The holy cross has a tremendous value in Christian tradition. Although some see the holy cross now days as simply an ornament to put on around their neck or on their fingers, the Church sees it with much weight, as the instrument the Lord employed to pen the script of salvation. Jesus died on the holy cross and has drunk the fullness of the cup of passion upon it. He came down from the holy cross to resurrect out of the death and the grave. St. Paul says: ‘For the message of cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God (I Cor 1:18). Therefore, the Orthodox Church venerates the holy cross. It will be interesting to think deep into these ideas.
Holy Cross in the Old Testament
There are mainly three symbols that depict the holy cross in the Old Testament, two of which are from the life of the Children of Israel in Egypt as well as their sojourn to Canaan and one from the life of Jacob, the Patriarch.
As commanded by God, Moses asked the Israelites to put a mark on the lintel and of the doorposts with the blood of the lamb that was killed at the feast of Passover on the eve of smiting the firstborns of all Egyptians (Ex 12:13, 22, 23). This mark with blood of the lamb has served as symbol for the destroyer of all Egyptian firstborns to leave aside the Israelite families. The Christian tradition identifies this incident to comprehend the importance of holy cross. Old Testament understands the blood as carrier of life (Lev 17:11-12, 14) and the marks made of blood carried life for the Israelite firstborns. In other words, the blood of the lamb that carried life has given life to the firstborns of Israelites and that blood took the sign of the cross, if we see the marks stretching from the lintel down and from both sides of the doorposts. Similarly the blood of the Lamb of God that hung from the holy cross has given life to all the Children of the Church. Blood of the Lamb of God has taken the shape of the doors of Israelites in Egypt, namely, one mark behind the head of the Lord to flow down until His feet to remind the lintel and one mark each at the end of both palms that were connected by the stretched hands of the Lord to remind the doorposts. In Egypt the Lord asked Moses to instruct the people of Israel to make the sign of the holy cross with the blood of the lamb. In order to gift salvation to humanity, the Lord Himself, the lamb that carries the sin of the world (Jn 1:29), hung on the holy cross to reveal the salvific cross.. One statement by St. Paul attests this reality, namely, ‘and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross’ (Col 1: 20).
Secondly, when the Israelites were smitten by the venomous or fire serpents while they set out from Mount Hor by the Way of Red Sea to go around the land of Edom, for they complained against the Lord for the food. When many of the people of Israel died by serpent bites, the Lord Himself asked Moses to make a serpent of copper and Moses has put it one a signal pole. This copper serpent is seen as the crucified Jesus and therefore, the signal pole symbolizes the holy cross on which Jesus was crucified. ‘When a serpent bit any one and he looked at the copper serpent, he lived’ says Numbers 21:9. Interestingly it was venomous serpents that caused death among the camp of Israel and it is also a serpent of a different kind, which had the image and likeness of the venomous serpent itself that saved the Children of Israel! We can compare this situation with that of the Garden of Eden. A treacherous serpent crept in to deprive the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden their privileges. The image and likeness of God that the humans had from creation onwards was marred and distorted by the transgression of commandment by Adam, which was initiated by a serpent. Interestingly the second person of the Holy Trinity took to Himself the image and likeness of the fallen human and it is in this fallen human image that He killed the death. Therefore, those, who looked at the raised serpent on the holy cross on Golgotha, were saved. Again the serpent that Moses raised at the camp of Israel was made of copper but it looked like a venomous serpent. The one hung on the holy cross looked fully like a fallen human but He was God become human! It is this God, who hung on the cross effected salvation and the signal pole on which the copper serpent was raised therefore ante-typed the holy cross. In this very context we can read Psalm 34:5; ‘Come to Him, and be enlightened, And your face shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried and the Lord heard him, And saved him from all his afflictions.’
.There is this song that we sing during the Good Friday services, that is to say:
Thazhuki vanangiyathaam dandam
Sleeba thannude drushtaantham”
This song refers to Genesis 30:25-43. Jacob, the Patriarch, has served many years his maternal uncle Laban, who in turn, according to Jacob himself, ‘has cheated him ten times’ (cf. Gen 31:7). Therefore, Jacob wanted his share and wanted to take his family his own so that what he sweats would belong to him and not to a personwith vicious interests. He came into a deal with Laban that sheep, goats and lambs with spot, speckle and black color would belong to him. Now it was for Jacob to see that there are a good number and enough sheep, goats and lambs with spot, speckle and black color, namely, his reward. Jacob devised a technology, which can be compared to the modern genetic engineering in its utmost raw form though, if wanted. When healthy sheep and goats of Laban’s herd come to drink water they see fresh rods of poplar, almond and plane with peeled streaks in them, exposing the white of the rods. He set the peeled rods in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places,
where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks bred in front of the rods and thus produced young ones that were striped, speckled, and spotted. Jacob separated the ones with spot, speckle or stripe and the black ones and did not let them mingle with those of Laban’s. Whenever the strongest of the flock were breeding Jacob laid the rods in the troughs before the eyes of the flock that they might breed among the rods and for the feebler of the flocks he did not lay them there. In short the feebler became that of Laban and stronger that of Jacob. Jacob grew in wealth and the Lord blessed him.
