The Enigma of The Cross

Structures, however massive they may be, collapse if the foundation is not strong enough; so does theology when the hypothesis itself is erroneous. Christian theology is bound to fall if the Cross of Christ does not form its hypothesis for the Cross is the centripetal force that sustains the entire creation. Any attempt to sever from it would result in discordance and chaos. Fr. John Behr writes; “Christian cosmology, elaborated as it must be from the perspective of the Cross, sees the Cross as impregnated in the very structure of creation: stat crux dum volvitur orbis—the Cross stands, while the earth revolves.”[1]

Christ himself states the indispensability of the Cross. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (John 3:14). Cross is how the coronation of Christ looks from the earthly realm. The suffering of Christ on the Cross was the inevitable economy of God which was mysteriously foreshadowed by many events. As Melito beautifully puts it;

“This is the Pascha of our salvation: This is the one who in many people endured many things. This is the one who was murdered in Abel, tied up in Isaac, exiled in Jacob, sold in Joseph, exposed in Moses, slaughtered in the lamb, hunted down in David, dishonoured in the prophets. This is the one made flesh in a virgin, who was hanged on a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was raised from the dead, who was exalted to the heights of heaven.”(On Pascha 69, 70.).

At the same time Cross also demonstrates the radical mercy of God towards us. According to the Gospel of Luke, the first words uttered by Christ on the cross is of forgiveness; “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). Archbishop Fulton Sheen elaborates on this;

“At the very moment when a tree turns against Him and becomes a cross, when iron turns against Him and becomes nails, when roses turn against Him and become thorns, when men turn against Him and become executioners, He lets fall from His lips for the first time in the history of the world a prayer for enemies: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’”[2]

Cross is not to be understood as “an episode in the biography of the Word”[3] through which God solves the messiness into which the world has fallen, on the contrary, cross is the reason for which the world was brought into existence. St. Irenaeus writes; “Since he who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain.” (Against the Heresies III.22.3).  Fr. John Behr elucidates it further;

“We are also far removed from any attempt to think of creation and salvation as being respectively, in rather crude terms, ‘Plan A’, followed by the ‘Fall’, which is then rectified by ‘Plan B’. Starting with Christ, Irenaeus would rather see creation and salvation, with carefully defined nuances considered below, as being not two moments within one economy, but rather as coextensive, as the one economy: God’s continuously creative work throughout the economy, resulting in the end in the one who is in the image and likeness of God, is salvation. And, as such, Irenaeus can even say that it was necessary for Adam to come into existence, not implying any lack or need in God himself, but simply as a consequence of the fact that the starting point for all theology is Jesus Christ, the Saviour.”[4]

Cross is the apocalypse of Jesus Christ as the Word of God. That is precisely why St. Athanasius writing On the Incarnation never bothers to mention the infancy narratives of Jesus Christ for “he who ascended the cross is the Word of God and the Saviour of the universe.” Incarnation is brought to fruition on the cross; prior to that no one – not even the disciples – understood Jesus of Nazareth as the Word of God. As Fr. Behr remarks; “Only through the passion is the identity of Christ finally revealed: this is the defining, and definitive “once for all”- event.[5]  

One of the mistakes modern theology makes is that it considers the Old Testament and New Testament as two independent and distinct narratives – as was done by Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia – which then leads to the separation of the Word of God and the historical Jesus consequently resulting in a “dyprosopic Christology” reprimanding the fact that Christology and exegesis are fundamentally intertwined. [6] The first Eqbo of the Syriac Orthodox Saturday Night Vigil beautifully overturns this “dyprosopic Christology”. We sing; “There were not two beings brought forth from the Father and Mary; there was only one, brought from them both; in spirit from the Father and in flesh from the virgin.”

