The current Feast of the Elevation/Exaltation of the Cross allows us to go a long way in dispelling a stereotype that has developed concerning the Orthodox Church. This stereotype claims that the Orthodox Church is the Church of the Resurrection and/or Transfiguration of Christ at the expense of the Cross. Upon a closer and more balanced examination, this claim loses credibility. The Cross has a central and abiding place within the Orthodox Tradition - theological, spiritual, liturgical, iconographic, and more. For the sake of brevity, the terse expression of St. Gregory Palamas (+1359), synthesizes more than a millennium of the patristic tradition of the Christian East, when he declared in one of his homilies: “The Lord’s Cross discloses the entire dispensation of His coming in the flesh, and contains within it the whole mystery of this dispensation.”
Liturgically, the focus on the Cross can hardly be described as minimal. Great and Holy Friday is at the very heart of the Church’s liturgical tradition, when concentration of the Savior’s death on the Cross is treated with the greatest of solemnity and pathos. The crucified, dead and buried Master is surrounded by the faithful in a series of services that are emotionally intense and theologically rich in expression. This day serves as the prototype of every Friday (and actually every Wednesday) within the Church’s liturgical tradition when the Cross is the “theme” of those days, reflected in the hymnography of the day. That connection is strengthened accordingly by designating Wednesdays and Fridays as “fasting days.” The Cross and fasting have been linked together from the very earliest days of the Church’s history. To this day, practicing Orthodox Christians are expected to fast on those days as an expression of honoring and calling to remembrance the Cross of the Lord.
The current Feast of the Cross – one of the Twelve major fixed Feasts of the liturgical year - is one among others that again will focus our attention on the Cross throughout the year. The mid-point of Great Lent, the third Sunday, is called the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. As on this current Feast, the Cross is decorated with flowers, brought into the center of the church by means of a solemn procession, and then venerated with the same hymn – “Before Thy Cross, we bow down and worship, O Master; and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify” - accompanied by prostrations. At the end of the service the faithful approach and kiss the ‘life-giving wood” of the Tree of the Cross. Another feast on August 1, though not as observed, is called the “Procession of the Cross.” Neglected or not, the same rite of procession and veneration is prescribed for this feast as for the other two we are describing here.
Another practice, which comes to the Orthodox so naturally, but may strike the outside observer as strange, is that at the end of the Divine Liturgy all of the faithful approach the bishop or priest, and reverently kiss the hand-held Cross that is presented to them. (I am unaware of this practice outside of the Orthodox Tradition, but I could simply be ignorant about this.) Each person then receives a piece of “blessed bread” – the antidoron in the Gk. – before leaving the church. Again, for someone raised from childhood in the Orthodox Church this is so natural that it remains indelible in the minds of those who grew up Orthodox even if they leave the Church at some point in time. The point here is that it is one more clear expression of the over-all role of the Cross within the life of the Church. Our last gesture before departing from the Church back to our daily lives is venerating the Cross and committing ourselves in the process of remaining loyal to Christ crucified.
Of course, “making” the sign of the Cross over oneself is another perfectly natural practice for Orthodox Christians – and shared by other Christian traditions, as this is one more practice that can traced back into Christian antiquity. In fact, it is about as natural as breathing! The reason behind this practice is clear yet profound. As I have written elsewhere: The Church and our personal lives are placed under the sign of the Cross, both as an emblem of victory and of our willingness to bear our personal crosses in our daily struggles against sin, temptation, the devil, and all manner of evil. Throughout the entire Liturgy, whenever we glorify God, we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves, revealing our faith in Christ, the “Lord of Glory” (1 Cor. 2:8) crucified for our sakes according to the will of the Father and “through the eternal Spirit.” (Heb. 9:14)
Non-Orthodox Christians who visit an Orthodox Church, and who may be aware of this practice, will still comment on the frequency with which Orthodox believers will make the sign of the Cross over themselves during the services. Of course, the naturalness of this act should never take away from the concentration and care that needs to accompany this outward sign if it is to have any meaning.
Perhaps we should finally mention the fact that most Orthodox Christians wear a cross. This is not meant to be one more piece of “matching jewelry” or displayed in an ostentatious fashion. Rather it is a humble practice of again recognizing the place of the Cross in the divine dispensation and in our personal salvation. It also implies the “self-denial” that we need to practice as true disciples of Christ. Our vocation is not simply to be “cross-wearers,” but “cross-bearers.”
Reflecting upon this summary of the place of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives, one may not only come to the conclusion that the Orthodox do not neglect the Cross, but that their devotion to the Cross may be a bit excessive! But that is hardly the case. What needs to be remembered is that a holistic approach to the Christian Faith combines the “outward” and the “inward.” Feast Days, processions, prostrations, veneration, signings, etc. are the outward manifestations of the Church’s inner vision of the literally cosmic and then deeply personal dimensions of the Cross. This vision based on faith, is then proclaimed to the world in a variety of ways, each of which tries to capture something of the greatness of God’s love revealed in the Cross. For the Cross is the “mystery” of God’s will for the world and its salvation. (cf. Eph. 1:3-10) For the Cross is believed to be “breadth and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:18-19)