourselves and give away, the more we will receive; the more we take up our cross and follow Christ, the more we discover the resurrected life in Him.
I’ll conclude with a summarized version of words from the Russian theologian and philosopher Nikolla Berdayev: “In the end, there exist two types of people – those who crucify and those who are crucified, those who oppress and those who are oppressed, those who hate and [those who love], those who inflict suffering and those who endure suffering, [those who strive to fulfill all their egocentric desires, and those who believe in denying self and sacrificing for the other], those who persecute and those who endure persecution. No explanation is needed to emphasize whose side Christians should be on.”
“We venerate your Cross, O Master, and we glorify your holy resurrection!