Today we commemorate the middle of the season of the Great Fast with the celebration known as ‘the veneration of the Cross'. It is on this day that we have reached a mountain of hope after traveling along the long hard road of the Great Fast. It is this mountain of hope that offers us strength to carry on until the feast of feasts finally arrives. It is this mountain of hope upon which we can climb up and see the coming of Pascha in the distance. This mountain of hope is the Cross.
Today we venerate the Cross of Christ to not only remind ourselves of the coming of Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection, but to gather strength from it and to thank Jesus for what He did for us on the wood of the Cross. As we ponder on the symbol of the Cross, it is an interesting twist; the cross, an instrument that was used to kill people becomes the instrument of salvation. It was through this instrument that Christ died, but it was also because of this instrument that Christ was able to defeat death, to rise on that first Pascha, and to open for us the gates of paradise.
When you read or study about crucifixion, it is a well-known fact amongst historical and medical circles that Roman crucifixion was the most cruel and painful form of execution. If you were caught on charges ranging anywhere from theft to civil disobedience and were crucified for it, you would be fortunate if you were dead within a few hours. This was the case with Jesus, and the two thieves who likely died by asphyxiation considering the type of crucifixion that they underwent. Sometimes the unfortunate ones hung on a cross for up to a week before death finally came. Not only would these victims starve and become exhausted but they would also attract a variety of animals and insects from the area that would slowly pick at the victims. Yet, our God was willing to undergo this cruel and humiliating form of execution for our sakes. Holy tradition relates to us that many of our Saints died by crucifixion. For example, St. Andrew the First Called was crucified on a cross that resembled the letter X, and St. Peter was crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his master.
The instrument of death that becomes the symbol of life is everywhere. It is around our necks, on top of the church, behind the altar, on top of the iconostasis, on the priest's and deacon’s vestments, in our homes, in our cars, on flags and coats of arms. It is even carved onto most headstones as a reminder to us that because of the death on the Cross, our departed loved ones can now enjoy everlasting life.
Jesus tells us that if we wish to go after Him we too must take up our cross and follow. This means that we must suffer with Him in truth and love, that we’ve got to live through the trials and tribulations that this world brings to us, and that we must endure the rejection of this world. We are rejected for being Orthodox Christians, for living a Christian life, for standing before the world and saying "I believe in Jesus and follow His teachings". This means that we must put into practice the life that Christ Himself lived, the life that Christ Himself is, the life which is given to us in Christ’s name in the Church. Then will we gain the life that awaits us.
This is why we venerate the Cross of Christ, which tells us of God’s coming to us and of our return to Him, both accomplished by the way of the Cross. This is what we venerate and contemplate in the middle of the Great Fast, the wisdom and the power of God as Christ crucified on the Cross. This symbol tells us the truth about life. It tells us of the truth and love of God for the world, and it tells us what we must do to be alive for eternal life in God’s kingdom.
Furthermore, Jesus chose this symbol so that he could outstretch his arms and embrace the whole of humanity with his love even in pain and death. When you look at an icon of Christ crucified, you will notice that Christ is not withering in pain with a look of despair on His face as you see so often in Western religious art. However, He has a look of peace and serenity on His face because he is embracing us with His love. He is triumphing over death through His death. He is saying to us 'I did this because I love you and I want you to be with me for eternity'. There is no greater love than this.
As we come forward today to venerate the relic of the True Cross, a piece of the actual cross on which Jesus hung, which we are so blessed to have in our midst, let us think to ourselves ‘thank you Jesus for dying on this symbol for our sakes. Thank you Jesus for leaving us this symbol of hope. Thank you Jesus for opening the gates of paradise for us with the Holy Cross'.