We are approaching the Feast Day of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross—to give the Feast its full title – this coming Sunday, September 14. This is the day that we liturgically commemorate and venerate the Cross that will be placed in the middle of the church toward the end of Great Vespers on Saturday evening. The Feast will then have a full “octave” for its celebration – thus making it an eight-day Feast which serves to stress the importance of the Cross in the life of the Church and in our personal lives. To further turn our attention toward the Cross, we recall the Third Sunday of Great Lent—the Adoration of the Cross—and the less well-observed Feast of the Procession of the Cross on August 1. And, importantly, every Wednesday and Friday is a day of commemorating the Cross, one of the reasons that we fast on those two days on a weekly basis.
Prominent as the Cross may be for Christians, it is the Apostle Paul who very succinctly and profoundly captured the unbelieving world’s attitude toward the Cross in his well-known text: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” [1 Corinthians 1:23-24]. This leads the Apostle to one of his most astonishing and paradoxical insights: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” [1 Corinthians 1:26].
The “scandal” for the unbelieving Jew would be the claim that the Messiah was crucified. The “folly” for the Greek/Gentile would be the claim that the divine would even enter the realm of flesh and blood and “become” human, let alone suffer death on a cross. Yet God, in and through Christ, transformed what is shameful, weak, lowly and despised—a crucified man—into “our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” [1 Corinthians 1:30]. The entire passage of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 deserves careful, close and constant study. It remains fascinating, and highly instructive, that even non-Christians who profess to have a great respect for Jesus Christ, struggle terribly with the scandal of the Cross. This is clearly the case with Islam. Jesus is treated with great respect in many passages in the Qur’an, even to the point of acknowledging His virginal conception in a passage that clearly resembles the Annunciation account in the Gospel According to Saint Luke [Qur’an, 3:45-47]! However, the crucifixion is treated in a way that bears no resemblance to the Gospel accounts: “Yet they did not slay him, neither crucify him, only a likeness of that was shown to them” [4:156-159]. The Muslims believe that someone else—a figure unidentified by the Qur’an—was crucified in the place of Christ, but not Jesus Himself. The Muslim scholar Dr. Maneh Al-Johani wrote, “The Qur’an does not elaborate on this point, nor does it give any answer to this question.” Clearly, the “scandal” of the Cross is too much for Muslim sensibilities, since Jesus is for them a great prophet sent by God. Muslims further believe that Jesus was raised to Heaven, yet before He died—clearly an odd teaching that again is meant to completely distance Jesus from His crucifixion. If there is anything that is agreed upon today among New Testament scholars—believers and sceptics alike—it is that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by crucifixion by orders of Pontius Pilate in the early 30s of the Christian era. This lends a certain fantastic quality to these claims of the Qur’an.
There is a close resemblance here with an early Christian heresy known as docetism—from the Greek word meaning “to appear.” In other words, it only “appeared” that Christ was actually crucified and died on the Cross. Saint Ignatius of Antioch (+c. 110) vehemently rejected this heresy in its initial inception early in the second century: “Be deaf, then, when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, Who was of the family of David, Who was of Mary, Who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died ... He was also truly raised from the dead, when His Father raised Him up….” [Epistle to the Trallians, 9].
Saint Ignatius very poignantly asks, what is the purpose of suffering martyrdom for the Lord (as he did in the Roman arena) if the sufferings of Christ were an illusion? Should a Christian suffer in the flesh if his Lord did not? As he writes, “But if, as some godless men—that is, unbelievers—say His suffering was only apparent (they are the apparent ones), why am I in bonds, why do I pray to fight wild beasts? Then I die in vain. Then I lie about the Lord” [To the Trallians, 10].
We do not “worship” the Cross. We worship the One Who was crucified upon the Cross for our salvation. Indeed, with the Apostle Paul we call Him the “Lord of glory” [1 Corinthians 2:8]. Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet in a chain of prophets sent by God. He is the fulfilment of the prophetic testimony to His coming, as He is the fulfilment of the Law [Matthew 5:17]. There are no prophets to follow Him with any further additions to the Christian revelation. We believe, as we chant in the Second Antiphon of the Liturgy, that He is the “Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God ... Who without change didst become man and was crucified.” The Cross remains “an unconquerable token of victory” and “an invincible shield.” In fact, it is for this reason that in our practice, we “kiss with joy the Wood of salvation, on which was stretched Christ the Redeemer” [Small Vespers].
Christianity does not exist because of what it holds in common with other great world religions, but because of what is unique and distinctive about it, primarily the Incarnation, redemptive Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is because of our love for Christ that beginning on the personal level, we must promote and practice mutual respect, tolerance and peaceful co-existence with sincerely believing people of other religions. I see no other way for those who claim to follow the crucified Lord of glory. However, this should in no way undermine our sense of Christian distinctiveness—“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [Acts 4:12]—but actually demonstrate our loyalty to Christ Who never compels but invites, with outstretched arms upon the Cross.