From a sermon delivered on the Sunday of the Holy Cross, March 11, 2007.
This third Sunday of Lent is the day we venerate the Holy Cross. Why do we do this? What do we mean when speak of the cross? Sure, we know that Jesus was crucified on the cross, but is there more that we don't understand? To answer these questions we have to go back to the book of Genesis, particularly the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
God loves us. We see this when God created Adam and Eve (who in the scriptural text represent all mankind) in His image and likeness. God gave Adam and Eve the "breath of life." He gave them dominion over all created things (Gen.1:26); He blessed them and commanded them to procreate (Gen. 1:28); and He gave them food (Gen. 1:29). All the things necessary and sufficient for life were included.
Most important was that God gave Himself. Eden was considered paradise because Adam and Eve existed in harmony with God drawing freely from the life that flowed from Him. There was no death, sorrow, disease, or suffering because the communion with God was complete. Love, however, presumes a radical freedom. Love cannot be coerced. Just as God is free to love His creation, so were Adam and Eve free to love God in return.
This was the purpose of the tree in the Garden. God said that Adam and Eve could eat anything in the Garden except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they ate of this tree, they would die (Gen. 2:15-17). God does not want mankind to die.
The devil in the form of a serpent tempts the woman to eat of the tree by lying to her saying, "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:4-5).
It was a subtle lie, and like most lies it contained a shred of truth. The Church Fathers taught that the disobedience of Adam and Eve did indeed open their eyes to good and evil, but made them captive to the evil as well. Had they obeyed God, they may have grown in their knowledge and understanding to perceive the same things without falling from the grace of God.
The disobedience had many consequences, the most evident being physical death (in theological terms: the separation of the soul from the body). "You are dust and to the dust you shall return" God tells Adam and Eve (Gen.3:19). They were expelled from the Garden and an angel brandishing a flaming sword was set to guard the gate and guard the Tree of Life (Gen.3:24).
What does all this have to do with the Crucifixion Cross of Christ?
God wanted Adam and Eve to become like Him. They were to share in the life that has its source in Him. That's why He created them in His image and likeness. But the life He offered could only be experienced in obedience to Him as a free response to His love. God's love, in other words, always presumes a radical freedom in the object of His love because without freedom, it is impossible for love to be returned. Note how no prohibition existed against eating from the Tree of Life, but only against the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Tree of Life is immortality or eternal life. "Then the Lord God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" (Gen.3:22). Note the gravity of this passage. If death had not entered the world, if the separation of the soul from the body was not delivered as a just consequence of their disobedience, then Adam and Eve would be condemned to eternal corruption - a living death so to speak. Death, as painful and grievous as it is, also makes it possible to shed corruption and return to the primordial state -- not by recreating Eden, but by the transformation of death into an exodus into the Kingdom of God.
That is why Christ entered death. He came to restore the fallen creation by opening the gate to the Kingdom. Because Christ was sinless, the penalty of sin (which is death) was not upon Him. Therefore, His crucifixion on the Cross was a completely self-less and sacrificial act. Further, because Christ was sinless, He could also be raised from the dead. As we know, the Holy Spirit raised Christ from dead after three days.
Note two verses of the Katavasias (hymns) sung during the Orthros service this morning:
The fiery sword no longer guards the gate of Eden, for in a strange and glorious way the wood of the Cross has quenched its flames. The sting of death and the victory of hell are now destroyed, for You have come, my Savior, crying unto those in hell: "Return again to Paradise" (Gen. 3:24; 1Cor. 15:55; 1Peter 3:19)
Pilate set up three crosses in the place of the Skull, two for the thieves and one for the Giver of Life. Seeing Him, hell cried to those below: 'O my ministers and powers! Who is this that has fixed a nail in my heart? A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly, and I am torn apart. Inwardly I suffer; anguish has seized my belly and my senses. My spirit trembles, and I am constrained to cast out Adam and his posterity. A tree brought them to my realm, but now the Tree of the Cross brings them back again to Paradise.
In Christ, who the Apostle Paul calls the "Second Adam" we see the love of God manifested to the same degree we saw in Eden, although now God's love is directed towards the reconciliation of His fallen creation with Himself. In this way, the Cross becomes the Tree of Life, the source through which God's light and life is encountered and experienced in the fallen world. This is one reason why we venerate the Holy Cross. Amen.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.