Rather than emphasising how the scriptures speak of Christ, modern theology emphasizes its historicity, the pursuit of which leaves its adherents in the lurch. Historical Jesus scholars use the economy of Christ to undermine his divinity when it is, in fact, only through the economy of Christ, is his divinity revealed. As Fr. John Behr, paraphrasing St. Gregory of Nyssa’s argument against the Eunomians, says; “Through the Passion, Christ, as human, becomes that which, as God, he always is.”[7] Cross is where Christ emptied himself but in the very act of emptying lies his exaltation. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware expounds;

“The victory on the cross is a victory not of a superior force, not of military might, but of suffering love. Christ’s victory is a kenotic victory, victory of self-emptying, a victory won through weakness and vulnerability. In a moving phrase, St. Ephraim the Syrian calls Christ “the mighty one who put on vulnerability.” So Christ’s victory is won precisely through the refusal to use force and violence. As Gregory of Nyssa says, “His descent to our lowliness is the supreme expression of his power. God is never so strong as when he is most weak.” Humble compassionate love is the strongest thing in the universe. As Karl Barth says, “The God of Christianity is great enough to be humble.”[8]

The crucified and risen one has always been the content of the prophets. “It is because Christ died on the cross that the prophets spoke about this, not because they spoke about it that he then died, and in fact, when they spoke about it, they did so…as a past event, and, given that its happening is the ‘cause’ of the prophecy, Christ himself speaks of it as an eternal necessity.”[9] We tend to move from womb to tomb when the movement actually should be from tomb to womb.   

“This connection between the tomb and womb seems to have been behind the calculation for the date of the celebration of the Nativity of Christ. The Nativity of Christ only began to be celebrated in the East in the late fourth century, and thereafter it is explained in terms of solar symbolism, as a replacement of the pagan feast of the birth of the invincible sun. Before any such considerations arose, however, the feast was celebrated in the West, where the date of 25 December was based on the date of Passion, for this was reckoned to have occurred, nine months earlier, on 25 March (the Roman equivalent on the Julian calendar of the 14 Nissan on the Jewish calender). So in the liturgical calendar, the Passion of Christ was followed, nine months later, by the birth of Christ. Only subsequently was this date, counting now backwards from the Nativity, reckoned to be the date of Christ’s conception.”[10] 

Church itself was brought into being at the foot of the cross. Mary the Theotokos who stands at the foot of the cross is the personified image of the Church. Alexander Earl beautifully puts it;

“When Christ’s side was pierced with the spear, water and blood flowed from his side. In that moment the Church was born; no, that moment was the perfect image of eternity, when the One, pure overflow, generated Intellect: the fullness of meaning. For the Church, the body of Christ, receives all that is God’s through an outpouring of grace. She is perfect intelligibility, contemplating that which transcends all thought. It is no wonder that the Pure Virgin is at the Lord’s side when this mystery occurs. For she is, in her person, His Body. She alone says, “let it be unto me according to thy word.” By “according to thy word,” she doubtless means the Father’s Word, which when spoken entered into the inexpressible economy of salvation. She is His Body as His Temple, for from her He adopts the Flesh he deifies on the cross, and so raises the cosmos to intelligibility. She is present at the cross because her flesh, as with us all, finds deification there. At the cross she becomes Queen of Heaven, in noetic contemplation of the dark cloud upon the mountain she is created wisdom beholding Wisdom.”[11]

Any amount of explanations concerning the cross is inexhaustible for it is the greatest enigma of Christian theology. A proper knowledge of the cross can be gained only by participating in it. Thus St. Isaac of Syria states; “The knowledge of the cross is concealed in the sufferings of the cross. And the more our participation in its sufferings, the greater the perception we gain through the cross.”[12]

In Christ

Dayroyo Fr. Basil

[1] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, New York: SVS Press, 2006), 90.

[2] Fulton Sheen, The Cries of Jesus from the Cross: A Fulton Sheen Athology (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2018), 15.

[3] Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London: Darton, Longmann and Todd, 1987), 244.

[4] John Behr, Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 147.

[5] John Behr, “The Apocalypse of the Cross” in Studies in Orthodox Hermeneutics: A Festschrift  in Honor of Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, in Eugen Pentiuc, John Fotopoulos, and Bruce Beck eds. (Brookline MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2016), 313–47 at 323.

[6] John Behr, “The Apocalypse of the Cross”, 332.

[7] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 27.

[8] Kallistos Ware, “Salvation in the Orthodox Church” Posted on 06/21/19.

[9] John Behr, Origen: On First Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019),Ixxxi.

[10] John Behr, The Mystery of Christ, 135.

[11] Alexander Earl, “Theological Poetry in Prose: Metaphysics of the Cross” Posted on 03/22/20.


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