It is here the above mentioned song comes into consideration, namely, when the sheep, goats and the lambs that were seeing the striped rod and breeding while drinking water they produced the striped young ones. The striped rod is seen as the symbol of the holy cross by the fathers to say that whenever humans, who belonged to the adversary or traitor, here in comparison with Laban, whom Jacob depicts as a cheater (Gen31: 7), come to water in the troughs, namely for baptism, they encounter and take in the holy cross and they are born again with stripes, speckle and spots, namely belonging to the herd of the saved ones or that of Jacob’s. Spot, speckle and stripe are seen here as symbol of life. Death has no power over them for there is life in them, which is the medicine to defeat death. This faith is initiated through the salvific cross. Thus the holy cross has emptied the hades and moved the souls in bondage to the predicament of happiness and freedom. Just as Jacob put the peeled rods to put away the flocks from the cheater, the Lord put the holy cross, to mean His own death and resurrection, to trample and kill death. The Lord has plundered the hades and the proceeds belonged to Holiness. St. Paul cannot but attest this fact in Eph 2:16, namely, ‘And that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enemy’.
We can see the Kukilion of the holy cross (Psalm 44: 5, 7), that is, ‘In You we shall push back our enemies and in Your name we shall scorn those who rise up against us. For You saved us from those who afflict us. And You disgraced those who hate us’, only in this very context. The holy cross is the one instrument that scripted life for the whole humanity!
Holy Cross in the New Testament
Cross in the New Testament times was an instrument used by the Romans generally for the punishments of slaves, specifically the cross on which our Lord died as recorded in the Gospels. Cross has a derived meaning as trials and misfortunes especially when considered as tests of Christian patience or virtue (Mt 16:24) as well.
When we read Phil 2:8 the abomination of cross is to be felt: ‘And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross’. However, when the Lord endured this abomination, it became a blessing and reason for happiness, which St. Paul describes in Hebrews 12:2, namely, ‘looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’. These verses mean that Christ voluntarily accepted the humiliation and death. It is in this notion itself that Jesus says to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:3410:21; Lk 9:23). Jesus not only preached this idea but put into practice too as we see in Jn 19: 17, ‘And bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha’. The negative version of this verse is seen in Mt 10:38, namely, ‘And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. In Lk 14:27 we read, ‘And who ever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. Two ideas are evident here. Each person must take up his own cross. Secondly, the burden in this world is different for each person, and each has been chosen by God to bear certain struggles for his own salvation and the salvation of those around him. Therefore, the cross is to be taken up daily. In other words, commitment to following Christ is not just a one-time event. Rather, it is the continual practice of faith and obedience, even to the point of being shamed and persecuted by the world.
St. Paul also was confronted with the question of abomination of the cross and he came well with it. In I Corinthians 1:17 and 18 we read: ‘For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. For the message of cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.’ He was able to understand the profound meaning of the cross as power of God, though it was seen by the world around him as disgrace.
Another idea we see with Paul is that cross shall mean burdens that come along with the Christian faith. In Gal 5:11 we read, ‘And, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased.’ St. Paul was not prescribing circumcision to the gentiles for achieving salvation but the abomination and disgrace of the holy cross instead. He carries on to say that ‘As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ’ (Gal 6:12). However, the consolation is the confidence of St. Paul, who is unashamed to say that he is willing to boast in the holy cross of the Lord, ‘But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Gal 6:14). This confidence has taken many expressions from Paul and we can read here some of them:
- Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us that was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Col 2:14).
- For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil 3:18).
Holy Cross in the life of the Church
We can but only see the importance of the holy cross in the life of the Church. Every faithful makes the sign of the holy cross day and night. During prayers and Holy Qurbana we make the sign of the holy cross so often. Where ever there is a blessing or something to be blessed priest uses the only structure of the holy cross. The priests employ it and the faithful too. A child is baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity by the sign of the holy cross. A church or a house is dedicated to the Lord with the sign of the cross all around. The holy altar should have at least one holy cross on it. A man and woman are united in the holy matrimony by the sign of cross, especially with the song, namely, ‘the blissful emblem is the holy cross, the banner of victory is the holy cross and our boast is on the cross that saves us.’ A candidate is given holy orders through the sign of the cross. A monk must carry thirteen crosses on the veil that is covering his head. A person can get absolution and remission of sins only in the sign of cross. Holy unction is made with the sign of the cross. The holy myron is blessed and is administered in the sign of the holy cross. When one gets up, the sign of the cross is made and the same is done, when one goes to sleep. In short, the life of the Church is filled with the sign of the holy cross and that explains the importance of the holy cross in the life of the Church unmistakably.
The holy cross is symbolizing the holy gospel too. Meaning of making the sign of the cross is that the Son of God, who was sitting at the right hand side of the Father (Acts 7:55, 56) came down to sinful humans on earth, who because of their sins were to inherit the hell and made them inheritors of the Kingdom of God by His salvific death and resurrection. There are two poles for the cross, one vertical and the one horizontal. There are two movements in making the sign of the cross, namely one vertically downwards from forehead to the chest and one horizontally sidewise from the left shoulder to the right. The forehead is seen as heaven, where the Lord is seated at the right hand side of the Father. Also the forehead is the place where noble thoughts and divine instincts in humans rest. The chest is where the heart remains and the heart is depicted as the seat of emotions. Emotions are seen as those relating to the world and worldly, which can have evil traits in it. Therefore the vertical motion symbolizes that the second person of the Holy Trinity descended from heaven to the world, where the sinful humans live, who did not recognize the divine presence in it (Jn 1: 9,10). It was these sinful humans, who were inheritors of hell that He made inheritors of heaven, the Kingdom of God and that action is depicted by the movement from left shoulder to the right, which we see in Jn 1: 29, the witness that John the Baptist gives, namely, “Behold! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. This act is the sign of the cross and this very act is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news from heaven, the Christ-message (cf. Acts 15:7) that St. Paul always affirmed. When we observe the feast of the holy cross, we have to understand that the Old Testament and the New Testament have together affirmed the holy cross as the instrument with which our Lord has penned salvation to the world and humans, which the Holy Church always has affirmed and will do for ever too.