From Gregorios, Servant of Jesus Christ, by the Grace of God Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem, to the Bishops, members of our Holy Synod, to our sons the priests, to monks, nuns and all the faithful “called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord…Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1: 2, 3)
On the Occasion of Great and Holy Lent, 2009
“I am crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20)
“I am crucified with Christ.” May this be the expression of our devoutly repeated prayers throughout this Great Lent during our spiritual journey towards the glorious Resurrection, in humility, trust, abandonment, patience and love for Jesus crucified!
As was the case with our Christmas letter, we wanted this Lenten letter to be dedicated to Saint Paul on the occasion of this year dedicated to his jubilee. Indeed, this expression, “I am crucified with Christ,” describes Saint Paul’s life in Christ and also complements the verse, “For to me to live is Christ,” for Christ, in the vision of Saint Paul, is both crucified and risen.
Together we shall meditate on the place, importance and meaning of the cross in the epistles of Saint Paul.
Saint Paul and the Cross
Saint Paul affirms in his Letter to the Galatians, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
And he speaks to the Galatians with pride and warmth of soul, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom this world is crucified unto me and I unto the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
He continues, “…I bear in my body the marks (stigmata) of the Lord Jesus,” that is, of the crucified Christ. (Galatians 6:17)
As far as Saint Paul is concerned, the preaching of the Gospel can only be made with reference to the cross: its subject is the cross and salvation through the cross. As he says, “For Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Jesus Christ be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” (I Corinthians 1: 17-18) Later, he says, “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ (crucified) the power of God, and the wisdom of God, because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”(I Corinthians 1: 22-25)
Saint Paul continues explaining the meaning and power of the cross in the preaching and proclamation of the Gospel in a pagan world that rejects the poor, uneducated, lowly and despised and condemns them to a life of wretchedness and slavery, or to death. But to Paul’s way of thinking, the marginalised and weak are those to whom he is bringing the Gospel: as he says, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” (I Corinthians 2: 2) and later, “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery..: which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (I Corinthians 2: 8)
The First Christian Community and the Cross
Saint Paul wants the first Christians to follow in his footsteps and live with his sublime spirituality: so he addresses the people of Galatia, saying to them, “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” (Galatians 3:1) Of course it is none other than Paul who had set the icon of the crucified Jesus’ passion before the eyes of the Galatian faithful.
He bids them not to be misled into doing something for appearance’ sake that will alienate them from the Gospel, by those who fear being persecuted for the cross of Jesus. (Galatians 6:12)
In the Letter to the Hebrews, there is another strong recommendation not to distance oneself from the cross and the teachings of the Gospel, since those who abjure the Gospel’s values, in which the cross is the pinnacle of the mystery of Christ, “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh.” (Hebrews 6: 6)
Jesus Christ, on the contrary, accepted the abomination of the cross and “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:8, 9)
There is no salvation for the faithful except by the cross, since society would be judged severely, were it not for “the offence of the cross.” (Galatians 5:11) That means that any society which denies the logic of salvation through the cross from evil, sin and death, refusing the cross’s reality and failing to see its presence in all stages of human life, is selfish and lacking in respect for poor, weak, suffering people.[i]
Reconciliation between Peoples by the Cross
On the other hand, society is well-ordered; peace spreads among different social groups to reign between nations; reconciliation (peace’s foundation) is realised and draws man near to God through repentance, when people follow the way of the cross and Christ Jesus who suffered the passion and the cross for the salvation of the world.
That is what is expressed by Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians, in which he lays down the bases for all peace treaties and accords between nations after destructive wars that continually lay waste our world, in East, West, North and South alike. He says, “But now, (that means, after all sorts of disputes and wars) in Christ Jesus, ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ (crucified.) For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.” (Ephesians 2:13-18)
The basis for all reconciliation and true forgiveness is penitence, or repentance for evil: that is what Jesus has brought about through the cross, “blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, (the list of sins) which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross,” as Saint Paul says in his Epistle to the Colossians. (Colossians 2:14)
So the cross is the real victory of each and every true believer, indeed of all who are called to walk in the way of the cross, “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
Paul in the School of Jesus’ Cross
In all that, Paul is in the school of Jesus. He it is whom Saul has seen on the road to Damascus and it is as if Jesus, when he speaks to him, saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4) were asking, “Why dost thou crucify me again?” On the road to Damascus Paul must have seen Jesus as both crucified and risen, for Jesus always links the cross to the resurrection. The fact that the apostles did not understand that very relationship was behind their reluctance to continue following Christ when he spoke to them about the truth of the cross. That same attitude was evident among the high priests, scribes and other Jews gathered in front of the cross, who said, “Save thyself, and come down from the cross.. .. Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” (Mark 15:30, 32: Matthew 27:42; Luke 23:35) So the crowd wants the cross to be abolished from the life of Jesus, but Jesus himself lays down as a condition for following him, not flight from the cross but carrying the cross, saying, “And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:38) and he says, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me,” (Mark 8:34) and again, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me,” (Luke 9:23) and, “…whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
The Apostles’ Incomprehension of the Meaning of the Cross
Nevertheless, we see the disciples of Jesus themselves scandalised by the cross, not wanting Jesus to undergo its suffering and shame.
