Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed
The third stage: Christ Our Passover.
3- The Cross of the Lamb
Christ our Savior conquered and became victorious through offering Himself as a sacrifice on the Cross, as He said, for whom is glory, in the night of the passion, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), so St. John tells us in Revelation he saw “in the midst of the throne … stood a Lamb as though it had been slain” (Rev 5:6), and that the heavenly forces fell down before the lamb and the angels around the throne were crying with a loud voice, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5: 8,11-12).
Thus, the Savior with His cross and passion made the Cross the way to prevail, the way to glory, the way to be glorified, and therefore the Lord put in his Gospel, this critical rule: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matt. 16:24).
From the hymns of the angels that thunder in heaven for the slain and glorified Christ in the midst of the throne, the Coptic Church took the praise of Holy Pascha that the faithful repeat throughout the Holy Week every hour of the day and night: “Thine is the power and the glory, and the blessing and the majesty forever; Emmanuel our God and King… etc.” praising Christ in the remembrance of the Holy Week. Because by willingly accepting to be crucified; He crushed and defeated the power of death and overwhelmed death through His own death. Therefore, it was an evident consequence that He shows resurrection through His own resurrection.
The Church honors the Cross by celebrating it twice every year (17 Tut = September 27 and 10 Baramhat = March 19), and describes the Cross as the “life-giving” i.e. giving life because Christ our Savior made reconciliation through the blood of His Cross and granted us eternal life, when He was raised on the holy wood of the Cross. That is why the Church says about the Cross of Christ on the Feast of the Cross, “Hail to you O cross, the weapon of victory, hail to you O cross, the throne of the King… Let us give praise O faithful, to our Lord Jesus Christ, and bow down to His cross, the Immortal and sacred wood… Hail to you O cross, the comfort of the faithful, the confirmation of the martyrs, who completed their sufferings. … Hail to you O cross, the sign of salvation, the shining light…. The cross is our weapon, and our hope, the cross is our confirmation, in our troubles… For blessed is Christ our God, and His life-giving cross, upon which He was crucified, to redeem us from our sins.” (Doxology of the Feast of the Cross).
At the end of each Mass the faithful kiss the cross in honor and recognition of the Savior who was crucified. Thus, mentioning the Cross and honoring it became so customary in the Orthodox Church that, because of our weakness, there is a risk of forgetting its deep spiritual meaning. However, the theme of the Cross, being so often repeated and so strongly insisted upon, cannot be absent for long from the Orthodox mind.
No Separation between the Cross and Resurrection:
The Orthodox Church does not separate in its worship between Christ’s crucifixion and His resurrection, and this is reflected by the church in “A Praise of Resurrection” (tanaf) the church says: “Come all ye faithful to worship of the resurrection of Christ because it is through His cross that joy came to the whole world … We worship your Cross, O Christ, we praise and glorify your Resurrection.”
Orthodox icons depict Christ crucified, but the image features indicate triumph and not sadness or despair; even when crucified, Christ is the Lord of glory, He is the glorified Lord in the heavenly throne with the Father. Christ “after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12). He remains, on the cross, Christ the victorious, the triumphant and conqueror of death and the devil. While he is crucified, He is Christ the King: “The LORD reigns on the holy wood” (see Psalm 95:10 [Coptic]). This means that Christ through the cross has established His spiritual kingdom and He is its King, thus, as we have seen, the church honors the Cross saying, “Peace to you O’ cross the throne of the King.”
The sufferings of Christ and His crucifixion are not just sacrificial sufferings for us, but also they are the glorious defeat of all evil and sin: “He … put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26).
Participating in the Sufferings of Christ:
This does not mean that the Orthodox Church fails to insist on of our necessary union with the sufferings of Christ. For how could she forget the great teaching of St. Paul? “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.” (2 Cor. 1:5); and also: “we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor. 4:11), as well as saying “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).
But the characteristic of the Eastern Church in her attitude towards the Passion of Christ, is to approach it and share in it with a certain exultation, with the feeling of an all-permeating joy and light. This was the same attitude of the Apostle Paul himself: “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). Thus the Church hails with the Apostle the cheer of victory: “O death, where is your sting, O Hades, where is your victory” (1 Cor. 15: 55).
After noting this aspect in the position towards the Passions, we should also emphasize that we find in some of the prayers in the Orthodox Church a focus on the feeling of the wounds of Christ, participating in them and speaking passionately about His side pierced with the spear.
It is a pity that some Western theologians have accused the Orthodox Church of falling into the Eutychian heresy by having the human nature fading into the divine one. However, this charge contradicts with the hymns of the Church and its glorification of martyrs that one of them says: “O Fathers, you were wounded by the love of Christ,” meaning that the love of Christ, who had suffered in the flesh for them, wounded them and made them give their lives to pain and to death for Him.
The Cross and Martyrdom:
The deep and passionate – though never mournful or hopeless – feeling of the Eastern Church towards the Cross is expressed in her attitude towards martyrdom. Here we should mention that the Church in the early centuries considered martyrdom by the shedding of blood to be the state of spiritual perfection. Therefore, the Church mentions the martyrs in the prayers immediately after the apostles and before all the other saints (excluding the Apostles). When the age of martyrdom was about to come to an end, many of the Church Fathers and Teachers considered the asceticism of the monks and virgins an alternative to the shedding of blood in martyrdom, and some called it “white martyrdom” (i.e., not red-blooded martyrdom). St. Athanasius dubbed it as “martyrdom in conscience” when he talked about the asceticism of St. Anthony in the desert. Can anyone who has read the fervent words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, justly called the God Bearer, ever forget them? He says: “Grant me nothing more than I be poured out a sacrifice to God as long as there is an altar ready … I am God’s Wheat, and I am ground under the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found a pure bread for Christ …, Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus! … My earthly lust has been crucified, there is no longer any fire to material longing in me, there is nothing left but a living water, utterly deep down, saying within me: Come to the Father” 1 (Ignatius in an epistle to the Romans, from paragraphs 2.4, 5.6).
To these early martyrs, we should piously apply the words of one of the Elders at the Heavenly Throne when he said to St. John, the seer: “These are the ones who came out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). And we could say the same about all the martyrs in every age, whether in the era of Diocletian or in the Middle Ages or even modern times until the twenty-first century, in the old Romanian Empire, in the Soviet Union, Europe or the Middle East in the twentieth century where and when there are martyrs.
(To be contd.)
- Look at the epistle of St. Ignatius to the Romans A.N.Fathers Vol. I. od Rom. 2, 4, 5, 7 ↩