The Meaning of the Cross

Last year I was sitting with Fr. Andrew Louth and I asked him when do we as Orthodox Christians celebrate peace? Holy Peace (Agia Eirene), like Holy Wisdom (Agia Sophia), is one of the titles associated with Christ. I also knew that on September 1, the Church’s new year, we celebrate creation and the environment. So when do we celebrate peace? Fr. Andrew suggested to me that the Elevation of the Holy Cross is the day most suited to reflecting upon divine peace, and the duty of peacemaking. The connection between the cross and peacemaking again returned to my mind when we had to choose a logo for the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. We wanted something that was distinctively Orthodox, but also recognizable as a peace symbol. The choice was obvious: the cross. Orthodox Christians often represent the cross with decorated ends. The ornamentation represents flower blossoms. From death comes life, from the wood of execution comes resplendent blossoms. There is no better symbol for nonviolence, which turns violence into peace.

Fr. John Behr also identifies peace as the central message of the cross. Commenting on the hymnography for the Elevation of the Cross, Fr. John says,

The Cross is the Weapon of Peace, we sing. Yet, despite the militaristic overtones, the Cross is not simply a more mighty or powerful weapon in some kind of divine arms race! No, it is the weapon of peace, it is a weapon which doesn’t resort to greater fire-power to blow apart our enemies in a cycle of violence, but rather brings that cycle of violence to an end, ushering in the peace of God for those who are prepared to live by it.

When someone strikes or offends us, Christ does not direct us to hit back or retaliate, but to turn the other cheek, to bear one another’s weaknesses, not so that we can be beaten some more for the sake of it, but to take upon ourselves the anger that is in the other person, to neutralize it, to put an end to it, as Christ himself did, the blameless lamb led to the slaughter, or rather going willingly, taking upon himself the sin of the world.

This is not simply a matter of being passive, but rather being passive actively, creatively, and being creative in the most divine way possible–for it allows God to work in and through us, rather than just doing whatever it is we ourselves can come up with.

But God can only work through us if we ourselves take up the Cross and live by it, for if we do so–dead to the world–we will already, now, be in the peace of God, untroubled by anything the world throws at us, and the peace that we will know will spread through us to all those around us.

Fr. John identifies the cross with nonviolence. Historically this is quite apt. In Christ’s day, they were expecting the Messiah to arrive victoriously, carrying a sword, and conquering whichever enemies were most hated at the time. This expectation was not simply eschatological. The Hasmonean Dynasty had fallen just about 30 years before the probable date of Jesus’ birth, meaning the memory of being conquered was fresh in the minds of those who raised Jesus. Instead of showing up with a sword an promising a glorious revolution, Christ proclaimed

If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 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 lose his life?

This is a very poor plan for revolution. Christ was literally telling his followers that they should be executed by the empire they hoped to overthrow. To add insult to injury, Christ includes a joke, “what does it profit the man who gains the whole world but loses his life?” The man Christ was referring to was, of course, Alexander the Great, who conquered the world and then immediately died. The answer is that this profited Alexander nothing. By drawing attention to this, Jesus made clear the empty promise that is military victory.

Instead, Christ proposed a nonviolent solution. By dying his followers would win and conquer. This is the meaning which Fr. John Behr focuses on. By turning the other cheek we conquer our enemies, not by fighting back. This creative, and actively passive response, which overturns the cycles of sin and violence, has gotten a lot of attention recently. The most comprehensive study to date of nonviolence has demonstrated that nonviolent methods are more than twice as effective as violent methods. Christians should be unsurprised by this result. The cross is always victorious over the sword. To win we must lose, to conquer we must be conquered, to live we must die. Not only is this the more ethical way, the “way of perfection,” but it is literally more effective. Nonviolence transforms violent situations into peaceful ones. Peace is thus the end and the means; “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” This insight is precisely why Christ preached and practiced the cross. He conquered the world, sin, the Romans, and death itself by dying.

We find examples of creative nonviolence throughout Christian history. St. Basil the Great, for example, tells the following story:

A certain man once kept striking Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus, in the face, yet he did not resent it, but allowed full play to the ruffian's anger, so that his face was swollen and bruised from the blows. Then when he stopped striking him, Socrates did nothing more than write on his forehead, as an artisan on a statue, who did it, and thus took out his revenge... [T]his conduct of Socrates is akin to the precept that to him who smites you upon the one cheek, you shall turn the other also.

By refusing to strike back, Socrates did not perpetuate the cycle of violence. However, by writing his attacker’s name on his head he was able to still address and defeat the evil. This is close to what Christ meant by the command to ‘turn the other cheek.’ The type of blow Christ was referring to, a strike on the cheek, was the kind of blow that a master might give to a slave, a slap with the left hand. The damage of this blow was not so much that it would bruise, but that it signified that the assailant viewed themselves as superior. It was an insult. But instead of striking back and escalating, Christ proposed a creative, and nonviolent, solution. Turn your other cheek to your attacker and invite them to hit you again. If they did so they would be forced to strike you with the other hand, as they would strike an equal. Thus if they escalate the violence then they will already lose, because they will have to admit to you a dignity they intended to deny. By turning the other cheek you leave them two options, either take back their insult with a second strike, or de-escalate the violence. In either case nonviolence beats violence.

But perhaps my favorite example of creative nonviolence is the witness of Metropolitan Kirill of Bulgaria during WWII. To quote Jim Forest’s account,

On March 10, boxcars were loaded with 8,500 Jews, including 1,500 from the city of Plovdiv. The bishop of Plovdiv, Metropolitan Kirill (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church), along with 300 church members, showed up at the station where the Jews were awaiting transport. Kirill pushed through the SS officers guarding the area his authority and courage were such that no one dared stop him and made his way to the Jews inside the boxcars.

According to some accounts, as he reached them, he shouted a text from the Book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”

Kirill whose protest had the blessing of Metropolitan Stephan of Sofia, the highest ranking Bulgarian Church official during the Hitler years opened one of the boxcars in which Jews had been packed like sardines and tried to get inside, but now SS officers stopped him. However, when one door is locked, often another is left open. Kirill next walked to the front of the train, declaring he would lie down on the tracks if the train started to move.

The story of this act of civil disobedience spread like wildfire throughout the country. In the end, the Orthodox Church was successful in its nonviolent opposition to the Nazis. At the end of the war, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was several thousand higher than it was at the beginning, making it the only country under Nazi rule to increase its Jewish population.

The historical and social meaning of the cross is clear. We should collectively pursue nonviolence, be peacemakers, and seek to end the cycles of violence in our society. But there is also a theological meaning and a personal meaning to the cross. Consider the words of St. Irenaeus,

Joining the beginning to the end, subsisting as the Lord of both, he manifested, the plough in the end, uniting the tree to the iron and thus cleansing the earth; for the Word being firmly united to the flesh and in this form fixed together, he cleansed the savage earth. In the beginning, the pruning hook was typified beforehand through Abel, signifying the gathering together of the righteous race of humanity.... These things were contemplated beforehand in Abel but were again proclaimed by the prophets and finally perfected in the Lord.

In this passage, St. Irenaeus is giving a reading of the phrase, repeated by several prophets, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah and Micah both repeat this dictum. Joel repeats it as well, adding the phrase “let the weak say, I am strong.” The prophetic message clearly attests to the victory of peace over violence. Irenaeus connects this tradition with the cross. Christ redeems the world by being fixed upon the iron and the tree. In this way, Irenaeus connects the wood and iron of the plough and pruning hook to the iron of the nails and the wood of the cross. Irenaeus sees the cross as the fulfillment of these verses. In the nonviolent way of the cross, the promise of overthrowing war is fulfilled. Christians will not study war anymore, but shall study the way of nonviolence. Irenaeus then takes this a step further. This message of nonviolence was prefigured first in Abel, who was killed in the first recorded act of violence in the Bible. The breaking out of violence in the world was the final moment of the fall, when we lost our blessedness and our growth became stunted. Peace was killed when Cain killed his brother. However, the prophets proclaimed that it would come again, and the nonviolent way of Christ brought about this peace.

Irenaeus therefore reads the whole of salvation history as the story of nonviolence overcoming violence. The spiritual destiny of humanity is thus connected to our vocation as peacemakers and the work of Christ “who is our peace.” As such, we may conclude that to become fully human, to be redeemed, requires nonviolence. This is perhaps something of the meaning of Jesus’ words when he said that “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.” The way of the cross and the way of redemption are interconnected. We thus have arrived at the spiritual, personal, and mystical meaning of the cross, the mysticism of nonviolence.

Perhaps the clearest teacher of the mysticism of the cross is the as of yet uncanonized modern day saint, Gerontissa Gavrielia.  Her central teaching, rooted in her philanthropic ministry, was love. But not just love that feels good, rather true and deep love, Christian love. She taught that true love requires self-abandonment. Appropriately, the cross is her ‘icon’ of love: “Love is only on the Cross.” This means that when we love, we must be ‘crucified’ in a sense. In our prayer to God, our very self must be obliterated such that we might say “I do not exist.” We must become like a drop of water encountering the ocean. In uniting with the ocean the drop ceases to be a drop and is absorbed entirely into the other. So it is with our love of God in prayer. We cease to be anything apart from love towards God, the true Other. As Gavrielia says, “To reach nonexistence, love, love, and love—and so identify completely with the Other, with every other. Then at the end of the day you ask yourself, "Do I want anything? No. Do I need anything? No. Do I lack anything? No." That’s it!” We do not need anything because we have reached true kenosis, true emptying, true humility, where there is no longer I but only Thou. We do not need anything, for as the Gerontissa comments, “Three things are needful. First Love, Second Love, Third Love.” Even more radically, this is not just our relationship to the Divine Other. Gavrielia comments that we completely identify with the Divine Other, and “with every other.” This means that we must also be absorbed in love for every fellow human. Before our neighbor we must also abandon ourselves so that we do not exist anymore. We must become nothing but love, having nothing of the self, but only love for the other. To quote, “We must not exist before every image and likeness of the Other.” We must not exist before our fellows in humanity because they are the image and likeness of God. Thus to be absorbed into the Thou of the Divine is to be absorbed into the Thou of every icon of Christ, which is every person. True love, true peace, true nonviolence, consists precisely in this self-abandonment for the sake of the other. Indeed, “there is no greater love than to lay down your soul for your friends.” As St. Maria Skobtsova comments, this verse about laying down one’s soul in Greek properly reads as ‘soul’ and not ‘life.’ This means that while, yes, it is a prophecy about Christ’s voluntary execution, it is also a command to not just lose our lives, but to lose our very selves in loving the other.

With this we see the personal spiritual meaning of the cross. To take up one’s cross is to lay down one’s sword. This means that we should take up love and lay down hatred, take up nonviolence and lay down violence, take up forgiveness and lay down resentment, take up gentleness and lay down harshness, take up weakness and lay down strength. In every aspect of our lives we must do this. And then, when we have completely and totally given ourselves over to peace, nonviolence, and love, then we shall be redeemed for then we shall no longer exist in or for ourselves, but only in and for the Other. There shall be nothing more of us except love. In losing our self, we shall become our true self, which is love, and in losing our life we shall gain it.


Nicholas Sooy

Editor, In Communion