What Happened on the Cross?

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

Today, on the third Sunday of Great Lent, we have the Veneration of the Precious and Life-giving Cross. In the hymns and prayers of the Church, we hear magnificent phrases concerning the Cross of our Saviour: “Before Thy Cross we fall down in worship, O Master!” In the evenings we pray “Hail, most precious and life-creating Cross of the Lord, that driveth away demons by the might of our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified on thee…and gave us thee, his precious Cross, for the casting out of every enemy.” The question I would like us to consider this morning is “Why?” What makes the Cross such an incredible weapon for Christians? The answer to this question is found in the answer to another question: “What happened on the Cross?” How do we, as Orthodox Christians, understand the saving work of Christ accomplished on the Cross? How do we interpret the language of the Scriptures, the language of offerin/ransom/ propitiation? What happened when Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son and Word of God, died on the Cross?

When we read the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, we find their discussions on the work that Christ accomplished on the Cross, the language of these discussions fall into basically three groups – a juridical/legal paradigm, sacrificial understanding, language of love. I don’t mean, by listing these three groups, that there are three separate ideas. We can’t just choose one of the ways that the Bible talks about the Cross and focus only on that. The Cross is a mystery, and human language is like a vague reference, a dim glimpse at the reality. We need everything the Scriptures give us in order to have a proper understanding of the Cross of Christ. The how of our redemption is ultimately a mystery. Christ offers us salvation through the Cross, and at the end of the day, this action of Divine Humility is a mystery that we can’t fully understand. But we can hear what the Church says about the Cross (everything that the Scriptures and the Fathers have to say), and with this better understanding, we have a better understanding of human nature, divine action, and ultimately a better understanding of our salvation.

The first type of Scriptural language I want us to talk about is perhaps the most misunderstood today – the juridical and legal language explaining the Cross. In the Bible we read: “The Son of Man came…to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). “Thou wast slain,” we read in St. John’s Revelation, “and hast redeemed us to God by Thy Blood” (5:9). St. John also writes, “[Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the ins of the world” (1 John 2:2). There are many other places that use this type of language, but the last one I’ll mention is from St. Paul, “[Christ] by the Grace of God … taste[d] death for every man” (Hebrews 2:9). The basic model for this juridical language is that at the Fall man was sentenced to death. By His death on the Cross, Christ took on Himself that sentence, but since He was sinless the sentence was abolished for all mankind, and we were thereby freed from this curse of sin and the sentence of death. By His death Christ redeemed man from slavery to sin and the punishment of death. This is the language of the Scriptures that we heard just a second ago. St. Gregory Palamas writes, “since Christ gave His Blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the devil’s tyranny.”

In addition to the language of the law used in the New Testament, we also find the language of sacrifice. As the Christian Church, we understand the sacrifices of the Old Testament as a prefiguration of the one True Sacrifice which would be offered for the whole world in the person of Jesus Christ. In the 1st Epistle of St. Peter we read, “Ye were redeemed with the precious Blood of Christ, as a lamb without blemish and without spot, Who was foreordained from the foundation of the world” (1:19-20). In Hebrews we read now once at the end of the world Christ hath appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (9:26). One of the questions that comes up with this sacrificial language is, “to whom is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross offered?” I think this is not a particularly helpful question; it forgets that the sacrificial language is mystical. But the Fathers do address the question. A few Fathers will say the sacrifice is to Satan, to ransom us from his grasp on us through our sin (Origen-who is not a Father, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, to name two). But the vast majority of our Fathers say that the sacrifice is offered to the Father, or to the Holy Trinity. Why did God sacrifice Himself to God? This gets at the crux of mystery of the Cross. St Gregory the Theologian says that we should not try to conform the mystery to human logic, and we should not apply to the language human concepts that are unworthy of God. St Gregory writes, “the Father accepts the sacrifice not because He demanded it or felt any need of it, but on account of economy” (to fulfill the Divine plan). St. Gregory Palamas also says that God could have chosen any way to redeem us from sin and death, but the sacrifice of the Cross was chosen to fulfill justice and righteousness – death was the just penalty for our sin and Christ paid it, but His death was unjust because He was sinless, therefore the death of Christ destroyed death. The bottom line is that this was God’s choice, in accordance with His wisdom. St. Paul reminds us that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). There’s a mystery here that we can’t enter into.

These first two ways of speaking about the Cross – using legal and sacrificial language – are much abused and taken literally in a harmful and un-Christian way. People see the language of a ransom and sacrifice as pointing to an angry and vengeful God who has to be appeased by the blood of His Son. Nowhere in our discussion this morning have we said anything like this. Human language is weak, so even the language of the Scriptures only gives us a really fuzzy idea of what’s being said – but we have to put forth the effort to properly understand what the Apostles have written. The conclusions we draw about the Cross, the things we believe, must be consistent with everything else the Bible teaches us about God. Which leads us the third type of language used by the Fathers and the Apostles to explain the saving work of Christ on the Cross – the language of God as love.

St Isaac the Syrian explains this love beautifully. He writes, “God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son’ to death for our sake (cf. John 3:16). This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only begotten Son He made us near to Himself. Yea, if He had had anything more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own.” This is my personal favorite language (though we need them all) – that God expresses the depth of His love for us on the Cross. He’s willing to do anything for our salvation, even to become man and allow us to kill Him to show the lengths He will travel for our love.

So how do we understand the work of Christ on the Cross? St Athanasius the Great ties everything we’ve been saying this morning together in this short word: “taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to corruption and death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all (as a ransom), and offered it to the Father (as a sacrifice). This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished.“ (On the Incarnation). We venerate the Cross today because it was means used by the providence of God for the overcoming of sin and death and offering mankind (and through him all of creation) salvation.

All we can say now is, “Glory to Jesus Christ!” Glory forever!