For the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Church both prepares us for the feast with a special reading the Sunday before, and also, today, sends us off from the feast with a special reading the Sunday after. This past Sunday’s gospel reading, for the Sunday after the feast of the Cross, is what our holy Fathers want us to take away from the feast.
And actually, there was a reading the day before, too, for the Saturday after the feast, with the same theme. The theme of both of these passages is the practical application of the Cross of Christ to our lives. In Saturday’s gospel reading, Jesus says: When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father taught me, I speak these things.
It is the action of the Cross, the Crucifixion itself…this event, that seals, that assures, that testifies, that proves who Christ is. When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he.
In the Saturday passage, Christ said that his Crucifixion proves who he is, and in Sunday’s he says that taking up our cross is how we become who we are going to be, or, as Christ says in another place, how we possess our souls. Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.
What does he mean by losing our life for his sake? Obviously, one meaning is martyrdom, literally and demonstrably losing our life for Christ. In giving everything, even unto death, the martyr is definitively proved to be a holy one of God, a saint. That’s why the first saints commemorated by the Church were martyrs. We see this idea of proven faith expressed by St. Ignatius as he was taken to his martyrdom: “I have been sent a prisoner…in the hope of obtaining by your prayers the privilege of fighting with beasts at Rome, that by so doing I might be enabled to be a true disciple.”…a true follower…take up your cross and follow me.
But martyrdom can’t be the only definition, because many saints were not martyrs. I would like to show you how every Christian is to be a martyr…and a saint.
In English we have a specific word both for “martyr” and for “saint”, and our understanding of those words obscures the reality of their meaning. In Greek, the word for “saint” just means ‘holy one’ or a ‘holy thing’. “Holy relics” are ‘saint relics’; “blessed is the entrance of thy saints” could also be ‘blessed is the entrance into thy holy place’. Saint is not just a technical category of the Church; anyone who lives a holy life is a saint.
And “martyr”, in Greek, is the same word for ‘testimony’ and ‘witness’. One who testifies, one who bears witness, or in other words, anyone who clearly displays the gospel of Christ in word and deed, is a martyr. Those who we think of as martyrs, are those who have testified in such a way that their testimony cannot be revoked, because it was complete, unto death, undeniable. But they are still bearing witness, bearing testimony.
Which all takes us back to the gospel passage: whoever loses his life for my sake…will save it, and also deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. As we consider the Cross, and what it means to take up our cross, the Church is showing us, how to live as Christians;
and just like Christ, how we will be known to be Christians…but more to the point, what it is to be a Christian.
Sounds like a living martyrdom. What is a living martyrdom? How are we to bear testimony, to bear witness in the way we live? Notice: Christ does not mention words, not what we say to others. It is our cross, our hardships, that bear out our testimony. St. John Chrysostom, speaking from the perspective of Christ, says: “For although it is in my power as Son of God to hinder you from having any trial at all of those hardships, yet such is not my will for your sake, in order that you may yourself also contribute something and be more approved.”
We will all have hardships. And Christ could take away the difficulty and the struggle, but then we would have nothing to contribute. It wouldn’t be for our salvation; God would have done all the work.
We always have freedom: freedom to choose, either to deny our own will, that is, to say no to our desires, to live a holy and approved life, pure and chaste, full of love (that is, acting in love for others), peaceful and gentle, forgiving when others misunderstand us, praying for those who struggle against us; or to seek after our own will, to satisfy our own desires,
to follow those pursuits and passions, to seek success, seek financial comfort, seek the praise of others.
As we prepare to leave the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, we remember these parting words, the words the Church is using to teach us how to apply the lesson of the Cross to our lives. Just as the Cross was the proof of who Christ was, the seal on the testimony of his words and actions here in the flesh, so also the way in which we live, the way in which we live out this living martyrdom, this testimony of our lives, the way in which we deny our own desires, and live in a way that is undeniably pure, undeniably loving; this is the way in which we also display the proven and tested genuineness of Christ in us.
We are all called to be holy, to be saints. We are all called to be martyrs, to live out our testimony and witness for Christ. To do this, to be this: we deny ourselves, take up this Cross, and follow him. If in this way we lose our life for his sake, we will be saved.
With all that being said, I could finally start to explain how St. Jacob Orthodox Church should approach “missions” and “evangelism” to our beloved Bend, Oregon. I will not launch into that right now, but that is the foundation of true Christian “good news-ing”, evangelism. The message we have is the message of our lives as we carry our cross, as we endure our hardships. That will be the tested genuiness of our faith.