No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
The Season of the Cross begins on the Sunday preceding the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross and ends on the first Sunday of Heesnag. Within this season, the Armenian Church observes the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on the Sunday nearest September 14.
In early times, the most important Church in Jerusalem was named the Church of the Holy Cross, today also known as the Holy Sepulchre, or sometimes referred to in Armenian as Soorp Harootyan (Holy Resurrection). This is the church that was built over the place where Jesus was crucified. Every year, the people would gather and the bishop would take out a relic of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified and would elevate it over his head for the people to honor and venerate. This ceremony is the origin of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The people were not being blessed with a symbol of execution, but one of victory, mercy, healing, forgiveness, and salvation – a symbol of God’s power over sin and death, over anything that hinders our communion with him.
The Cross in the Armenian Church
The Cross is the central symbol for Christians, not only as the instrument for the salvation of the world by the crucified Christ, but also as the constant witness of sacrificial love, the core of Christian life.
It was Hovhan Odznetsi (John of Odzoon), an eighth-century Armenian Catholicos, who declared the Cross to be the symbol of the Armenian Church, stressing its significance in opposition to the local grassroots movement which opposed the Cross and all else pertaining to ritual, organization, and the visible Church. This episode in our history is evidence that Armenian Christians have always possessed a conviction and understanding of human suffering and the Cross of Jesus Christ. As a result, we profusely adorn our bodies, homes, and church buildings with crosses. They adorn church vestments. It crowns the church dome. The floor plan of traditional Armenian church buildings is ultimately in the shape of a cross. We imprint ourselves with the Cross on many occasions: whenever the Holy Trinity is invoked, before and after prayers, when entering a church, when passing in front of the altar, and when receiving a blessing from the priest during liturgical services. On certain feast days, such as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, we celebrate the Antasdan service, which while blessing the four compass points (north, south, east, west), we bless the entire world in the form of a cross.
Styles of the Armenian cross vary, but they generally feature motifs of life such as budded beams, rays of light, or wheat and grapes growing out from its base. Unique to the Armenian tradition are Khachkars, Armenian crosses carved into stone featuring ornate floral designs and intricately interwoven lines conveying themes of eternity and resurrection, bringing dead stone to vivid life, just as the death of Jesus Christ redeems all suffering through his grace and life-giving presence. Jesus transformed the Cross, at one time a symbol of torture and execution into a symbol of faith, salvation, and victory over death. Armenian khachkars uniquely celebrate and express that reality. By way of the Cross, the utterly impossible and unthinkable happened and does happen: life out of death.
The Cross tells us that we are loved even at our worst. But this doesn’t mean we have license to live any way we want. The Cross demands of us. It requires that we follow Jesus and embrace all that the Cross accomplished. It means to love sacrificially, which is painful and selfless, but Christ-like and salvific. In the words of Jesus:
If any man would 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 forfeit his life? (Mark 8:34-36)
The Serpent and the Cross
In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus recalls an episode from the Old Testament as he is conversing with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to visit him by night inquiring as to who Jesus was and what he was up to. After having made mention of baptism (3:5), Jesus then points to the foundation of baptism, the Cross, recalling to Nicodemus,
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (3:14-15)
To what was Jesus referring? Following the exodus from Egypt, as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness they began to speak against God which brought upon them fiery serpents, biting and killing many people. As a result, Moses crafted a bronze serpent and lifted it up on a pole so that anyone who was bitten by a serpent could look at the bronze serpent on the pole and live (see Numbers 21:4-9).
Jesus was essentially telling Nicodemus, “Be baptized and look to the Cross, because if you want to know who I am and what I came to do, remember this story.” St. Cyril of Alexandria commenting on the bronze serpent writes,
The serpent signifies bitter and deadly sin, which was devouring the whole race on the earth…biting the Soul of man and infusing it with the venom of wickedness.
In other words, we inherited a world dominated by the disease of sin, the result of which is death, and from which we need healing, salvation, and life. St. Cyril continues,
And there is no way that we could have escaped being conquered by it, except by the relief that comes only from heaven.
By the Son being be lifted up, i.e. crucified, Jesus declared God’s love not only for Israel, but for the world, the entire universe. In John 3:16 we get a glimpse of how cosmic the Gospel really is. Literally, the Armenian Bible reads, “Զի այնպէս սիրեաց Աստուած զաշխարհ,” (For God so loved the world) in which the word for “world” -աշխարհ- carries the connotation of heaven and earth (երկինք եւ երկիր), the universe (տիեզերք), or in Greek, the cosmos (κόσμος). Underscoring the universal implications of the Cross, in his encomium on the Holy Cross, St. Gregory of Narek writes,
Upon the vessel of this cross of redemptive substance, which is in the middle of the bosom of the whole universe.
