A HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE EXALTATION OF THE CROSS

 

About the Deeper Meaning of the Rite of Exaltation

 

        Brothers and sisters!

 

        Today’s service differs from all others in that during it, we perform the Rite of the Exaltation of the Cross portraying the events which took place in Jerusalem immediately after the Cross was found by Saint Helen.  The fact that this service is always well-attended shows that the sight of the elevated cross is one that is dear to Orthodox Christians.  Nevertheless, it was not merely to present a spectacle that the Lord descended from heaven and mounted the Cross, and it is not merely to present a spectacle that the Cross is now raised up.  Where the Cross is, there should be not only the eyes, but the heart of the Christian.  The Exaltation of the Lord’s Cross depicts the Lord’s entire life and, at the same time, shows us everything that should be, but perhaps is not, in our own life.  So, let us speak today about this in a little more detail.

        Of what does the life of our Lord Jesus Christ consist?  How does the Exaltation of the Holy Cross depict it in its entirety?  The rite of Exaltation consists of two opposites, the lowering and the raising of the cross; and similarly, the life of Christ consists of two opposites:  the utmost self-emptying, or voluntary humiliation; and the utmost glory.  This is how Saint Paul explains the self-emptying of Christ, symbolized by the lowering of the cross:  “He, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:  but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:  and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.”[1]  And this is how the great Apostle explains the glory of Christ, symbolized by the raising of the cross:  Wherefore, God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name:  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[2] 

        And so, brothers and sisters, seeing Christ on the Cross lowered by the hands of the priest in the Rite of Exaltation, gaze with the eyes of your heart upon the many ways in which the Lord abased Himself.  Remember how He left His throne of glory in heaven, descended to earth, and took up His dwelling in the womb of the Virgin; how He was laid in a manger, underwent circumcision, and fled to Egypt; how He spent almost thirty years in obscurity in Nazareth, submitting to His parents and performing the hard physical labor of a carpenter, using only hand tools; how He received Baptism of a servant, was tempted as a mortal by the devil, and tramped the dusty roads of Palestine preaching the Gospel without a roof over His head, all the while being slandered by the Jews and endangered by attempts on His life; how He was betrayed by one of His own disciples, condemned as a rabble-rowser, tortured, and nailed to the Cross; and how He was sealed in the tomb as a deceiver.  Remember also how, even now, Christ continues to be the Object of contradiction, enmity, and persecution, especially through the antipathy directed against His teaching, His Holy Church, and His true disciples. 

        Meditate on all these things, Christians, as you see the priest lowering the holy cross, and also consider this question:  Why did the Lord endure, and why does He continue to endure such humiliation, such abasement?  He could have enjoyed perpetually, uninterruptedly, in His pre-eternal divine nature alone, the glory which He had with the Father from before the world was.[3]  Instead, He deigned to descend and to endure every dishonor, in order to cover our shame, to restore to us our lost glory, to cleanse our sins with His blood, and to make us again citizens of Paradise.  This, truly, is the wonder of wonders!

        We are forever debtors to this unequalled condescension.  This means that we must learn to value greatly what today’s lowering of the cross represents and to use it to our benefit by bearing the Cross to the degree that Providence dictates, for the purging of the stains of our flesh and spirit, and for the conquest of our sinful passions.  The cross is brought low today by the priest, so that we who lie prostrate in sin may lay hold of it and be elevated with it to heaven.  So, do not, dear Christians, allow this opportunity to slip out of your hands!

        As we all know, immediately after the cross is lowered almost to the ground, the priest lifts it high.  This shows how the glorification of the Son of Man began even amid His profound self-abasement.  It is the great Archangel who proclaims the diminution of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin, and angels who hymn the birth of the Pre-eternal Infant.  A Twelve-year-old Boy puts to shame all the wisdom of the elders of Jerusalem; a voice from heaven proclaims the One in Jordan and on Tabor as the Son of the Heavenly Father; and at the word of the One Who is meek and lowly in heart,[4] the blind see, the deaf hear, demons are expelled, and the dead are restored to life.  As He hangs on Golgotha, the sun is darkened and the earth quakes.  Crowds of the righteous follow the Vanquisher of Hades and death into Paradise.  Angels proclaim His rising from the dead, and apostles tell it to the whole world.  All power is given unto Him in heaven and in earth[5]; He ascends from the Mount of Olives to the celestial realm and sits on the right hand of God[6] clothed in our flesh.  From there He begins to reign, till He puts all enemies beneath His feet.[7] 

        All this, and not just the finding of the Cross during the reign of Constantine, should we remember as we see the holy cross exalted by priestly hands today, for it was by the Cross that the Son of Man attained such glory.

