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Veneration of the Holy Cross: An Orthodox Apologia

Mark very kindly asked me for "a good, hearty, orthodox, Biblical case for reverencing the Cross...", noting that a Protestant friend of his had responded to the practice with, "Yeah but what does that have to do with the actual cross itself? It's all just what Jesus did; the cross is irrelevant." I'm not sure that what I've thrown together is "the best orthodox apology for this sort of reverence for the cross itself..." that he asked for, but it's the best I have to offer on such short notice!

I'll take your friend's statement as a starting point: "It's all just what Jesus did; the cross is irrelevant." He's right, of course, it is all about what Jesus did, and Jesus chose to work through physical things - the world that he had created. This is the mystery of the incarnation. Even the Greek philosophers, by the time Christ came along, were leaning in the direction of a single, transcendent, higher power that had created the universe. But that higher power was utterly transcendent - that was what made it divine. This was, in fact, why Arianism held such an appeal for the newly converting Empire: it tied into the Greek philosophies that the educated elite already knew and "safeguarded" the transcendence of God. This was what the Apostle Paul was referring to when he said the the cross was "foolishness to the Greeks" and why he was laughed out of the Athenian Areopagus when he started to teach the bodily resurrection of the dead. Philosophy is wonderful, but it's all about ideas - it's when philosophy tries to translate it's abstract idealism into reality that its limitations rapidly become apparent.

Christianity is not a philosophy - or, rather, it is the true philosophy, for it worships the One Who is Truth who became man. And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate... This is the scandal of specificity. Why should God, who is utterly transcendent and divine, come down and take on human flesh as a Jew, more than that, be born in a stable in the "little town of Bethlehem" and suffer the particularly excruciating and shameful death of crucifixion under the Romans? Why not come down in '60s North America as a hippie, or be born in Africa as a slave or.. Why choose one particular place and time at all? Why bother to die, even?

Christianity, however, sees God as a loving God, not an inventor and distant admirer of some Newtonian "clockwork universe". And the nature of love is to become involved in the beloved's affairs, to realize that, yes, I am my brother's keeper, I do need to interfere, intervene, become entangled. The incarnation and crucifixion are the ultimate end of God's "meddling" in human affairs, the culmination of the divine plan - He had been working and intimately involved in human affairs from Day One, in fact, and Mary's "Yes" was the ultimate end of that work and the beginning of our salvation, through the incarnation of the divine Word. As a man, Jesus walked among us, touched and spoke with individuals, became ultimately qualified to be our "high priest", demonstrated to us that God understood and cared not merely as Creator, but as Father and as Son - as one of us, in fact. And He identified with us even unto death - even the most shameful and specific death of the cross - that He might unite us to Himself by that death, that we might, united with Him not only in His death, but also in His resurrection, be thus eternally united to God in Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man.

All this was accomplished, first and foremost, through the cross. Well, through all sorts of specific things, actually, but, first and foremost, through the cross. The cross was thus transformed from an instrument of torture and death into the ultimate symbol of salvation. As Orthodox Christians, we venerate all sorts of things because God, by His presence and by His work, has shown the sanctity of all material things (both as Creator and as the recipient of a material body and his participation in the material world as a man), and has especially sanctified specific things as particular vehicles of our salvation. Why the water of baptism? Because it was the Jewish purification/initiation ritual at the time of the incarnation? Why bread and wine? Because they were staples of the Jewish diet and symbols of sustenance and joy. Why the cross? Because it was the ultimate instrument of death at the time of Christ. Why the Scriptures? Because God has revealed Himself to us through the only medium of communication that we have, the word.

At the time of the iconoclastic controversy, the Church was forced to wrestle with the question of whether the veneration of icons was idolatry or simply due honor paid to pictoral symbols (icons) of Christ and those with Christ "in them". What ultimately clinched the iconodules' argument for veneration of the icons was the far more ancient example of veneration of the Gospel and of the cross. Everyone agreeed that the Gospel and the cross were worthy of veneration - veneration of the cross and the Gospel had, after all, been the established practice of the Church for as far back as anyone could remember. Eventually, this led people to realize that veneration could extend to other specific representations of our salvation, namely, Christ and the saints.

On a simpler level, we pay honour in all forms to the objects of our love here on earth. We take care of pictures of loved ones and put them in places of honour in our homes. Americans will salute their flag; actors and performers will bow to honour audiences that are honouring them. It is built into the very fabric of our being to honour symbols and human examples of excellence - how much more should we honour the ultimate symbol of our salvation, on which God's most excellent work was accomplished?



PS - Just noticed that you were also asking for a Biblical case for "reverencing matter... as a way of revering God..." Simply put, it was the universal practice of the people of God, from the careful, reverent handling of the ark, to the strict restrictions placed on the ultimate "sacred space", the Holy of Holies, to the placement of the jar of manna and the stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written and Aaron's rod that budded inside the ark, to the women's insistence upon anointing the body of Christ, to God's working miracles through handkerchiefs that the Apostle Peter had touched. I'm sure there are lots more examples that could be unearthed by a more thorough examination... Proof-texts are hard to come by because it was a completely uncontroversial and uncontested attitutude towards matter that was woven into the very fabric of ancient existence. Indeed, as I noted in my conclusion, the veneration of physical symbols representing that which is worth of honour is, in fact, woven into the fabric of our own existence, unless we choose to deny it - and even if we do try not to work against the natural impulse, we usually end up doing so in some context or other. It is hard to go against our God-given nature - or, as our Lord said to the Apostle Paul, "It is hard to kick against the pricks!"

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