Exaltation of the Cross...but Why?
When we enter the church today we notice that there is a crucifix there on the tetrapod surrounded by flowers for us to kiss and bow before as we take our places to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. We do this because it symbolizes the fulfillment of the plan of God for our salvation. Let there be no mistake; this is not worship, but veneration. Any form of reverence we show to the cross is transferred to Christ, who died on that cross. But how is it that an instrument of torture, specifically the torture of the Christ should be an object of veneration? This was the question that my high school ECF students had asked me one day, and it prompted me to write this lesson plan for them. I decided to share it with you today. So...Let us consider the cross.
Luke 9:23 "And he said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me'"
I find this verse really interesting especially due to the fact that the Lord had not yet been arrested and condemned to a cross…how strange this must have sounded to them to hear Him speak of His own crucifixion. I wonder if they truly knew what He meant, or if it rang in their memories when it came to pass. We know that most of the followers of Jesus expected that He would be a strong political leader who would save their people from the tyranny of the Romans; not a meek and gentle King who would allow his subjects to go so far as to nail Him to a tree. Yet, from this passage, we know that it was all part of God’s plan.
Legend is all we have regarding the origin of the tree of the cross; nothing is mentioned of it in detail in scripture, unless you look at the reference to it in Isaiah:
Isaiah 60:13 The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary, and I will make the place of my feet glorious.
The story goes that Lot, after fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah, was given three seeds, that of a cypress, a fir (plane) and a pine tree, which he planted together so that three trees grew in one place. Icons depict Lot watering the trees with water which he obtained from making many trips back and forth to the Jordan, all the while enduring temptation from the evil one to let them die. It seems the enemy knew that he would someday suffer on their account. Many years later, Solomon was to have had the trees cut down for use in building the Temple in Jerusalem, to “beautify the place of my sanctuary”, and later still, Herod would rebuild that temple, discarding the wood which was later recovered to build the cross. The verse about “…and I will make the place of my feet glorious”…, refers to the construction of the footrest on the cross.
While it is clear that it was part of God’s plan, and that the wood of the cross wasn’t just happenstance, what is often unclear is why God had to die upon it at all. What is so magnificent about the cross that we must adore it? We must go back to Genesis to understand.
Genesis 3:1-24 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.... Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
God’s design for mankind was that we should live forever and not sin. If the man and woman knew the difference between good and evil actions, they would become responsible for them, and thus, be able to sin. God forbid them to enter into this state by forbidding them to eat of this tree. Note that He did not originally forbid them to eat of the Tree of Life, which would have given them immortality; the only forbidden tree was the one which would enlighten them to the concept of sin.
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but….‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden…"
They had not yet eaten from the Tree of Life when they chose to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thereby place themselves in the state of sin. We know that God told them that the consequence of sin is “death” for the soul, which is separation from God. But what if they had eaten of the Tree of Life, making them unable to die in the body, while their souls were in that corrupted state? They would be immortal, living forever in a state of sin! This would give them no hope of reunification with God after physical death would claim them! What does our loving God do next? He promptly sends them out of the Garden so that they would not be tempted to eat of the Tree of Life, and that His plan for mankind could be fulfilled.
Christ then became man. After His crucifixion and physical death, because of His human nature, it was required that His soul enter the place of the dead, separated from God as was required as the result of Adam and Eve’s sin. Yet He WAS God…one cannot be separated from oneself…therefore, when He entered the abode of the dead, He introduced the souls in that place to God. He restored our place in God’s Kingdom by becoming one of us, dying like one of us, and joining us in the place of separation! We could no longer be separated from God after death, because He Conquored Death!!!
This tree takes on a much richer symbolism now! Christ becomes the new Adam, who withstands the temptations of the serpent this time, and overcomes them. Because He is sinless, he does not merit the death which is the consequence of sin, and He rises! It is clear to see that by a tree, sin entered our world, and by a tree, the cross, it is vanquished!
After the Crucifixion took place, during the persecution of Christians, the wood of the cross was buried. Temples to the Roman god, Jupiter and to the goddess, Venus were erected upon the spot. Later on, when Constantine was converted and Christianity was restored to the Byzantine Empire, his mother, Empress Helena, traveled in pilgrimage to Jerusalem to discover and preserve the holy sites. When she found the spot on which the crucifixion was to have taken place, with the help of an elderly Jew named Jude, she ordered the pagan temples torn down, and the earth excavated. Three crosses were found there, along with some nails. Not knowing which was Christ’s and which were those of the thieves, Helena had the wood of each touched to a dying woman’s body. When the true cross touched the woman, she was restored. She erected The Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, which was completed in 335 AD and relics of the cross were said to have been venerated there.
Another legend tells that St. Helena was led to the spot of crucifixion by the scent of basil, also known as the herb of kings. It was to have sprung up there under the cross where drops of Christ’s blood fell. Some churches place the cross on a bed of basil for veneration on this day. Hmmm…I’m thinking…pesto for dinner tonight?