        Again:  as the Son of God, the Lord already possessed infinite glory from before eternity; but it was for your sake, Christians, that He became the Son of Man and endured everything we have mentioned:  a life culminating and summed up in the Rite of the Elevation of the Cross, and summed up in the Cross itself.  He did this to bestow upon you all the glory He would gain in the human nature He now shares with us.  Therefore, do not be indifferent to that glory gained for you by the Saviour.  Remember always the exaltation to which He has summoned you, and let not your heart be troubled by insignificant earthly problems or failures or humiliations, or allured by earthly goods or enticements.  Heaven awaits you, a throne of glory has been prepared for you, and you shall rule with Christ over all.  Only, you must not debase your newfound dignity by sin.

        Now you have seen how the Exaltation of the Lord’s Cross presents to us the whole life of Christ.  But as we contemplate the life of Christ in the Cross, we must also remember these words, delivered to us by the apostles in their letters:  Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,[8] and, “Because Christ suffered for us, He left us an example, that we should follow His steps.”[9]  Thus, the Exaltation of the Cross also shows us, as I said in the beginning, everything that should be, but perhaps is not, in our own life.

        The glory to which Christ was raised awaits all of us, but to attain it, we must follow His path, the way of the Cross and self-renunciation, of humility and patience.  There is no other path to heaven, nor can there ever be.  Thus, when we see the priest lowering the cross during the service, we must ask ourselves:  Are we prepared to lower ourselves similarly in humility and patience for the glory of God, the benefit of our neighbor, and the salvation of our souls?  Are we ready to be done with the pride of life,[10] to regard ourself as dust and ashes, to mortify our self-love, to bear offences nobly, and to forgive our brother from our heart?  Do we know what it is to weep for our sins even once?  Have we, from experience, come to understand what is Christian humility, even to the slightest degree?

        Let him who finds in himself the very faintest reflection of the Lord’s humility and self-abasement cast himself before the Holy Cross and thank the Lord for the great gift of His grace and mercy.  Such humility exalts, and little by little, sooner or later, must lead him upwards, to the Kingdom on high, to the mansions of the Heavenly Father.

        As for the raising of the cross, let it remind him of the need to ascend from virtue to virtue, from faith to faith, and from love to love.  Lofty is the ladder of Christian virtue, countless the steps of spiritual ascent!  Wherever you stand, you are not yet standing in your proper place.  True and fitting are the words of the great Apostle Paul:  Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.[11] 

        And so, contemplating the cross being raised by priestly hands, consider what you may yet do to further your cleansing, illumination, and spiritual exaltation.

        God forbid that any of us regard the Rite of the Exaltation of the Lord’s Cross as little more than an impressive spectacle.  May we look upon the Exaltation of the Cross, brothers and sisters, not just with the eyes of the body, but with those of the soul.  May you trace the Cross not just upon your face and chest, but in your heart.  Prostrate yourself before the cross in church, but also wherever you encounter it -- in your brother’s rough word to you, in financial loss, in illness, and in every sorrow.  Kiss it especially in these places, that you may descend and ascend with it and with Christ upon it; and show that you honor not just the image of the cross that lies before you, adorned with flowers and plated in gold, but the true Cross of Christ, which was lifted up on Golgotha and covered with His All-holy blood and tears for our exaltation.  Amen.

 

[1] Phil. 2:6-8

[2] Phil. 2:9-11

[3] John 17:5

[4] Matt. 11:29

[5] Matt. 28:18

[6] Mark 16:19

[7] I Cor. 15:25

[8] Phil. 2:5

[9] I Pet. 2:21

[10] John 2:16

[11] Phil. 3:13-14