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The Meaning of Christ's Cross

Contents: The mystery of redemption. | The Lamb of God Who took upon Himself the sins of the world. | What the Savior said about the Cross. | What the Apostles taught about the Savior's Redemptive Sacrifice. | The meaning of the Cross in our life. | Supplement: Akathist Hymn to the Passion of Christ. | A Canon of Repentance to our Lord Jesus Christ.

The mystery of redemption.

The following story may partially clarify the subject we want to discuss here. A wealthy man had two sons. The older one was gentle, industrious and obedient. The younger one, to the contrary, was lazy, thoughtless and willful. He loved to run away from home to meet with his vagrant friends. This greatly saddened his father.

Once, when the father left for a few days, the younger son decided to throw a party for his friends. The music blared and the wine poured. The friends, being aroused by the wine, started to quarrel. There ensued a bad fight, culminating in severe injuries and a fire in the house. To avoid punishment, the younger son ran away. The father, upon returning home, became very upset with his younger son. The older son, feeling sorry for his brother, went to find him. After searching for several years, he finally found him, ill and exhausted in jail in some border town. The older son paid the judge the required fine and obtained his brother's release. Then he ministered to him, got him some decent clothes and took him back to his home estate. However, the younger son, realizing his guilt, was afraid even to appear before his father. To help him, the older brother went to the father, fell on his knees and tearfully began asking him to forgive the younger son. He guaranteed that the other had changed, and offered to make good all the losses his brother had caused. The father, touched by the love of the older son, forgave the younger one and accepted him unconditionally.

The younger son, having become wiser by adversity, and especially by his brother's kindness, changed completely. For the rest of his life he remained a comfort and support to his aging father.

The similarity of this story and the Christian teaching on the salvation of mankind rests on the fact that all men, not unlike the younger brother, lived in iniquity, depriving themselves of God's favor and subjecting themselves to a multitude of afflictions. The Lord Jesus Christ, like the older brother, came to our sinful world to save us and to return us to our Father's house — Heaven. He freed us from our slavery to passions and healed our souls' ailments. Through His feat, He returned to us our Heavenly Father's favor, showed us the path to everlasting life, and with His infinite love inspired in us the will and strength to do good.

To help us better appreciate the blessings of redemption, the Holy Scriptures use vivid examples from daily life, called parables. Among those especially relevant to our topic are the parable of the lost sheep found by the good shepherd, the parable about the barren fig tree tended by the provident gardener, and the parable about the vineyard that the owner's son came to harvest (cf. Matt. 18:12-14; Lk. 13:6-9; Is. 5:1-8; Matt. 21:33-44). These picturesque stories, on the one hand, remind us that the human race became lost and spiritually barren because of sin; and, on the other, they reveal the main reason which impelled the Son of God to come to the earth — His great compassion toward us.

The more we study the Scriptures, the more we become convinced that the redeeming sufferings on the Cross were the focal point of the earthly life of the incarnate Son of God. By His sufferings, He washed away our sins and repaid our debts to God, or, in the language of Holy Scripture, "redeemed" us. On Golgotha is concealed the unfathomable mystery of God's complete justice and infinite love. The fishermen of Galilee attest with utmost simplicity that the incarnate, Only-Begotten Son of God voluntarily took upon Himself the guilt of mankind and suffered for it by a humiliating and tormented death on the Cross. He took on Himself the punishment we were supposed to receive. The Apostles do not attempt to explain why such a horrible sacrifice was required, or whether God had some other way of saving us.

Undoubtedly, the entire life, every word and deed, of our Lord Jesus Christ was salutary for us, including His incarnation, whereby He poured into our decrepit nature the powerful stream of His divine life. Also salutary were His prayers for the world, the examples of His love toward all the oppressed and weak, His unselfishness and purity, His complete obedience to His Heavenly Father, and all His actions. The salvation of man was the objective of His godly teachings regarding the way one should believe and live, and what one should strive for in order to achieve the Kingdom of Heaven. His prophecies and countless miracles confirmed the truthfulness of His words and His divine ministry. Nevertheless, it is crucial to realize that all these deeds of the Savior's do not diminish the significance of the Cross. We are taught by the Scriptures that His voluntary sufferings and death were absolutely necessary for our salvation. In other words, His death on the Cross did not occur as a result of unfavorable circumstances, nor did He accept it only to admonish us, as some explain in a simplified manner: it was the main and most important event of His redemptive mission. The Lord came to earth specifically to save us by means of His suffering!

