For, behold, through the Cross, joy has come into the world.
Whenever we openly commemorate and actually venerate the Cross of the Lord, we have the opportunity to dispel a certain characterization of the Orthodox Church that if allowed to linger unanswered can become something of a caricature. And that is simply the claim that the Orthodox Church stresses the Resurrection of Christ at the expense of the Cross. This implies that the Orthodox Church – or we could say the Christian East – has no real “theology of the Cross.”
For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I would simply like to point out just how pervasive the presence of the Cross of Christ is in the liturgical life of the Church, thus making that presence so real in our ecclesial and personal lives, that if only unconsciously, the Cross is embedded in our minds and hearts.
Speaking of convenient clichés, there are many who like to characterize each Lord’s Day – Sunday – as a “little Pascha.” For on each and every Sunday, we proclaim the Resurrection of Christ as we do on Pascha itself. Sunday, therefore, is a weekly extension of the paschal joy of the Resurrection. The hymns of the Liturgy are imbued with the power of the Resurrection:
“Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless One…”
Yet, based on this same pattern, we could say that every Friday is a “little Great and Holy Friday,” another extension of that most solemn of days – the Day of the Cross - as we commemorate the Cross on Friday as we commemorate the Resurrection on Sunday. It is for this reason that Friday is a day of fasting in the Church, as a way of keeping the Cross in mind as we practice some self-denial. And not only Friday on a weekly basis. On Wednesday, we also commemorate the Cross of the Lord and His Mother at the foot of the Cross:
O long-suffering Lord, when Your Mother saw You nailed to the Cross, she poured forth streams of tears because of You. Completely overcome by Your surpassing goodness and by Your compassion for the human race, she began to sing the praise of Your infinite power! (Aposticha, Vespers for Wednesday, Tone 8)
For this reason each Wednesday is also a day of fasting.
In addition to the present Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we liturgically venerate the Cross precisely at the midpoint of Great Lent, on the Third Sunday, in order to set our minds forward to the Passion of the Lord. There is also the Procession of the Lifegiving Cross on August 1, as a way of inaugurating the two-week Dormition Fast. Often, a cross is carried in various liturgical processions – usually at the head of such a procession – and many churches will have a large Cross present for contemplation and veneration.
At the very end of the Liturgy, the faithful come forward to kiss the Cross held by either the bishop or priest. That is basically our last liturgical gesture before we “depart in peace.” And, of course, all (Orthodox) Christians wear a cross. This, however, can be problematic if we fail to heed the words of Christ Himself.
For the Lord taught us that “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Mark 8:34]. These words challenge us to never be content with being passive observers of the Cross, but instead to become active participants in the life of self-denial and co-suffering love that are implied in taking up the Cross. This further means that by our very vocation as Christians, we are “cross-bearers” and not simply “cross-wearers.” It is one thing to wear a cross, and another thing to bear a cross.
Of course it is a good thing that Christians do wear crosses. This is something of an identity badge that reveals that we are indeed Christians, but this worn cross is certainly not another piece of jewelry—Byzantine, three-barred, Celtic or Ethiopian!
By wearing a cross we are saying in effect,
“I am a Christian, and therefore I belong to the Crucified One, Who is none other than the ‘Lord and Master of my life.’ My ultimate allegiance is to Him, and to no other person or party. With the Apostle Paul, I also confess, ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith'...” [Romans 1:16].
Such a confession already takes us far beyond passively being a “cross-wearer” to actively becoming a “cross-bearer.”
Dying to sin in Baptism makes the impossible possible. And with a faith in Christ that is hopefully ever-deepening in maturity, we can further exclaim with the great Apostle, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” [Galatians 5:24].
I am hoping that these few points make it quite clear that to claim that the Orthodox Church under-values the Cross simply does not hold up to even superficial observation. As for the deeper levels of the meaning of the Cross – a “theology of the Cross” – we can only here once again refer to some of our theologically-expressive and beautiful liturgical hymns:
"Who without change didst become man and was crucified, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!" ('Only Begotten Son' – Second Antiphon)
"For enduring the Cross for us, He has destroyed death by death..." (Hymn of the Resurrection, following Holy Communion)
Orthodox Christians are people of the Cross “for, behold, through the Cross joy has come into the world."
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"Before Thy Cross . . ."
Magnify, O my soul, the most precious Cross of the Lord.
You are the mystical Paradise, O Theotokos, in which Christ blossomed; through Him the life-bearing Wood of the Cross was planted on earth.
Now at its Elevation, as we bow in worship before it, we magnify you.
—Hymn to the Theotokos for the Elevation of the Cross.
The link provided here is to a fairly detailed article on Wikipedia (there are, of course, different assessments of this source) that provides a history of the "true Cross" of the Lord from its discovery in the 4th c. to some of the scattered allusions to its ultimate fate in sources both Western and Eastern. What is of interest, is that the various Churches that have established a feast day of the Cross have agreed upon September 14 as the prime date, again both East and West.
The Leavetaking of the Feast is on September 21.