Jesus has come to set the world right, the Cross standing at the center joining together heaven and earth as the sign of healing, salvation, and eternal life. On the Saturday following the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross we sing from the Voghormya sharagan:
Today the triumphant sign appeared on earth and made the universe sparkle. You gave your cross, O Lord, as a weapon of triumph to rescue us from the deception of the enemy. Wood of life erected in the middle of the universe, hope and refuge of the human race. Let this keep us from our every danger to rescue us from the deception of the enemy. (trans. Bp. Daniel Findikyan)
The Cross as the bridge between heaven and earth, joining them together in the person of Jesus Christ is even mentioned in our Badarak. As the people sing Soorp Soorp, the priest prays,
[Jesus] journeyed through all the passions of our human life without sin and came willingly to the world-saving cross, which was the occasion for our redemption.
The Cross stands at the center of the world, the center of the Church, and therefore should stand at the center of our lives as the source of life and healing from that which ails us: addiction, anxiety, selfishness, pride, greed, violence – all of those things which yield corruption, dissension, and division between each other and with God. The Cross is God’s love breaking into our present, painful world. When we turn our gaze away from the Cross we succumb to the fiery serpents and the death they bring. But as Christians, we proclaim hope. We look to the Cross to restore communion with one another and with God. A verse from the Orhnootyoon sharagan on the same Saturday following the Exaltation of the Cross reads,
The sign lifted on a pole became a figure of the four-armed holy cross. Moses fashioned a bronze serpent for the Israelite camp, to deliver those who had been wounded by the poison of the biting reptiles. We beseech you, Lord, protect us under the shadow of your holy cross. (trans. Bp. Daniel Findikyan)
How do we on a daily basis look to the Cross for protection and salvation? As a global Church, a parish, a family, and as baptized Christians does the Cross of Jesus Christ, everything that it entails, define who we are, what we do, what we say, and how we live? What are those things in our lives that draw our gaze away from the Cross? Do we confess them only ritually or really from the heart? The bronze serpent that Moses made was a response to the people’s repentance. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” Our prayer is the same today. On this Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, let us give thanks to Jesus for answering our prayer by being lifted up, elevated for the whole world to see and be saved.
Protected by the Cross
At the end of Badarak the priest prays, “Guard us, O Christ our God, in peace under the shadow of your holy and venerable Cross.” We sing the words from our hymns, “We beseech you, Lord, protect us under the shadow of your holy cross.” What does it mean to be protected by the Cross?
Keep in mind, the bronze serpent that Moses lifted in the wilderness was later broken by King Hezekiah as a result of it becoming an object of worship by the people (II Kings 18:4). Sure, wearing a cross calms our fears, it changes the way we live after we have encountered it, but the Cross is not a talisman or a lucky charm. None of what we do and celebrate in the Church is magic or holy superstition. Venerating a relic of the Cross, or any other relic for that matter, does have the power to effect faith, to remind us that we are loved despite our flaws and sins, but we do not worship a piece of wood. The Cross has power in that it draws us closer to the mystery of Jesus, his power over death. The Cross focuses our hearts and minds on Jesus Christ, and he does have true power in our lives.
What else does it mean to be protected by the Cross? Jesus promises eternal life to those who believe in him! In other words, Jesus died on the Cross so that we could live eternally. Does this just mean we will live forever with God after we die? No. It means that and so much more! When Jesus prayed to the Father he said,
Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:1-3)
We are protected, liberated, saved through the Cross because it is through the Cross that we know God, are enlightened, and through which we identify with the sufferings and martyrdom of Christ. Again, the Cross is not a talisman or charm, but the life and knowledge of God. Again, eternal life is not only life after death, but salvation, deliverance, and protection in this life. Jesus, our Good Shepherd tell us,
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28)
Eternal life keeps us and protects us. St. Cyril of Alexandria comments on this verse saying,
[His followers] receive exemption from death and corruption and from the torments the judge inflicts upon transgressors…It is also possible to understand by “life” a reference to the mystical blessing [of the Eucharist] by which Christ implants in us his own life.
He goes on to say,
The faithful also have the help of Christ, and the devil is not able to snatch them. Those who have an endless enjoyment of good things remain in Christ’s hand, no one thereafter snatching them away from the bliss that is given to them. [It] is not possible that those who are in Christ’s hand should be snatched away to be punished because of the great might Christ has.
So through the Cross we participate in the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ and he shares with us his very life, his eternal life, for “life, hope, resurrection, purification, and remission of sins.” (p. 44) The choir leads us after we have shared Holy Communion singing about the endless enjoyment of good things which St. Cyril mentioned,
Lutsak ee parootyants kots Der; jashagelov uzmarmeen ko yev zaryoon.
We have been filled with your good things, O Lord, by tasting of your Body and Blood.
Should we wear a Cross? Absolutely. It’s what Christians do. It’s how we mark ourselves and make a witness for the Gospel. Should we kiss and venerate the Cross? Without question. These activities are close to the heart of the Orthodox expression of faith and when they are visible, they inspire others to do the same. We believe objects can be blessed, we believe consecrated objects are holy as they contain the glory of God. Should we, then, worship the Cross? Yes, but not as a piece of wood, but as a sign (nshan/նշան) that points us to the person the Cross represents. In everything we do as Christians, the end is always the person of Jesus Christ to whom all of our rituals, traditions, and practices point and in whom they are fulfilled.
Look to the Cross with hope, because through his resurrection Jesus has conquered what a cross once stood for, transforming it from an offensive symbol of death to one of protection from death. As St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (15:55-57)