The month of September in the Orthodox Church is a month of new beginnings. It marks the beginning of the new ecclesiastical year. All of the fixed feasts and fasts of the church calendar begin anew in September. Our Church offers us a chance to repeat this God-inspired cycle of salvation history and the sanctification of time itself. Whatever we did not take advantage of during the previous year, God, in His abundant mercy, gives us the opportunity to re-experience.
This month also marks the shift from summer to autumn. This is significant, for the fall is a time of harvest and abundant life, and at the same time a transition for the earth to rest, lie dormant and renew itself for a new cycle of life. This shift in the seasons also seems to trigger a change in us as well. Our inner system also adapts to the change in weather, the reduced amount of daylight, the shift in the position of the sun, and the changes in nature all around us. There is both a flurry of activity–nesting that naturally takes place in preparation for winter and for school–and a slowing down within us as we look forward to getting back to a more regimented routine.
September is also characterized within the Orthodox Church by the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross, celebrated on September 14th. It is fitting to commemorate the Cross of Christ in this season of change and renewal. The Cross is a paradox–it has historically been viewed as both a curse and a blessing; a symbol of death and a means to life. The Cross was used by the Romans to punish and put to death serious criminals. It was a public, humiliating, exceedingly painful, long and arduous form of capital punishment. For these reasons, it was hated and would have been inconceivable, before Jesus Christ, to exalt or venerate or glory in the Cross. And yet, this is exactly what the disciples of Christ did. The Apostle Paul most clearly expresses this attitude: “For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18);” and “May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:14).”
These words of St. Paul clearly illustrate the central and foundational role the Cross plays in the Christian Faith. It is impossible to be a disciple of Christ without following the way of the Cross. Every Feast of the Cross we are reminded of this in the Gospel reading: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me (Mt. 16:24).” This is the way of the Cross, to imitate the example Jesus gave to us. In everything, it was Jesus’ food to do the will of the His Father. Every moment of His earthly life, every decision, each situation was subjected by Jesus to the will of the His heavenly Father even if it meant for Him fatigue, hunger, hardship, humiliation, sadness, pain and even death. The inner world of Jesus, the Son of God, Who was both fully man and fully God in a perfect union of the two natures, but without any confusion of either provides for us the example of how we are to relate and interact with God. in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are given a clear view of this decision process between our Lord’s human will and His divine will when He said, “Father, you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done (Lk. 22:42).”
“Not my will, but Yours be done” This is how we are to exalt the Cross, venerate it and glory in it. These words need to be ceaselessly on our lips and in our hearts. As weak human beings, we have trouble following the way of the Cross. We begin our Christian journey at a deficit; all the effects of sin and the fall make us ill and besieged by passions and twisted inclinations. St. Gregory Palamas, the great Archbishop of Thessalonika and defender of the Orthodox Christian Faith includes our struggle against the passions as part of the way of the Cross:
The Cross means crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24). Crucifying the flesh with its passions and longings means stopping all activity that is displeasing to God. Although our body may pull us down and exert pressure on us, we must sill lift it up urgently to the height of the Cross.
The day-to-day life of a Christian is characterized by this struggle to stop all activity that is displeasing to God. This can be difficult and even discouraging. St. Gregory, realizing this reality, also adds these words of encouragement:
May none of you, brethren, be annoyed when you hear us announcing, in unadulterated form, the good and acceptable and perfect will of God, nor be vexed because you think these precepts are unattainable. Bear in mind, firstly, that the kingdom of heaven is subject to violence, and the violent take it by force. Listen to Peter, the Leader of the Christ’s Apostles, who says, “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow his steps (1Pet. 2:21).” Then you should consider the fact that when someone really learns how much he owes the Master, and is unable to repay in full, he modestly offers as much as he can and freely chooses to. As for the remaining debt, he humbles himself before the Lord and, attracting His compassion through his humility, he makes up for the shortfall.
On September 14th, the Church gathers before the Cross of Christ and lifts it high, remembering that through our Lord’s willing sacrifice on this tree, we once again have access to the Paradise of old. We bow ourselves before the Cross of Christ to be reminded of the love of Jesus, the only true God become Man, has for us. During this season of life and renewal, let us also remember that the Cross symbolizes a way of life, the only truly authentic Christian way of living: the way of the Cross. Having this in mind, let us earnestly renew our own commitment to deny ourselves, that is the passions, and in every way possible, to align our wills with God’s and follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus.