Doctors wear “scrubs.” Police officers wear uniforms. Christians wear Crosses.
The most universal sign of a person’s allegiance to Christ is the wearing of a Cross. By the Cross we Christians are known. And as Orthodox Christians, we not only wear a Cross–which is given to us at our Baptism–we also make the sign of the Cross with our hands in times of need or during worship, and we venerate the Cross with our lips whenever we encounter it. (I once saw a young child walking down the aisles of a Church, kissing every cross that was carved at the end of each row of pews.)
It is fitting that the Church has a special day of commemoration for the Cross: The Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross, which is celebrated on September 14. (There are also two other days dedicated to the Cross: August 1 and the 3rd Sunday of Lent.)
The Cross is “venerable”–worthy of veneration, of praise and adoration–because it has the power of God. Through the Cross all dark powers, all temptations can be vanquished. The Cross expels evil; God works through this holy instrument to grant grace to His people. For this reason, a priest always blesses in the sign of the Cross (whether with his hand or with some other holy object).
The Cross is also “life-giving” because through it we have received eternal life. By Jesus’ death on the Cross and His glorious Resurrection, death itself has been conquered. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, Jesus has “made Hell captive.” Death has no sting, because it is no longer the end of life; rather it has become the passageway to salvation and eternal life. Inasmuch as we cling to Christ’s Holy Cross, we join ourselves to the Immortal One, the Giver of Life.
However, clinging to Christ and His Cross means something very specific. Though we may wear the Cross as a sign of our allegiance to Christ, it is through our actions that we prove our allegiance to be true, that we show our faithfulness. Our Lord teaches us what it means to be a true follower of Christ: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
Jesus gives us three specific actions: deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. We deny ourselves by not pursuing our own selfish desires, by diminishing our ego and taking on the needs and burdens of others. This is in imitation of Jesus, Who took on all of our sins and was persecuted, mocked, beaten and killed for our sake. However, this is not easy work, thus the Church offers us the Eucharist, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, which are tools for our spiritual healing.
We take up our cross and follow Him by patiently enduring, as our own cross, our sinfulness and the consequences of sin. Just as Christ nailed our own sins to the Holy Cross, so we too bear our sins as a cross. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh says of this: “When we can neither avoid sin, nor repent truly, we can at least bear the burden of sin, bear it patiently, bear it with pain, bear it without doing anything to avoid the pain and the agony of it, bear it as one would bear a cross–not Christ’s cross, but the cross of the thief who was crucified next to Him… [For] it is to him, the thief–because he had accepted the punishment, the pain, the agony, the consequences indeed of evil he had committed, of being the man he was–that Christ said, ‘Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’”
In imitating Christ, we unite ourselves to Him. This is the path of the Christian, and it is an arduous one. Yet we find confidence in knowing that it is a path which was first trodden by our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Good Shepherd, walking ahead of the sheep, clearing the path so that we can safely walk in His footsteps.
With strength and confidence in Christ, may we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him–so that we too can enter into Paradise with the thief.
In Christ’s Love,
Save, O Lord, Your people and bless Your inheritance.
Grant victory to the faithful against the adversaries of the Faith;
and protect Your people by the power of Your Cross.
Apolytikion of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross