The following is a homily delivered by His Grace Bishop STEFAN of blessed memory on the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, from 1982. He was well known among Serbian Orthodox for his sermons which were simplistic and easy for the people to understand.
We are celebrating the Elevation of the Holy Cross today, dear brothers and sisters. This is a feast that reminds us of the event when the Cross on which our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified was found in Jerusalem.
Church Tradition tells us that St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, miraculously found the True Cross of Christ on Golgotha. This was at the beginning of the IV century. From that time a tradition began of celebrating this event on September 14. The celebration began first in Jerusalem in the Church of the Resurrection, built by the holy Emperor Constantine on the spot Christ was crucified. That day there was an elevation of the holy Cross of our Lord, elevated so that the people might see it and fall down before it. Taking the example from the Jerusalem church, Christians throughout the world did the same and thus this tradition came to us as well.
This feast was confirmed all the more in the year 627 when the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius freed the Cross from the Persians who held it for fourteen years. From that time many Christians made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the feast of the Elevation.
In the holy gospel it is written that crucified with our Lord Jesus Christ on great and holy Friday were two thieves, one on either side “and Jesus in the center” (John 19:18). And so the crucified Savior and His Cross has remained in the center of the Christian faith, the services and the entire life of the Christian. This is why St. Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23).
The truth of the crucified and resurrected Christ is found in the center of the gospels. This is not only one of the truths of the Christian faith, it is the most significant Christian truth. St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “For I have delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This central truth of the Christian faith was preached by the apostles “first of all”. “Christ died for our sins”, that we might receive the forgiveness of our sins from God. “He rose again on the third day”, that we too might defeat sin and have life. The miraculous sign of this truth is the Cross of Christ. For this reason do we occasionally see His crucifixion pictured on one side of the cross, with His resurrection on the other.
If this truth were taken out of the gospel then the gospel would cease to exist. Gospel means “good news”, which came since Christ came to the world, suffered for mankind, resurrected defeating Satan and received for all mankind the forgiveness of sins and life eternal. Despite the bad news of man’s sins and guilt, this gospel is the “good news” of the reconciliation between man and God. The righteous One suffered for the unrighteous, the Sinless for the sinners, so that He might bring all men to God the Father. He offered Himself as the blameless Lamb to the sacrifice for all men and all times. He offered Himself to death that He might defeat death. Therefore the Cross on which Christ was crucified, instead of it being a sign of sadness and mourning has become the sign of the greatest joy, the sign of the strengthening of faith and hope. It has become the throne of love, the sign of mercy, proof of forgiveness, the carrier of grace and the flag of peace.
At the same time the Cross is the mystery of our faith – the mystery of the redemption of mankind. How can we explain this mystery? It cannot be the subject of human investigation and human philosophy, but is experienced through sincere faith and love and our humble thanksgiving to God. For the width of the Cross is equal to the depth of heaven, as the poet says.
From the beginning of the Christian Church the Cross find itself in all the prayers, services and priestly actions. St. John Chrysostom writes of this: “Everything that is done for our sanctification is done in the sign of the cross. If we have to be reborn, this is done in the sign of the cross (baptism). When the mysterious food is prepared for us, it is done in the sign of the cross. Whenever any ritual is done we see the sign of the cross everywhere. Everything that is done in the service that relates to man’s sanctification is done in the sign of the holy Cross.” In the hymn we sing today, it states: “today the Cross is elevated and the world is sanctified”. Holy Communion has a special place in the Christian service. This is the bloodless sacrifice – the central point of the Divine Liturgy, which the Savior established on the eve of His suffering on the Cross. He gave His body and shed His blood on the Cross and with the Cross He sanctified the Holy Eucharist, which is in the very center of the Orthodox service. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says, “Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let us make with confidence the sign of the Cross with our fingers on the forehead and all things – the bread which we eat, the glass which we drink, in our comings and goings, when we lay down and get up, before walking and before resting (…) let us not forget this sign!”
This is not only a sign of our faith. It is not only a symbol which signifies something. It is not only a decoration which we adorn ourselves with. This is life with the God-man, who suffered because of human injustices, sins and lawlessness. With the Cross we constantly live and always partake in all sufferings for the sake of God’s truth, justice and love. This is true sympathy with all who suffer for God’s truth and justice. It is the sign of a Christian life in Christ and according to Christ. It is the sign of life in love and life in sacrifice for good. It is the living sign of self denial for the sake of God’s truth and justice. For this reason do we celebrate the Cross.
We celebrate the Cross as a holy sign which helps us strengthen our faith. It is the sign which strengthens our hope in the victory of God and His justice. We wear it on ourselves and carry it in ourselves as a sign of God’s mercy towards mankind and we experience it as a sign of our mercy towards our neighbor. The Cross is a sign that witnesses to the fact that God forgives. At the same time, the Cross is a sign of our will to forgive. The Cross calls us to preach the crucified and resurrected Lord. It reminds us of all the things that our Savior did, who was crucified for our salvation. The Cross calls us to always proclaim “Christ crucified …. the power of God and wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:23-24).
Today, on the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we elevate the Cross of Christ, that we might lift our souls and hearts higher towards the crucified Lord. And that we might have a deeper and stronger experience of His Cross, glorifying Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.