When the pious Empress Helena discovered the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord, she had it brought to the Temple of the Resurrection, where the Patriarch Macarius exalted it in the sight of all. Seeing the Cross of the Lord, all the faithful rejoiced and bowed down reverently before it, offering worship to Him Who was crucified thereon. And even today, when Orthodox Christians behold the elevation of the Precious Cross, we rejoice and cry out to the Cross as if it were alive, saying, “Rejoice, precious Cross. Help us, O life-giving Cross.”
How can this be? Why do we say such things? Does the Cross have ears? Does it have a soul that we should address it as if it were a living being? Of course not; rather in addressing the Cross, we refer our petitions to the gracious power of the one Who, being nailed to it, united all creation into one and filled all things with His power, even senseless and inanimate nature. Beholding the Grace that is present in the Cross of the Lord, we are overcome with joy and can express ourselves in no other way but by addressing the Cross itself as our friend and protector.
Even so the Holy King David, when his eyes were opened by divine grace and he beheld all things filled with the glory of God, cried out, “Praise Him O sun and moon, praise him all ye stars and light.” And the three Holy Children in the furnace, when they saw how the flames obeyed their Creator, included all creation in their song of praise, saying, “Bless the Lord, O earth, mountains and hills and all things that spring up therein: praise ye the Lord and supremely exalt Him unto the ages.” Although the hills and trees are not rational as we are, yet all things are alive with the grace of the Comforter, Who is everywhere present and fills all things, so that even if no rational being had the sense to praise his Maker, then, “the stones themselves would cry out,” as the Lord Himself has said. If it be so that stones, hills and mountains are seen by the Saints as being alive through their participation in the will of God, then even more so can the same be said of the Cross, that blessed Tree through which the communion of the Creator and the creature was restored after being lost through man’s transgression.
In the Garden of Eden, all things were filled with divine life. The grace of God coursed through creation like blood through veins. It enlivened all things like the sap in a tree, making all things ever new and glorious by the will, power and presence of God. Adam saw and knew this grace. He rejoiced in the glorious song of creation, which he clearly understood through the grace which filled his own nature.
But when Adam, through disobedience fell away from this grace, he became like a vessel full of holes. He could no longer contain the power of God within his nature, and he could not hear the song of praise sung by all creation to its Maker. As he had placed himself at enmity with God, so creation was at enmity with Adam, and thorns and thistles came forth from the earth.
The Tree of Life, which would have made Adam and Eve live forever, was hidden from them lest, as St. Gregory the Theologian says, “the sickness [of sin] should become immortal in them.” For God did not want man’s fall to be permanent like that of the devil and his angels. He did not wish for man to continue forever in this corrupted and miserable state. Not for revenge did God hide the Tree of Life behind the flaming sword, nor out of spite at man’s disobedience. Rather, as we sing in the canon of the Exaltation of the Cross, “For the preservation of that which is most precious, the Tree of Life was kept under guard.” And what is “that which is most precious” if not the perfection of man in the image of God?
So what did the Lord do? Having hidden the Tree of Life from Adam and his descendants, the Lord planted another Tree, the second Tree of Life. This Tree is the Tree of the Cross, which we celebrate today. The fruit which grows on this Tree is the Lord Himself, even His Body and Blood, whereof if a man eat, he shall never die. By this Tree man’s nature is healed of all its sinful disobedience and the effects of our rejection of God’s grace are completely removed, so that we may live forever—not in a corrupted state, but rather as God intends us to live: as vessels of His divinity.
And so a new Tree of Life, planted by the Lord, blossomed from the earth. Is the deifying Fruit now hidden from our eyes? Not at all. Those who make a map or draw a diagram use an “X” to show a certain point, that by the intersection of the two lines a precise location may be unmistakably indicated. In the same way, the Lord of all, when He willed to lead all men back to Paradise and give them the Fruit of Eternal Life, set up the Cross in the midst of the earth and said, “Here I will meet you.” To all mankind he showed the precious location of our salvation, saying,
Here, on the Cross, I will meet you.
Here, in suffering, I will meet you.
Here, in pain, I will meet you.
Here, in separation from the earth, I will meet you.
Here, in the loss of all worldly glory, I will meet you.
Here, in complete self-sacrifice, I will meet you.
Here, in the rejection of your own will, I will meet you.
Here, in perfect obedience, I will meet you.
Here, in the restraint of your members, I will meet you.
Here, when you are mocked and derided by all, I will meet you.
Here, when you are slandered by all, I will meet you.
Here, when in the eyes of the world you have utterly failed, I will meet you.
Here, in the affliction of your mortal body, I will meet you.
Here in the abandonment which has come to you because of sin, I will meet you, and even in the depths of Hades, I will meet you.
In death itself, I will meet you, and have met you, and will never for all eternity be parte from you who believe in Me crucified and risen from the dead.
And truly in all these things, in our very fall, He has met us and has united Himself inseparably to us who believe in Him. By our sin, we built a wall between God and man, between the creature and the Creator. We separated the eternal from the temporal, making them opposed to one another. But Christ, having nailed our sins to the Cross, brought all things together once more. He fastened our fallen nature to His divine nature, re-uniting the whole creature with its Creator, so that again we may perceive the grace that is hidden in all things. We may know the presence of our God. We may have Him living and abiding in us, for He has taken our nature to Himself completely, destroying the corruption and sickness thereof by His own death on the Cross.
Had He not suffered the cross and death, then, as says St. Gregory of Nyssa, “His proposed design would have remained only half-fulfilled, from His not having touched that second condition of our nature.” But He indeed has entered into that condition, into death, and has filled it with Himself, destroying its power over us. Before the Cross, our life had become filled with death. But the Lord, by His Cross, has filled our very death with His divine life. This life is the fruit of this Tree of the Cross, which is hidden in every suffering that is endured with faith and hope in God.
If we are to partake of this life, then we must ascend the Holy Tree. We must ascend and eat of its fruit. If in the forest we find a tree with beautiful fruit, we do not stand idly at the foot of the tree, but we climb the tree to get the fruit, especially if we are suffering from mortal hunger. Even so, we must ascend the Cross of the Lord if we are to be united to Him forever. If we are afraid of the suffering of the Cross, this only means that we do not have the taste for its fruit, for the grace of Christ sweetens all the sufferings of this life.
Therefore, let us never fear to bear the Lord’s Cross. Let us ascend with joy, striving for all the virtues, accepting all that comes upon us by God’s allowance, knowing that through patience in sufferings we are united with Him who united Himself inseparably with us on the Tree. Thus shall we partake of the true Fruit of the Tree of Life, whose blessing can never be taken away from us by any power in heaven or on earth or below the earth. For Christ has conquered all, has suffered all, has fulfilled all, has united all things in Himself by the power of His grace, through His almighty and life-giving death. To Him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, honor, and dominion, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.
Let us come to ourselves like the prodigal; let us, like him, speak firm words of resolve to our own souls: “I will arise and go to my Father”; and the Gracious God will perfect our small intention.
He knows that we do not know the way to Him, or the manner in which to traverse it; but, hearing us say: “Ready is my heart, O God, ready is my heart”, and seeing us begin our journey towards Him, He will then rush out to us, falling on us, and kissing our neck: He will send His All-Accomplishing Holy Spirit upon us, and guide us into all truth, not only in our understanding, but in all our deeds, all our life.
Yesterday, Christ was born; today, He is baptized. Yesterday, God immersed Himself in our flesh; today, our flesh is immersed in the Most Holy Trinity. Yesterday, the Timeless Son of the Virgin-Father was begotten in time of the Virgin-Mother; today He gives birth to us as sons of God forever.