This week the Church celebrates the Exaltation of the Cross of Christ, which commemorates two historical events: the finding of the actual cross on which the Lord was crucified during the time of St. Helen, and the recovery of that cross after it had been stolen at the time of the Persian invasion in 614. In remembering these events, so monumental in the Church’s history, we are of course referred back to that most monumental event of the Lord’s crucifixion. We are also reminded of the Lord’s words that we, as His followers, are called to take up our own crosses as we follow Him.
In what may seem like a strange juxtaposition, the day before the Exaltation we commemorate the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (that is, the Church of the Lord’s Tomb). What is odd about this is the order of the two commemorations. On the first day we remember the resurrection, since the wonderful thing about the Lord’s tomb is that it is empty. Then, on the very next day, we go back to the crucifixion. This would seem to be going backwards. In addition to the historical reasons for this order of the two commemorations, however, this “backwardness” points us to a very important reality in our lives.
We Orthodox love to celebrate Pascha, and we should. Nothing is more joyful, nothing more hopeful, than the proclamation of the Lord’s resurrection and the promise of our own resurrection. Without this, as St. Paul says, we Christians would be miserable people indeed, “most to be pitied.” Pascha and its promise provide the joyful character that all authentic Christian life has. At the same time, the fact remains that we who are still in this life have yet to finish running the race. We are still on the way to Golgotha with the Lord, bearing our own cross as we trace His footsteps. So the cross is the reality of our lives. Furthermore, we need the Lord’s cross every bit as much as we need the resurrection. This is because the joy of Pascha comes through the cross: “lo, through the Cross has joy come into all the world.” On the cross, the Lord works the salvation and provides the healing that we so desperately need. Gazing upon the crucified Lord, and accepting His crucified love, we are healed of the snake-bite of sin, just as the snake-bitten Israelites were healed when “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” (John 3:14)
To accept that crucified Love, though, and the joyful rising from the dead that that Love makes possible, means that we accept the commandment of the Lover – that is, Christ, the Lover of mankind. “And His commandments are not burdensome,” says St. John (1 John 5:3). Isn’t carrying a cross “burdensome” by definition? It only is if we try to carry it alone, by our own strength. In that case it’s impossibly heavy. The secret to the joyful life of a Christian is in learning to bear every burden by casting it on the Lord, and in accepting only the cross that Christ gives to us. If we try to do it with our eyes on ourselves (pitying ourselves, worrying about what others think of us, and so on), we will stumble and fall; and if we try to invent our own crosses, they will become unbearably heavy. In either case, we will never love the Cross, and love it we must if we are to discover its ‘backwards” joy.
So as we follow the Church backwards from the Resurrection to the Cross this week, may we take the opportunity to ask ourselves whether we are avoiding the cross that is the key to true joy in our lives. Or perhaps we are attempting to carry crosses of our own devising, or by our own strength. If so, it is we who are backwards, and the Church is helping us turn back in the right direction. May the Lord, then, enable us to contemplate the Resurrection with the sobriety of the Cross, and to celebrate the Cross – the Lord’s and our own – as the source of all our joy.