Sadly, Christian teaching about the crucifixion of the God–Man becomes for some a "stumbling-block." This is often true for persons who have formed some kind of ideology to suit their goals. As we know from the Scriptures, to many of the Jews and Gentiles of the apostolic times the assertion that the Almighty and Eternal God came to earth in the image of a mortal man, that He voluntarily endured beating, spitting, and a disgraceful death, and that this exploit was of spiritual benefit to mankind, seemed bizarre and even scandalous.

This seeming "foolishness" of the Christian message is intended to test every person's willingness to believe and to trust his Savior. The Apostle Paul shares with his disciples the experience of preaching about salvation in his Epistle to the Corinthians:

"Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the Cross of Christ be made of no effect. 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. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the `wise man'? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached, to save those who believe. For the Jews request a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified — to the Jews a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks — Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor.1:17-24).

In other words, precisely that which is conceived by some as unreasonable or ridiculous is in fact the manifestation of God's infinite wisdom and power. The message of the Savior's redeeming death and resurrection serves as the foundation of many Christian truths. For example: the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Sacraments, the goal of our temporary life, the purpose of sufferings and struggles, the acquisition of virtues, and the necessity of the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead.

The mystery of redemption is closely interwoven with several crucial spiritual and psychological factors. To grasp this mystery at least partially, one has first to understand the related factors, namely: (a) What the injury to human nature, which was caused by original sin, specifically consists of. (b) How the devil's will, because of our sinfulness, gained the ability to influence and even enslave our will. (c) How, on the other hand, the love of one person is capable of favorably influencing another person and ennobling him. In concurrence with this, if true love reveals itself predominantly as sacrificial service for a loved one, then the giving up of one's life for him, undoubtedly, is the highest expression of love. (d) Once the power of human love is comprehended, one has to rise to the understanding of God's infinite love, and understand how it penetrates into the believer's soul and, by this, heals and uplifts it. Evidently, all these topics are difficult to comprehend, and redemption will remain only partially understood. (e) Besides, there is another side to redemption which transcends our physical world. On the Cross there occurred a battle between the Incarnate Son of God and proud Lucifer (Satan). Under the image of a helpless body, Jesus Christ concealed His divine nature and by this overpowered Satan and his kingdom of darkness. The details of the spiritual battle between the Incarnate God and the rebellious angels are unknown. Even the Angels, according to the Apostle Peter, do not completely understand the truth of redemption (1 Pet. 1:12). It can be likened to the mysterious scroll that only the Lamb of God was worthy to open and read (Rev. 5:1-7).

Ultimately, the way in which a person perceives the Savior's suffering on the Cross reveals his hidden disposition — either towards good or towards evil. The righteous Simeon foretold this fact to the Virgin Mary when she brought the Blessed Infant to the temple: "Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against … that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Lk. 2:34-35). Along with this, the redemptive death of Christ, being an event which cannot be explained with human logic, and is even "enticing for the perishing," possesses a revitalizing power, which is felt by the believing heart. Renewed and warmed by this spiritual force, even the lowest of slaves to the most powerful of kings, and the most uneducated of peasants to the the greatest of scholars, bowed with trepidation before Golgotha.

The Lamb of God Who took upon Himself the sins of the world.

The Messiah's sufferings and redeeming death were the subject of numerous prophecies and spiritually significant events of the Old Testament. Among them are the sacrifice of Isaac, the elevation of the bronze serpent in the desert, the sacrifices performed in the temple at Jerusalem, the ritual of the scapegoat, and others (Gen. 22:1-18; Num. 21:8; Lev. 16:10). Among the prophecies regarding the suffering of the Messiah, the most vivid is that found in the 53rd chapter of the book of Isaiah:

"Lord!" begins the Prophet, pointing to the inconceivability of what he writes. "To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked; But with the rich at His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."

Although this prophecy was written more then seven centuries before Christ, its language is as vivid as if it were narrated by an eyewitness standing at the foot of the Cross. Undoubtedly John the Baptist referred to this very prophecy when, pointing to Jesus Christ, he said to the Jews: "Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world."

In what follows we shall examine what our Savior and His disciples said about redemption.

What the Savior said about the Cross.

The Lord Jesus Christ began to tell His Apostles about His impending suffering from the first year of His public ministry. Thus, for instance, He told His disciples that "He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer much from the elders, chief priests and scribes, be killed and be raised again on the third day." When the Apostle Peter, motivated by kind feelings, tried to dissuade Him from such a deed, the Lord decisively reprimanded him saying: "Get behind me, satan! You are an offense to Me; for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men" (Matt.16:21-23). Not long afterward, explaining the purpose of His coming to earth to the Apostles, the Lord said: "The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28).

