On this night we bring forth, as we do every year at this time, the cross of Christ. We then recall, through the reading of the Gospels, His crucifixion. However, we too often misperceive the reason we are doing this.
We forget that the Cross, taken on its own terms, was not simply an instrument of execution, it was also a means of humiliation and torture reserved for the execution of the worst and most dangerous criminals. Those who were thus executed were put on display as a public spectacle, to be taunted and mocked as they experienced the agony and pain of a death which came all too slowly. Yet this instrument of torture and death has been adopted by the Church as the chief sign of being a Christian. We glorify it, we put it in and upon our Churches and homes. We wear it as jewelry, as a sign of our Faith. Thus the cross – a hideous and inhuman means of cruelty – more than anything else, visibly marks us as Christians. Why?
In many places it is understood as a ‘symbol’ meaning something which ‘stands for’ something else. There are those who would say that the assertion: “Jesus died for our sins”, means that Jesus was tortured and died because He was the only one who could satisfy God’s justice, and thereby provides an escape from the divine wrath which we deserve for our sinfulness – of which we are presumed guilty by having been born. In this case, the cross is a ‘symbol’ of our deliverance. However, the word ‘symbol’ has an older meaning; that of connecting two or more realities. Thus, a much older and more profound understanding is that the Cross of Christ, by the very act of crucifixion, is transfigured and transformed from being a mere instrument of torture and execution into the throne of God Himself. The Cross is the instrument by which and through which God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, makes Himself ‘small’ enough to enter and bring life to Hades, the place of death, torture, division and destruction – the realm of the Satan (the one who divides) – to destroy it by “trampling down death by death and bestowing life.” Jesus does not go to hell to be tortured in order to satisfy a debt of justice claimed by a blood-thirsty deity. He goes to hell to destroy it by offering a perfect human life – a restored human nature – to the Father, perfect as God intends our humanity to be, thereby granting that life and its freedom to those who want it. By vanquishing hell, He overcomes the satanic schism with Divine unity. Our iconography does not show our Lord in agony and being tortured; it shows him as being at rest, having accomplished what He came to do. It shows Him reigning, true God and true man, from His throne of glory. By Bishop Melchizedek
Icon: c. 1646