When Jesus announces to his apostles that “the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again,” (Matthew 20:19) the mother of two of Jesus’ apostles, the sons of Zebedee, asks Jesus for one of them to sit at his right hand and the other at his left and then, those same two disciples, James and John, sons of Zebedee, come to him themselves with their request.( Matthew 20: 20-22 and Mark 10:35)
The way the apostles receive Jesus’ passion predictions (Matthew 16:21-23: 17:22, 23; Matthew 20:19; Matthew 26:2; Mark 8:31-33) and the call to carry the cross (Mark 8: 34-38) is remarkable. Right up until the last minute on the night of the passion and during Jesus’ final hours, the apostles do not understand the meaning of the passion predictions. (Luke 9:44-45; Luke18:31-34; John 16:16-18)
And we see in John that the disciples start murmuring after hearing the teachings of Jesus on his being the living bread and giving his flesh (to the passion, the cross and death) for the life of the world. (John 6:51) Some hours later many of them are no longer walking with Jesus because of this discourse. (John 6:66)
We see Peter strike out with the sword as he resorts to arms to defend his master. Jesus rebukes him and heals the High Priest’s servant’s ear cut off by Peter’s sword. (John 18:10-11; Luke 22:49-51; Matthew 26:47-52)
Peter is ready to go with Jesus and to die with him: yet he is found wanting in the face of the reality of Jesus’ betrayal, passion and cross and denies knowing him. (Luke 22:33-34)
A similar thing happened with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on the evening of Resurrection Sunday. They were sad and hopeless, in despair because of the painful events that had happened at Jerusalem: the passion and the cross. And when Jesus speaks to them without their recognizing him, they tell him all the things that had happened to Jesus of Nazareth, “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: and how [their] chief priests and …rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and … crucified him. But [they] trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel.” (Luke 24:19-26)
All the above clearly shows the disciples’ rejection of the cross and their lack of understanding of the meaning of the cross.
The Cross in the Prophecies and Psalms[ii]
We see rejection of the cross and all its concomitant suffering and calamity in the prophecies and psalms, especially those relating to the suffering Servant of Yahweh, in which there is a very precise description of the passion and cross of Jesus. “They pierced my hands and my feet. They counted all my bones.” (Psalm 21: 16, 17) “Many scourges fell upon me and I knew it not.” (Psalm 34:15) “They tried me, mocked me contemptuously and gnashed their teeth upon me.” (ibid.16) “They gave me also gall for my food and vinegar to drink in my thirst.”(Psalm 68:21) “They rewarded me evil for good and hatred for my love.” (Psalm 108:5) “When they saw me they shook their heads.” (ibid: 25) “I gave my back to scourges and my cheeks to blows.” (Isaiah 50:6) “He hath no form nor comeliness…He is a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities… and by his bruises, we are healed. The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all... he is brought as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth… The Lord also is pleased to purge him…if ye can give an offering for sin…because his soul was delivered to death and he was numbered amongst the transgressors; and he bore the sins of many and was delivered for their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53: various)
Surely the apostles were not at ease praying the psalms, any more than we are comfortable praying them. In fact our Melkite Church tried for some thirteen years (1985-1997) to suppress scriptural verses relating to suffering, betrayal, hatred, enmity, violence and murder, though they reflect, unfortunately, the reality of human life. Jesus really came to set aside all that by his cross, but we, just like the apostles, have not understood Jesus’ thought, vision and reasoning, the logic of the cross.
Perhaps the Apostle Thomas is an exception. Indeed he wanted to see the risen Jesus, but with the signs of suffering and the cross. “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) Jesus gives way to the desire of Thomas and shows him and all the apostles his hands and side pierced by the nails and lance. (John 20:27)
I think that the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, like Thomas and the apostles after the resurrection, saw Jesus with the marks of the nails and spear apparent on his body and that is what the holy icons show: Jesus really suffering, crucified but at the same time, risen, living and glorified.
Paul understood the mystery of the cross more readily than had the other apostles, because his Damascus road vision comprised simultaneously passion, cross and resurrection, while the apostles who had lived with Jesus were not capable of imagining what Jesus meant when they heard him predicting his passion, cross and death, as they saw in him a strong, popular prophet and miracle-worker, confounding the Pharisees by teaching with extraordinary wisdom.
In fact, the apostles started linking the cross to the resurrection only after Jesus’ resurrection or rather, after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Then at last they began to understand the mystery of the passion, sin and transgression, and the cross and death as linked to the mystery and reality of the resurrection. That is what we see very clearly in the Acts of the Apostles, where we find the kerygma and speeches of the apostles linked to the reality of the cross and resurrection, to repentance and return to God.
Hence we can understand the point of view of those Jews who mocked and challenged Jesus, as we have mentioned above, when they said, “Come down from the cross …and we shall believe in him.” For they rejected the cross: the cross was for them, as Saint Paul said and we have cited above, foolishness, weakness and humiliation.
Jesus’ Perspective on the Cross
We shall begin with the position of Jesus himself. He foretold his suffering and cross, yet in the olive garden, just before the betrayal and the beginning of the passion, he prayed that the cup would pass him by. (Matthew 26:39-45; Mark 14:35-42; Luke 22:42-44)
An angel appears to Jesus, strengthening him during his agony (Luke 22:43) and Jesus remarks about the betrayal, “Woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.” (Matthew 26:24) Jesus himself understands the meaning of the difficulty and tragedy of suffering, crime and sin and explains that to his disciples, saying, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38)
Jesus himself who said, “I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly,” (John 10:10) is the same who said, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (See the verses cited above on taking up the cross and following Jesus.) It is he who said in his sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, with reference to the prophecy of Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’ And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, ‘This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.’” (Luke 4:18-21; cf. Isaiah 61:1, 2)
Jesus himself tells those sent on behalf of Saint John the Baptist, who asked him, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” saying, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.” (Matthew 11:2-6; Luke 7:20-23)
Are all those things not really crosses and sufferings, illnesses and calamities? And one of the signs of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, is that he loves sinners and those who suffer under the cross of sickness and handicap. The central core of Jesus’ mission is to lighten their sufferings by bearing the cross and taking them down from the cross, healing and consoling them, awakening joy in them and their families.
So many people sick with all kinds of illnesses were healed by Jesus and taken down from their cross, as Matthew said, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, ‘Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses.’” (8:17 cf. Isaiah 53:4) Moreover, one of the most important signs of the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, is that he will suffer and bear mankind’s sufferings.
When Jesus sees the sick, the suffering, the handicapped, he has pity on them, heals them and distributes bread and fish to feed them and lighten their sufferings, saying, “I have compassion on the multitude.” (Matthew 15:32)
The Parable of the Last Judgment is precisely on the subject of lightening the sufferings of others whom God has placed along our road. We have the responsibility for alleviating their sufferings, helping them carry the cross, and taking them down from the cross.
All of us know by heart the verses concerning the Judgment, where it is said, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was anhungred and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” (Matthew 25:34-45)
Are not these real crosses upon which we are lifted every day and that we see with our own eyes every day in our society? They call us to carry out corporal works of mercy, and spiritual works of mercy. All that really means helping people and being in solidarity with them and carrying the cross with them, as if we are walking together on the same way of the cross to Golgotha, like Jesus, carrying the cross, and like Simon of Cyrene, carrying the cross with Jesus.
Moreover, the whole Gospel is based on works of mercy and love. All the teachings of Jesus, his proverbs, parables and miracles, have as their aim the healing of the whole person, of fallible, sick, poor, weak man, who is exposed to all sorts of illnesses, handicaps and disasters and spiritual, material and bodily sufferings, above all from sin. But Jesus came in fact precisely to heal the whole human being, body and soul (John 7:23b) and to take man down from the cross of suffering and pain and purify him from sin. That is what John says in his Gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son (by the cross and on the cross) that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world: but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17)
Moreover, that is why Jesus carried the cross, was lifted up on the cross and died on the cross. So Jesus changed the cross from a curse, “Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree[iii],” to a blessing, saying, “They shall look on him whom they pierced,” (John 19:37[iv]) for he is their salvation, the one who has borne the sins of the world. He said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, shall bring all men unto me.” (John 12:32)
That is the meaning of Saint Paul’s pride, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Galatians 6:14), as we explained in our Christmas Letter, how many sufferings and persecutions Saint Paul underwent for Jesus.
Paul carried the cross and made great efforts to lighten others’ cross. He collected aid from all the churches to alleviate the plight of those suffering from the famine in Jerusalem. That is why the expression, “For to me to live is Christ,” (Philippians 1:21) is very strongly linked to the proclamation of the cross and resurrection and victory over sin, suffering and death.
The Cross in Liturgical Prayers
After the above excursus through Saint Paul’s epistles, having reviewed his teachings on the cross and those of Jesus and seen the viewpoint of the apostles on the cross before and after the resurrection, we should like to explore, on that basis, the meaning of the cross in Christian theology and thought, in the lives of the saints, the history of the Church and in the reality of human life.
Indeed, that is the meaning of a great many of the prayers that we repeat: for example, in the Creed, “Jesus…who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and ...was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered..” and the often-repeated, “Save us, O Son of God,” and “At the prayers of the Mother of God, O Saviour, save us” and “At the prayers of thy saints, O Saviour, save us.” Most of our liturgical prayers end with petitions for salvation and deliverance from suffering and sin: “O Mother of God, thou hast delivered us from dangers. But as thou hast invincible power, free us from conflicts of all kinds.[v]” We sing in the Psalms, “Now will I arise, saith the Lord, and establish them in salvation.”(Psalm 11: 5) and we sing also, “He hath wrought salvation in the midst of the earth.” (Psalm 73:12)
We also sing these hymns, “Thou hast wrought salvation in the midst of the earth, O Christ our God, and thou hast stretched out thy most pure hands on the cross, thus gathering all the nations, who cried unto thee, glory to thee, O Lord.[vi]” and also, “O thou who on the sixth day at the sixth hour didst nail to the cross the sin which Adam, through presumption, committed in Paradise, tear asunder the bond of our iniquities, O Christ our God, and save us,[vii]” and also, “O Lord God of Hosts, Creator of all things, who through the tender-hearted compassion of thine incomparable mercy didst send down thine only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, for the redemption of the human race, and by his precious cross didst destroy the account of our sins and thereby didst triumph over the origin and powers of darkness….[viii]” (Sixth Hour) Further, (from the Ninth Hour) we pray, “Thou who, at the ninth hour, for our sake didst taste death in the flesh, mortify our carnal passions, O Christ our God, and save us.[ix]”
We also know that our Church, especially in the East, liturgically dedicates Wednesdays and Fridays to the veneration of the cross and saving passion and that even Sundays, though devoted to the resurrection, are linked to the cross.
We venerate the saints who bore the cross and followed Jesus, who made great efforts by all means to lighten the cross of others, especially of repentant sinners, the suffering, sick and needy, through helping the poor and founding institutions of social welfare. We know too how important the cross is in religious education and Christian upbringing, especially in the lives of apostles, ascetics and monks and nuns in the Church.
The Meaning of the Cross in Christianity
Christ changed the meaning of the cross and Christianity overthrew the dictum[x] that stated, “Cursed is everyone that hangeth on the tree,” changing it into the love of the cross and the crucified one and love of crucified, suffering, tempted, poor, discouraged, despairing and sinning humankind.
We hear, with regard to that, in our liturgical prayers, the hymn to a virgin martyr, “Thy lamb, O Christ, cries aloud to thee, O my Bridegroom, I love thee and seeking thee, I strive with thee and am crucified with thee. I am buried with thee in thy baptism and I suffer for thee, in order to reign with thee. For thy sake I die so I may live in thee. Accept then, the unblemished sacrifice of her who for love of thee hath offered her life for thee.”
Thus, Christianity, by grace, changed the reality of the cross into resurrection and new life, in joy, expectation and hope. What is more, the cross became symbol, ensign and pride of the Church and the sign of its victory over sin and death. That is why the cross is erected over the cupolas of our churches and is the great ornament of our church interiors. One finds it evident in the construction and internal symbolism of church architecture.
But the cross is never separated from the resurrection and the faithful see, beyond the cross, Christ crucified on the cross and risen from the dead, having vanquished sin, the cross’s suffering and death.
That is the meaning of the descent from the cross, that is, that the cross changes, despite its presence and painful reality and the wounds that it causes: the meaning is there, despite all that. When we are able to take down a man from the cross the world believes that salvation is possible and that the cross is not ignominy and is not the last station.
That is why the cross has never been a goal in Christianity or a final stage.
On the other hand, the cross is a reality in the lives of us all, whether we wish it or not, whether we are poor or rich, king or slave, capable or weak, healthy or sick, believing or unbelieving, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu. It is a reality and at the same time a means of doing away with the reality of sin and a call to action in lightening the suffering of others and helping all to carry their cross.
The Cross and the Crucified One: Symbol of Christianity
So the cross became a blessing, not a curse. The cross became really an object of pride, a sign of sure victory. The kontakion of the Feast of the Cross and many other hymns magnify the cross and its power.
So the cross really remains the great symbol of Christianity, but the cross as a symbol and sign of victory, is not a piece of wood or metal or an external ornament. Both on the cupolas of churches and inside them, the cross remains in the place of honour and priority. Hence the importance of carrying the cross on our breast; we place it on the bishop’s crown or mitre and on the crowns of bridegroom and bride and it is in the place of honour in our rooms and receives our guests in the entrance to our homes. The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on the 14th. September remains one of the most popular great feasts of Christianity. In Great and Holy Week the Passion remains one of the high points of our feasts and popular celebrations and one of the strongest expressions of our spirituality, devotion and piety. We shall never stop adoring the glorious cross of Jesus Christ and adoring Christ our God, nailed to the cross in order to show us through his passion and crucifixion the royal road of the cross. That is the true way to be saved from sin, for life and happiness and resurrection. And we always say and sing, “We venerate thy cross, O Master: and we glorify thy holy resurrection.[xi]” We repeat in every Sunday Orthros (Matins), after having listened to the Gospel of Matins describing the events of the resurrection, “…we venerate thy cross, O Christ and we praise and glorify thy holy resurrection. Thou art our God and we know no other save thee. Upon thy name we call…For, lo, through the cross, joy is come into all the world. Ever blessing the Lord, we hymn his resurrection, for in that he endured the cross, he hath destroyed death by death.” (Resurrection hymn from Sunday Matins)
We see through these teachings, sacred verses and prayers that the believing Christian is called to look at the cross and to look at him who is attached to that cross and beyond both of them, to the example of Jesus crucified. That is why the believing Christian kisses the cross and accepts the cross, but is never broken before the cross of daily life, never bowed down by the cross, never devastated or despairing. He is never defeated or conquered before the cross or beneath it. He is never overcome by sin, temptation or illness, suffering or disaster, but sees in the cross of Jesus and in his own daily, true, real, painful, wounding, distasteful cross, he sees in them, according to Jesus’ example, the harbingers of salvation, resurrection, joy, bliss, power, hope and expectation.
Indeed, if we wish to abolish the cross from its special, privileged place in Christianity - as doctrine, as history, as an event and reality in the life of Christ our Lord and in the life of the faithful and in the history of the Church, the history of individuals and communities, yesterday, today and for ever – if we wish to be rid of the cross, we shall be like the ostrich hiding its head, thinking that that way it has escaped the dangers that await it. Moreover, if we wish to abolish the reality of the cross, we shall be liars to ourselves and to our painful reality, deceiving ourselves, as though we were taking morphine so as not to suffer. Now the real morphine is the cross itself, which we do not take simply as a pain-killer, but because it gives us new strength to bear it and to overcome through it, making hope, trust, expectancy and joy burst forth in our hearts.
The Cross in the Economy of Salvation
We all refuse the cross, but we can never ignore or pretend to ignore that it is an existential reality in our general, global, present consciousness, weighing on the shoulders of each and every one of us, whether he wishes it or not, or whether he is a believer or not. This is that true wisdom to which Saint Paul invites us in his vision of the cross, showing why it is the revelation of both the power and wisdom of God, since it is God himself who gives us the victory, boosting our eagerness and enabling us to bear life’s cross and help others bear it too, whether they be neighbours, relatives, fellow-citizens or those in difficulty, groaning and walking heavily on the way of their cross.
Real wisdom is in that economy of salvation, the way of the cross, which God in his providence willed and which Jesus voluntarily deigned to choose, because he knows that it is the way proper to us since we are poor, weak creatures, always exposed to sin, suffering, sickness and all sorts of disasters. In his divine providence (economy) he willed the way of the cross to be ours, in accordance with our nature, but freely chose it as his own way, for us and for our salvation. That is what Saint Paul expressed in his Letter to the Philippians, through that splendid hymn which the first Christian community sang in the early years of its history, (that is, before the year 50 of the Christian Era) and which describes the economy of salvation in all its stages. “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:6-9) From that it is evident that the cross is not an end, but a means of salvation. Yet the cross – and all that the cross means in the economy of salvation and the life and experience of the Church, society and individuals – remains a mystery. For sin has wounded the person in the very depths of his human nature, as Saint Paul affirms, saying, “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.”(II Thessalonians 2:7)
The cross is the mystery of God who loves mankind, for he suffers and is crucified for his creatures. But it is also the mystery of poor, weak sinful man who groans under his cross, yet is called to carry this cross, for it is his road, his royal road, towards redemption and salvation by Christ, crucified for him and also risen.
This mystery of the economy of salvation is celebrated in beautiful hymns of the Feast of the Ascension, when we sing, “O Christ our God, having renewed in thyself Adam’s nature, which had descended into the depths of the earth, thou hast taken it up today above all principalities and powers; for, as thou dost love that nature, thou hast seated it beside thee; and as thou hadst compassion on it, thou didst unite it to thyself; in uniting thyself to it, thou didst suffer with it; though impassible, thou didst suffer in it and hast glorified it with thyself.” (Litya of Vespers of the Ascension)
I would like to speak of my own spiritual experience, as a religious man and monk of Holy Saviour, where our spiritual fathers trained us; our directors accompanied us in our monastic and religious progress and taught us, through so-called voluntary mortifications, how to bear the cross daily with joy, courage and enthusiasm. So we adopted the habit of cross-bearing, I may say without exaggeration, and thence, through continual mortifications in many things, were made free. It gave me spiritual security so that I no longer felt privation of any kind, with regard to food, drink or clothes, in any situation, even in pain, or illness or in my relations with others.
As seminarists, we lived the experience of the daily cross, as did the Apostle Paul, who said, “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:12, 13)
Saint Paul describes how for the cross of Christ, he has “suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that (he) may win Christ.” (Philippians 3:8) Then, in his Epistle to the Romans, he describes the power of Christian hope in bearing suffering. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35) So we can continue to describe the whole list of Saint Paul’s sufferings.
So we too became used in the religious and monastic life to ascesis, mortification of the senses and passions through spiritual retreat, direction and fatherly accompaniment. So the cross became acceptable for us, more sweet and light.
I am always glad and happy to hear, on my pastoral excursions to parishes and on various occasions, to listen to the songs (zalaghit in Arabic) of believing women that express in popular, spontaneous language, the true meaning of the cross in consecrated life and in the life of every believer in Jesus Christ, his cross and passion and these songs are expressed as follows: “Carry thy cross and find rest.”
Solidarity in Carrying the Cross
Here I must mention that carrying the cross, as Jesus did, is beyond being a matter of merely personal, inner devotion: it is really an act of solidarity with humanity. Besides, it is a personal, communal and social responsibility in state, regional and global politics.
In fact, the cross, in all its different aspects, is found at all levels throughout the world. No-one can walk without the cross in his life. We have need of a great effort of love, solidarity and fraternity to carry it: it is a global responsibility and globalisation should help relieve many people carrying their cross. Pope Benedict XVI alluded to that in his latest Message for the World Day of Peace[xii], at the beginning of 2009.
World and globalised solidarity in carrying the cross - in the fight against poverty, pain, illness, disasters, catastrophes and wars - is based on that moral, spiritual and social foundation, which has its source in the spirituality of the cross. In fact, Jesus, by assuming voluntary suffering and the cross for mankind’s salvation, does so on the basis of his love and respect for universal human dignity and worth. Without these substantial considerations, without the recognition of human dignity, value and personality, there is no sense to the cross and to suffering, no meaning to cross-bearing with others and for their happiness. The Pope says the following:[xiii] “It remains true, however, that every form of externally imposed poverty has at its root a lack of respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person. When man is not considered within the total context of his vocation, and when the demands of a true “human ecology” are not respected, the cruel forces of poverty are unleashed, as is evident in certain specific areas”….. “Faithful to this summons from the Lord, (‘Give them something to eat yourselves.’ [Luke 9:13]) the Christian community will never fail, then, to assure the entire human family of her support through gestures of creative solidarity, not only by ‘giving from one's surplus,’ but above all by ‘a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power which today govern societies.’”[xiv]
Real globalisation means, persons and communities, the whole world indeed, acting together to lighten the load of anyone in society who bears the cross, of whatever shape, form or kind.
That is the meaning of the pride of Saint Paul the Apostle in the cross of Jesus Christ and his not knowing “anything among (them, the faithful) save Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2) and he bears everything for the elect, that they may be saved.
The Cross in Christianity and Islam
Here, I would like, as an Arab Christian living in the Arab world with its Muslim majority, to be frank with my Muslim brothers about the meaning of the cross. At the same time, we must explain to our Christian faithful the meaning of the well-known Qur’anic verse relating to the meaning of the cross in Islam and Christianity, “And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger - they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain.”[xv] (An-Nisaa 4:157)
We apologise to our beloved Muslim brothers for daring to propose to them, with humility, love and respect, our Christian and human explanation of this venerable Qur’anic verse. The word “their” or “they” in this verse refers to Jews, mentioned in verse 155 of the same surah, which castigates them, reprimanding them for “their disbelieving in the revelations of Allah, and their slaying of the prophets wrongfully.” The word meaning “their saying” is linked to “their disbelieving,” which leads us to suggest that the Qur’anic verse taken in context is a reply to the pretention and arrogance of some Jews “because of their saying: We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah's messenger.” That is why the Qur’anic and Muslim refusal to recognize the crucifixion of Jesus is a way of defending Christ’s dignity and sublime rank. It implies that Christ cannot be crucified, because he is an extraordinary person and very different from other prophets mentioned in the Bible or Torah, who died violent deaths, though none was crucified.
It should be noted that the denial of the crucifixion of the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, originated in an intellectual trend spread among a little group of Christian thinkers around the end of the third century of the Christian Era. Since Christ is God for Christians, this group considered that applying the passion and cross to Jesus was a scandal unworthy of his divinity, which could not be subject to the passion and cross. This Docetic belief, condemned by the Church, underlies the Qur’anic phrase, “it appeared so unto them.” The phrase does not imply that there was a look-alike, as is popularly supposed.
