This reflection on the sign of the cross is from the website for the Orthodox Church in America. The original webpage can be found here.
by Deacon Nicholas Denysenko
“Before Thy cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection we glorify.”
In our culture, crosses appear everywhere—on the train, at the mall, cut and designed from metals, stones, and wood, and dangling on chains around the necks of men, women, and children. Crosses are emblazoned as tattoos on arms, legs, necks, backs. People have wooden crosses on their homes, offices, and cars, and two-dimensional crosses on the screens, tablets, and smart phones. The cross appears everywhere in our culture, but at its core, it is countercultural.
On the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and the third Sunday of Lent, we perform a small ritual and bow down before the cross while singing “before Thy cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection we glorify.” This rite is countercultural because the cross was an instrument of Roman capital punishment reserved for heinous criminals. Jesus was perfectly righteous and innocent, and was put to death on the cross. It’s cutting against the grain of culture to venerate an object of punishment. It’s culturally appropriate to venerate a grave, to visit the dead and honor their memories as we Christians do on Holy Week when we lay Jesus’ epitaphios in a tomb, or when we honor Mary’s death on the feast of her Dormition. But no one venerates nooses or needles containing poisons used for lethal injections because to do so would be horrifying. So our veneration of the cross is acutely countercultural as St. Paul said from the very beginning when he stated that the cross is foolishness to the wise of the world (1 Cor 1:18-25). Indeed!
Venerating the cross is countercultural, yet we do it all the time. We take crosses and submerge them in water on the Theophany feast, we kiss the cross at our divine offices, we make the sign of the cross on ourselves several times throughout the day and then on these two occasions, we perform this small rite. And our performance of this rite is a way of our saying that the cross is everything for us, and not only for us, but for the life and salvation of the world. So our claim, what we say we are doing when we bow down before the cross, it has serious implications: the stakes are high for us and for the world.
Today, we live in turbulent times. You don’t need to hear this from me; turn on the news and see how divided humanity has become. Even Christians are divided: we cannot agree on who is in charge of the Church, we disagree on the Church’s role in talking about national and international policies and life, and today, we are particularly troubled by divisions on the proper expression of human sexuality. Christianity is afflicted by these divisions: the number of the unchurched is high in America and even higher in places like Europe and Russia.
The traditional response of the Church to moral crises has been to promote the way of the cross as extraordinary holiness. Jesus calls his disciples and us today to follow him by taking up our crosses (Mark 8:34-41). Traditionally, Orthodoxy has equated the cross with asceticism in imitation of Jesus and has put forward models of cross-bearers in ascetics, martyrs, hieromartyrs, confessors, monastics, hierarchs, and holy fools, people like Saints Anthony of Egypt and Mary of Egypt, and others who mastered self denial in extraordinary ways.
I would like to propose that the time has come for us to take up our crosses in an ordinary manner. One can live the way of the cross in ordinary ways, in everyday life by practicing two things: self-denial and the outpouring of love. Self-denial begins in small ways. A family gathered at table might deny themselves the temptation of sending that last e-mail or responding to the Facebook update by turning off their tablets and smartphones and talking to one another. Listening to the other is another ordinary way of the cross. Fathers and mothers are called to listen to their children; siblings are called to listen to one another.
Young people can practice the way of the cross by walking away from the cheap opportunity for hooking up on a college campus. Such actions seem simple, but they are embedded in the way we live and are part of the fabric of our culture. When we practice self-denial in small ways, it can become habitual and rehearsed so that when bad things happen, we know how to act. If an unrighteous and unfair event occurs—suffering from humiliation, losing a job, losing a loved one are examples on small and large scales—self-denial allows us to deny ourselves the indulgence of cursing those who hurt us and blaming God for someone else’s sin. God allows us to cry out and lament—when Jesus was on the cross, he cried out in anguish, “my God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:2; Mk. 15:34). We too must cry out and lament because this is the authentically human response. But such self-denial must become paschal for us. Love for the other is part of the process of taking up one’s cross, even during the acute moments of catastrophe. Jesus modeled this for us: from his cross, he attended to the other, his mother, and handed her over to his beloved disciple (John 19:26-27). Our following his pattern of pouring out love entails praising and thanking God for the good we have received in this life, and for the privilege of having communion with God even in the midst of a catastrophe. We manifest the paschal way of the cross when the cross transforms us into people who love others even more intensely while we carry the cross, especially in ordinary situations. We might practice loving family members and attending to them with greater care in the midst of a catastrophe. We might see a community’s misfortune, such as a parish struggling through financial strain, as a signal to love those outside the parish and reach out to them without asking for anything in return.
Every day, God gives us an opportunity to live the way of the cross in ordinary ways. When we endure suffering and praise God in ordinary ways, we uphold the claim that we make in this semi-annual little ritual we perform at the cross because we show Christ that we truly do see his cross as modular for us.
Today, let us take up our crosses in Paschal joy. For when we do, we perform the countercultural ministry God has entrusted to us by acting as God’s prophets when we proclaim the way of the authentic human being to the world—the human being known as Jesus Christ.
Deacon Nicholas Denysenko, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University and author of The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany. He serves as deacon at Saint Innocent Church, Tarzana, CA.