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Death and life

13 September 2009

For Orthodox Christians today is the Forefeast of The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, or at least it is for those on the new calendar.

Crucifixion as a method of execution is not commonly used today, so it is easy to miss the paradox in these terms. We might recognise it more easily if we spoke of  “the life-giving gallows” or “the life-giving electric chair”, “the life-giving firing squad” or “the life-giving lethal injection”.

Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross

Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross

In the second century pagan Roman emperors tried to destroy Jerusalem, and every sign of both Christianity and Judaism. They levelled the site of the temple, and tried to obliterate all traces of the site of the crucifixion and burial of Christ. In the fourth century the Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious toleration in the Western half of the Roman Empire in 313, though it was not applied in the East until ten years later. Then the Emperor’s mother, St Helena, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and looked for the site of the crucifixion of Christ. In excavating the site, they found three crosses, and the story is told that in order to determine which one was the cross on which Christ was crucified, they were used to touch the corpse in a passing funeral procession, and the one that caused the dead man to rise was taken to be the cross of Christ. It was thus the life-giving cross.

A church was built on the site, and was dedicated on 13 September, and the following day the cross was brought out for the faithful to venerate, hence the feast that we celebrate today. The Wikipedia article has more details.

In the theme-hymns (troparia, kontakia and apolytika) for the day the cross is described as “life-giving” or “life-creating” and as the “weapon of peace”.

Pagans, ancient and modern, have often found the Christian attitude to the cross strange and distasteful at best, and repulsive at worst. Honouring the instrument of a cruel and shameful death is seen as a love of death. St Paul was well aware of this, and describes the cross as a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (I Cor 15:18-25). He wrote at a time when crucifixion was a common and visible means of execution, not hidden away behind prison walls, but held in the open for all to see, as a deterrent to those who would challenge the power of the Roman state.


Altar cross at St Nicholas Church, Brixton, with ikon of Resurrection behind

St Paul went even further, and said he would “glory” in the cross. And this is something that shows the essentially counter-cultural nature of the Christian faith, that Christians glory in things that the world regards as shameful.

The point is that through Christ the instrument of death is transformed into something life-giving. Christ has trampled down death by death. So for Christians the cross does not represent the victory of death, but Christ’s victory over death, and in raising the dead man in the funeral procession it shows its true transfigured nature. Though evil has gained a hold in the world, and the good things that God has made, like the wood of trees, can be fashioned by men into insturments of torture and death, this is not their true nature, and this is not the last word that can be said about them. Beyond the cross is the resurrection, which changes the nature of the cross. As we sing on Holy Cross Day

Before Thy Cross we bow down and worship, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify

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