In our Christian vision, Christ is indeed God so crucifixion cannot impinge on his divine nature: in that we are in agreement with Islam. But we add, in speaking of the cross of Christ and crucifixion, that he was “crucified in the flesh,” when we pray, “O Son of God, crucified in the flesh, save us who sing unto thee.[xvi]”
But I find (and am pleased to find) a broader and deeper meaning to the fact of rejecting the cross and crucifixion: namely, that all we humans, whether Christians, Muslims or other, refuse the logic of the cross, because this preaching of the cross is yesterday, today and for ever, as Saint Paul said, “foolishness” (I Corinthians 1:18) and “a stumbling-block.” (I Corinthians 1:23)
Everyone on the Way of the Cross
Indeed, if the cross, with all that it represents, with all that it signifies, symbolises and indicates, of sufferings, sicknesses, disasters, various afflictions, catastrophes, pains and injuries to which all people are subject, if the cross is a constituent reality of all human life, there is an obligation for all people, like Jesus, to carry the cross together, in order to disburden the one charged with it and together to bear it with love and solidarity.
In this letter, I am urging my faithful sons and daughters of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the Arab world and throughout the world to be in solidarity with each other and stand shoulder to shoulder with their brethren, friends, neighbours and fellow-citizens to bear the cross together on the way of the cross, especially during these days of Great Lent on our common spiritual Lenten way towards the Feast and the joy of the glorious Resurrection.
Common Islamic-Christian Action
I am also speaking to those who will read this letter on our web-site[xvii] and especially to our fellow-citizens, our Muslim brothers and sisters in the Arab world, calling them to common Arab Islamic-Christian action to lighten the suffering of our sons and daughters in the Middle East. The Qur’anic verse which rejects the cross in the life of Jesus Christ cannot, I believe, really eliminate the cross from people’s lives. On the contrary, Islam constantly calls for help for the poor and prisoners. We know that zakah (wealth-purification) for the benefit of the poor is one of the sacred foundational precepts of Islam and an appeal for solidarity among Muslims in helping their fellow-Muslims to overcome poverty, pain, illness, natural catastrophes and different conditions of human life, for all those are so many crosses that weigh on people’s shoulders. Zakah and sadaqah (giving to charity) are also of use in social welfare projects, cultural and educational centres. It is to that that Vatican II alluded, when it described Muslims as truly worshipping “God, through prayer, alms-giving and fasting.”[xviii]
That is why I see that there is here a huge area for common Christian-Muslim action and together we can carry the cross of our Arab Middle Eastern world.
Let Us Take the Poor Down from the Cross
With trust and humility, I would like in this Lenten Letter to launch the slogan, “No more poor after today,” and call upon everyone to work to realise, at least in part, this motto in our Melkite Greek Catholic Church[xix] – everyone contributing according to his ability and circumstances. I am calling for us to realise this through sustained solidarity and mutual help in our Arab world, where there are plentiful resources, such as oil. Let oil be a weapon against poverty, sickness and disasters! May it accompany the way of the cross in our Arab world and take down poor, sick, suffering and disappointed Arab people from their cross.
This is an appeal that I am making to my Church and launching in the Arab world, which I love. I would like to be the apostle and servant of this motto, so as to bring this appeal to fruition. I am calling upon each Arab governor and every wealthy businessman or woman, hoping that my call will be heard.
I am also ready to be the itinerant apostle of that motto, making my way through the Arab world and spreading that slogan, “No more poverty, no more poor folk in the Arab world.”
Besides, I think there is a divine call for us Christians and Muslims to draw upon our common faith values: we find an echo of it in our holy books. It is a call that unites us all around “a common word” (Aal ‘Imran 3:64) [xx]and a common action, so that God may walk with us and we may walk together with our peoples, our citizens, along the way of their cross and Golgotha, and help to take them down from their cross, because the cross in all its meanings, dimensions, forms and aspects is a reality, but not a goal. Our Christian faith assures us that it is the goal of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, for God to be man’s helper, calling man to be himself the helper of his fellowman. That is what the saying from the Hadith indicates, “None of you truly believes (in God and his religion) until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”[xxi] That is what we read in the First Epistle of Saint John (I John 4:20) “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God, whom he hath not seen?”
In the Latin tradition there is the devotional practice called “The Way of the Cross,” and one sees the different Stations of the Cross depicted inside churches. That pious tradition has been introduced into some of our Eastern Catholic churches. Formerly, the Way of the Cross ended with the death on Golgotha and the Deposition. After Vatican II, there was a recommendation to add another Station, that is, the Station of the Resurrection, which is the Fifteenth and Last Station.
That is the meaning of the cross in our Christian faith. The way of the cross remains, for it is a reality, but does not end with the crucifixion, cross and death, but with the resurrection. The cross is a reality, but the goal is resurrection, the real end of the way of the cross.
From the doctrine of redemption and salvation flows the spirituality of the cross and passion. This doctrine is a reality expressive of values of solidarity and mutual help and communion between people. It is besides the basis for true globalisation that must help to bring about a greater measure of service to all mankind, but not help one part to subjugate another.
In fact life is a walk between the reality of the cross and the expectation of resurrection and life. That is what Saint Paul says, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the Law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
The Lenten Way is the Way of the Cross
There is the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross. The saints, ascetics and monastics, all carried the cross in their lives and became holy through bearing the cross. All devoted their strength to helping their fellowmen carry the cross and that is why Christianity always juxtaposes, in the way of the cross, the tragedy of Golgotha and Christ’s resurrection.
That is also our way during the time of Lent. It should be noted that in the Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox rites, there is in the middle of Lent, the third Sunday of Lent, called the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. In fact, we put the cross on a tray decorated with flowers and aromatic plants and hold a procession inside the church, singing, “We venerate thy cross, O Master, and we glorify thy holy resurrection.” This Sunday is also called the Sunday of Flowers.
This is also the meaning of the words of Paul that are the subject of this letter: “God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of Christ our Lord,” and Saint Paul speaks to death, saying, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:55-57) The victory is won through suffering, the cross and death.
I conclude with a spiritual word of Saint Gregory the Theologian, my patron: “Help to resist sickness. Offer relief to human need. If you are healthy and rich, alleviate the need of whoever is sick and poor; if you have not never stumbled, go to the aid of whoever is fallen and downtrodden; if you are glad, comfort whoever is sad; if you are fortunate, help whoever is bowed down with misfortune. Give God evidence of your gratitude for you are one who can do favours and not one who needs receive benefits.... Become a god for the unfortunate, imitating God's mercy, for a human being has no more godlike ability than that of doing good.” (Oration 14: 26, 27a On the Love of the Poor: PG 35, 892bc)
We should like to remind the faithful of our Church, this year as every year, of our obligation to observe Lent as much as we can, according to the ancient Eastern tradition. St. Basil[xxii] observes that “fasting was ordained in Paradise,” and “the first commandment in this sense was delivered to Adam.” So God’s command “‘You shall not eat’ is a law of fasting and abstinence.”
We are happy to find also in the Lenten Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for this year 2009, an echo of all our former letters on Great Lent. His Holiness emphasizes the holiness of fasting and abstinence, and encourages “the parishes and every other community to intensify in Lent the custom of private and communal fasts… (since) fasting represents an important ascetic practice, a spiritual arm to do battle…Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by …sin.”[xxiii]
With these spiritual feelings and faith convictions, walking along the way of the cross, we should like to live this period of Holy Lent and the passion on the cross, through fasting, prayer and repentance and corporal and spiritual works of compassion, through the mortification of the senses, through spiritual ascesis, reading Holy Scripture and especially the Pauline Epistles. May the way of Lent be the road to the Resurrection!
I close this letter with this spiritual exhortation, that we find in Matins of Monday in the First Week of Great Lent, where we sing, “Let us joyfully begin the most sacred time of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendour of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the holy resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life.”
Holy Lent, with my affection and blessing,
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain
[i] Jews formerly prescribed the death penalty for miscreants by hanging them from a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22-23.) Similarly, the Romans reserved the cross as an instrument of torture and death penalty for slaves.
[ii] All Old Testament references are to the Septuagint (LXX)
[iv] Cf. Zechariah 12:10
[v] Kontakion of the Annunciation Tone 8
[vi] Troparion Tone 2 from the Sixth Hour in Great and Holy Lent
[vii] Troparion Tone 3 from the Sixth Hour in Great and Holy Lent
[viii] Prayer of Saint Basil the Great
[ix] Troparion Tone 8 from the Ninth Hour in Great and Holy Lent
[x] Cf. Deuteronomy 21:23
[xi] Sung instead of the Trisagion at the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross
[xii]MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE BENEDICT XVI FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE WORLD DAY OF PEACE 1 JANUARY 2009 FIGHTING POVERTY TO BUILD PEACE
[xiii] Paragraph 2
[xv] Qur’an 4:157 in The Meaning of the Glorious Koran by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall
[xvi] Antiphon from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
[xviii] DECLARATION ON THE RELATION OF THE CHURCH TO NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS NOSTRA AETATE PROCLAIMED BY HIS HOLINESS POPE PAUL VI ON OCTOBER 28, 1965 3.
[xix] Cf. Patriarchal Christmas Letter Poverty and Development XII 2003
[xxi] Al-Bukhari Kitab al-Iman 13 and Muslim Kitab al-Iman 45/71
[xxii] cf. Sermo de jejunio: PG 31, 163, 98
[xxiii] 2009 Lenten Message of the Holy Father Benedict XVI: “He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry” (Matthew 4: 2) 11 December 2008