A few days before His crucifixion, the Lord Jesus Christ again spoke of the great task that awaited Him, explaining to His Apostles that He had come to the earth precisely to accomplish this: "Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? `Father save Me from this hour'? but for this purpose I came to this hour" (Jn. 12:27). Then the Lord explained that His death would be beneficial to mankind: "The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified … Amen I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much grain … Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world [the devil] be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up [the Cross] I will draw all peoples to Myself." "This, He said," adds the evangelist, "signifying by what death He should die" (Jn. 12:23–34). Only at the Last Supper, during the farewell conversation, did the Savior shed more light about the benefits of His suffering and death. In particular, the Lord explained that He must suffer for:

During the Last Supper, Jesus Christ established the Sacrament of Communion and based the cleansing power of this Sacrament on His impending suffering. First, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said: "Take, eat; this is My body which is given for you." Afterwards, pointing to the cup with wine, He said: "Drink from it all of you. For this is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matt. 26:27-28; Lk. 22:19).

After Communion the Lord explained to the disciples in very convincing words that His suffering on the Cross was necessary for believers to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit: "Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart I will send Him to you" (Jn. 16:7).

The Lord further explained that He was to take upon Himself the atoning sacrifice because of His great love for mankind. Referring to the parable about the lost sheep, the Savior said to them that He is the Good Shepherd: "The good shepherd gives His life … Therefore, My Father loves Me, because I lay down my life that I might take it again. No man takes it from me, but I lay it down myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again … Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down one's life for His friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you" (Jn. 10:11, 15:13-14). And, although the suffering on the Cross was to sadden greatly all of Christ's disciples, they were to be comforted by the forthcoming spiritual birth: "A woman when she is in labor has sorrow, because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world" (Jn. 16:21).

As a consequence of His death on the Cross, heavenly dwelling places are prepared for believers: "And if I go and prepare a place for you [in the other world], I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also" (Jn. 14:3), i.e., in the place of His eternal glory. Although the Savior's words were so direct and unambiguous, only after the descent of the Holy Spirit did the Apostles become personally certain of the great benefits of His redeeming death and resurrection. Subsequently they used every opportunity to share their experience with their followers.

What the Apostles taught about the Savior's Redemptive Sacrifice.

As seen in the acts of the apostles and in the other New Testament books, the message of salvation through the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God lies at the core of the Apostles' teachings. The Apostles used this message as the basis of all their subsequent instructions. In the coming of the Son of God to earth and His death for the redemption of mankind, the Apostles saw first of all His limitless love for mankind. The following illustrates what they often said about it:

"By this we know [Christ's] love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren … For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (1 Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:6-11).

Regarding Christ’s redemptive death, the Apostles for spoke primarily of the great blessings that it brought to the world. In particular, they taught that, with His death, Christ:

Here are the Apostles' words on these topics:

Of Christ's obedience St. Paul explains that He,

"being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery [an exaggeration] to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even to Death on a Cross. Therefore, God also has highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every name."

And a bit further the Apostle continues: "For just as by the disobedience of one man [Adam], many were made sinners; so also one Man's [Christ's] obedience many will be made righteous" (Phil. 2:6-9; Rom. 5:19).

Of the cleansing significance of the Savior's death the apostles said the following in the most clear and vivid language:

"He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness. By His stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray; but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls … The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin … And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world" (1 Pet. 2:23-25; 1 Jn. 1:7, 2:2).

Of the release of people from the bonds of the devil, the Apostles wrote that Christ "has made us alive together with Him, having forgiven all our trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us … He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the Cross. Having disarmed the principalities and powers [of darkness — demons], He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them" (Col. 2:13-15). Of the release of souls from Hell, we will cite the prophesy of Zechariah, quoted by Paul: "He [the Messiah] shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the end of the earth. As for you also because of the blood of your covenant I [God the Father] will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit" (Zech. 9:9-11).

Of the reconciliation with God, we read: "For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." In another place, the Apostle writes to former gentiles: "You who were once alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and blameless, and irreproachable in His sight" (Rom. 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Col. 1:20-22).

Of the establishment of the New Testament [or covenant] the Apostle Paul reminds the Jews of Jeremiah's prophesy:

"Behold days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, and with the House of Judah … not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I grew weary of them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people … For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more." And later the Apostle explains: "For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives" (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:8-12, 9:16-17).

In speaking about the sanctification of believers the Apostle Paul compares Christ's ordeal to the sacrifices carried out in the Old Testament temple:

"When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, nor with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood, He entered the Most Holy place once and for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, Who through the Holy Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? … For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified" (Heb. 9:11-17).

