On the Altar of the Cross
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
In today’s reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, we read his further elaboration of the dominant theme of the work, namely, the priesthood of Christ. The book, being written to the Hebrew people, that is, to the Jews, is at pains to express to them that the ancient priesthood of the Jewish faith, which offered up sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, was now being fulfilled in Christ.
Jesus, in His coming to Earth, had instituted a new order of priests, not one descended from Moses’ brother Aaron and the Jewish Tribe of Levi, as the old priesthood had been, but rather a priesthood that is not defined by fleshly descent, but by spiritual participation in Christ. And this meditation on the priesthood is what is brought before us in Orthodox tradition as appropriate to hear on this, the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross.
It is no secret that the central dynamic of true Christian life is one that is bizarre and unattractive to this world—crucifixion. Not only is the Christian Church the only religion in the world whose defining moment is the martyrdom of God, but we also make the unpopular appeal to those who would follow after Christ to come and be crucified with Him. If we are going to be identified with Christ, then we must be martyred with Christ, whether literally through physical death on account of our faith or in a more metaphorical sense through life-long death to the passions and foolishness of this world.
The Lord Himself says this in today’s Gospel: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” That’s the Christian life: Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. Follow His life. Follow His actions. Do what He did. Deny yourself. Be crucified. Do that, and you are a Christian.
Well, to be honest, that doesn’t sound so nice. We’re not interested in denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. We’d prefer to indulge ourselves and take up, well, just about anything but a cross. Take up golfing. Take up fancy restaurants. Take up collecting stamps. Take up expensive cars and houses. Take up video games. No cross, please, thanks.
So that leaves us the question as to why anyone would actually choose to be a Christian. A life of self-denial? Of crucifixion? Really?
In the face of these very clear words from Christ, to understand why anyone would actually want to live as a true Christian, and not merely as a Christian in name only, we have to understand what motivates people. There are many things in human life for which people will practice self-denial and even choose a very difficult way of living. Someone may strive arduously to be an excellent athlete, with all the training, sacrifice, change in diet, and rearrangement of schedule that requires. Someone may consistently and carefully woo someone for marriage, caring and serving, embarrassing themselves with romantic gestures, changing jobs, friends or place of residence. Someone may also go through the rigors of boot camp or basic training and enter into the separation from family, danger and risk that are required in order to be in the military. Or they may do whatever it takes to have and to raise children.
There are many difficult things that we as human beings will do in order to gain something more important, in order to serve an ideal or to achieve a goal that we regard as being higher and better than what we could have gained from the things we give up, from the self-denial and even pain we endure. In all of these things, we have to have a clear sense of what the goal actually is, that it is actually worth the struggle and pain. In the context of meditating today on the Cross of Christ, in the words we hear from Paul he explains to us what this is.
Christ’s offering on the cross is not as a victim. He was not involuntarily crucified. He was not overcome by His creatures and put to death, as though He never had any say in the matter. The whole thing was voluntary. No, it was not His own hand that killed Him—He did not commit suicide. But He could have stopped it at any point. So it was by His will that the crucifixion happened. Therefore, this act is an act of deliberate sacrifice. And if it is a sacrifice, then there must be a sacrificer. And what is a sacrificer? That is a priest.
Remember, the Epistle to the Hebrews is about the priesthood of Christ. And today’s reading is precisely about Christ as our great High Priest, the One Who offers up sacrifices on behalf of the people. Paul says here that He is “taken from among the people, is appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God, that He may offer up both gifts and sacrifices for sins; Who can have compassion on the ignorant and on those who are erring, since He Himself also is encompassed with infirmity.”
Jesus Christ is one of us, “taken from among the people.” But we could say that He is also “taken” from God, since He is God. He is the only being in existence Who can identify with both God and man, because He is both God and man. It is this God-man, this High Priest, Who offers up the ultimate and final sacrifice on the cross. That is the altar on which His sacrifice is given, and it is there that we join with Him, if we also take up our crosses and live in self-denial. It is there that we, too, become priests, participating in the one priesthood of Christ.
So why would we want to do that? What’s the point in also becoming sacrificers and, indeed, becoming the sacrificed? Why would we want to deny ourselves and take up our crosses? Jesus explains this to us in the Gospel: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
On its face, the words of the God-man, the High Priest, clearly indicate that our eternal salvation depends on being crucified ourselves. If we are ashamed of Christ and will not truly follow Him, then He will be ashamed of us when He comes in His glory at the end of time. In stark terms, we risk eternity in Hell if we do not take up the cross.
But there is also something else going on here: We lose our lives in order to save them. What does this mean? It is part of the nature of sacrifice. When something is truly sacrificed to God, it is not traded to Him. It is not merely “given up.” That is not what sacrifice is. Sacrifice is rather to offer something to God, upon which He takes it and transforms it by His touch, and then He offers it back, now changed, made holy and transformed.
So that means that being sacrificed, living a life of self-denial and crucifixion, is not merely the door to eternity in Heaven, though it certainly is that. That’s what Christ said. It’s also the key to becoming something more than we are, to becoming truly holy, truly human—that is, becoming what God created us to be. He made us to be saints. The pursuit of being a saint is the only thing that will last into eternity, but even more than that, it is the only thing truly worth man’s time and struggle. It is the only thing truly worth giving your heart to unreservedly.
Don’t you yearn to be something higher, something nobler? Don’t you long for glory? Doesn’t your heart burn within you not just to know about what is good, what is holy, what is filled with light and perfection, but actually to participate in it? Don’t you want, in the midst of this broken, fallen, darkened world, to see wholeness, beauty and light?
Come, then, deny yourself and be crucified with Christ. Take up this glorious struggle, this holy fight, this noblest and best of all human callings. He has called us all to be a holy people, a nation of priests. If we follow the way of the Cross, we will know true glory and power and joy for all eternity.
To the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.