Because of the redemptive death of the Messiah, the Heavenly Father sends to believers the grace of the Holy Spirit. From now on the divine power helps the Christian to struggle against sin and live righteously. The Apostle calls this divine help "The Law of the Spirit," in contrast to the powerless and stern law of the Old Testament:

"For the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the Law [of Moses] could not do in that it was weak through flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:2-4).

Finally, reminding Christians of the most joyous outcome of Christ's atonement — the victory over death and the universal resurrection of the dead — St. Paul comforts them, saying:

"For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living … Now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For, as in Adam, all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive" (Rom. 14:9; 1 Cor. 15:20-23).

Note: Also of interest are the following comparisons occasionally made by Fathers of the Church, which show a close relationship between Adam's sin and Christ's ordeal on the Cross: the tree of knowledge in Eden and the tree of the Cross on Golgotha; the rebellion of Adam and the utmost obedience of Christ; a proud pretension to become king and a crown of thorns; the sweetness of forbidden fruit and the bitterness of vinegar; impudent hands reaching towards the tree and hands helplessly nailed to the Cross.

The meaning of the Cross in our life.

As we have seen, the apostles taught that all the blessings of this life and in the life to come are the direct result of the suffering on the Cross of the incarnate Son of God. These blessings extend not only to mankind but also to all of nature and even the entire universe, which will be renewed on the day of the general resurrection.

For us the most important blessing of the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ is the gift of a new life in Christ — the ability to live spiritually, to perfect oneself and become likened to God. All this is referred to in the Scriptures as becoming a new man or new creation. Before Christ, man was unable to lead a true spiritual life and was a prisoner of his corporal, often sinful desires. The blessings of redemption inspire new thoughts, a new outlook on life. Redemption exposes the emptiness and vanity of our earthly existence and reveals how joyful and wonderful is the life to come. The grace of the Holy Spirit constantly helps us on the way to our ultimate goal. It replaces the feeling of oppression and bitterness with lightness and inner peace; the thirst for vile pleasures with the sweetness of a relationship with God; sickly self-love with a noble desire to do good.

Of course, any kind of growth and perfection demands personal effort as well. God leads and helps us and gives us all the tools to succeed, but constancy and struggle are necessary ingredients to become virtuous. These difficulties, both outer and inner, are called personal "crosses." Every Christian has to carry his personal cross if he wants to participate in his victory over evil. Salvation consists of two parts: the objective part already accomplished by Jesus Christ on the Cross, and the subjective part which consists of a personal effort to become a true Christian. About this second aspect of salvation, Jesus says: "He who follows after Me [wants to be My disciple] but does not take his cross, is not worthy of Me" (Matt. 10:38). There is nothing bleak in this carrying of one's personal cross. The Apostles, in talking about a Christian's struggle, comforted themselves and others with the words: "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:17). And the more a Christian shares in Christ's sufferings, the more he will share in His glory.

A few words about the sign of the cross. Before Christ, the cross was an instrument of the cruellest punishment, and a symbol of horror. After His sufferings, it became the sign of the victory of good over evil and of life over death; it became the reminder of the limitless love of God and a source of happiness. The incarnate Son of God sanctified the cross with His blood and made it the carrier of His blessings and holiness. Because of these properties, the sign of the cross became an essential component of Christian life since apostolic times, used in all Church services and private prayers. For instance, water is blessed and becomes holy with the sign of the cross, and bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ; in summary, all Sacraments acquire their spiritual power through the sign of the cross. As flies cannot tolerate flame, so demons cannot stand the presence of the cross. The sign of the cross protects a Christian from accidents and misfortunes and attracts God's help to him. That is why Orthodox Christians revere the cross so much, bless themselves with the sign of the cross, wear a cross on their chest and adorn their homes and churches with crosses.


All Wednesdays and Fridays are dedicated to the redemptive passion of Jesus Christ on the Cross, as well as the following holidays: the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14, old style; September 27, new style), the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross (the third Sunday of Lent), and Passion Week.

Scripture readings at services dedicated to the cross: at Great Vespers: Exod. 15:22–16:1; Prov. 3:11-18; Isaiah 60:11-16. At Matins: Jn. 12:28–36. At the Liturgy: 1 Cor. 1:18–24; Jn. 19:6–35. In place of the Trisagion the choir sings: "We venerate Thy cross, O Master, and we glorify Thy holy resurrection."

Missionary Leaflet 32E
©2004 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
(cross.doc 04-01-2004)
Edited by Donald Shufran