The Cross: Central Theme of Our Christian Religion
by Very Rev. Fr. Michael Baroudy
From the very dawn of history, when man was created thousands of years ago, we note man’s restlessness in trying to solve the mystery of life and the supreme purpose of living. Accordingly, the search went on throughout all the stages of history, and that probably accounts for the great progress and the scientific discoveries man has achieved. But with all the great and stupendous achievements of men, the search for more knowledge goes on day and night. There is no satisfaction insofar as man’s restless spirit is concerned. We feel that there are still great regions to be explored, fields unclaimed, resources untapped. We are surrounded by mysteries and question marks. We are ever asking questions because the desire to know more is unquenchable. There isn’t any harm in asking questions, in trying to explore life’s great possibilities, for each of us wishes to better himself, to fulfill his destiny and the purpose of which he is created. Not only is there no harm in searching out for more knowledge, but to do so is commendable and praiseworthy.
The 14th of September is designated by the Church as the day upon which the Elevation of the Cross should be observed. Since the cross of Christ is the central theme of our holy religion, having important redeeming implications, we want to confront the reader with questions having to do with Jesus’ atonement in His death for humanity. The first question is, “Was it necessary for Jesus to die for us?” Well, it was urgently necessary because of God’s love for humanity to redeem us from the ravishes, the guilt and degradation of sin. It was, as Paul has it,. that “God wills that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” Sin, yours and mine, and the rest of people have made it necessary for Him to come to our rescue, to cleanse us from the stains of sin, to present us to God as redeemed sons and daughters.
That this is the central message of Christianity and the sum of the Apostles’ teachings is discoverable by the casual reader of the New Testament. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” said the Apostle Paul. St. John affirms, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The theme of the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation is. “Christ died for our sins, rose again for our justification.” The whole concept of the Mass is to instill and to nourish us with the idea of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity. Sunday after Sunday, the priest celebrates Mass and uses the very words Jesus used on the night that He instituted the Lord’s Supper. “Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you for the remission of sins. Drink ye all of it, this is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.”
In the Book of Revelation, John tells of a vision he had in heaven about the book of life, sealed with seven seals. “Who is worthy to open the book?” an angel with a strong voice shouted. John says he wept when it appeared that no one in heaven or on earth could loose the seven seals. But he was told not to weep, that Christ could do it. Christ then opens the book, while a chorus of angels sings. “Thou art worthy to open the seals for thou wast slain.” It took pierced hands to break the seals and make known the glad tidings that sin and death need not spell defeat. Pierced hands, sacrificial self-giving it always takes this kind of power to lift man above sin and death.
What is the significance of Jesus’ death? The only answer, “He died that we might live, for God so loved the world!” The Christian theology is based upon this stupendous fact. There is a Negro Spiritual which asks a very searching question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” We all were there, everyone - for He died for humanity as a whole as He died for each person singly.
Let us ask ourselves the question, what does the cross mean to me? When it is mentioned, do we think only of the first Good Friday and the hill outside Jerusalem? Is it no more than a historical fact that happened nineteen centuries ago? Unless we see it as a principle of everyday life, a way of living, of voluntary self-giving, we miss its practical meaning for us. The cross is not laid on my shoulder by another, or by accident. It is not imposed from without, but voluntarily assumed from within. It is going the second mile, doing more than conditions require. That impossible person at your place of work, grimly endured, is not your cross, Only when you meet his insults with, “Father forgive him,” do you become a cross-bearer. The monotony of housekeeping is not your cross. You take it upon yourself only when you do your work gladly, as unto God and your family.
The Bible, containing the great ideals of Christianity, would be only another book unless we Christian people embody its teachings and interpret it by living lives which conform to the Divine will of God. It does not help any of us to boast of our heritage, the beauty of our services and their primacy. It does help us to search ourselves, and make an honest endeavor to live worthily, to ride above the temptations which we encounter on the highways and byways of life. Christ died unto sin once so that He might live unto God. Life is the opportunity God invested and entrusted us with in order to give Him the primacy, the first place in our hearts. The days, months and years are slipping by fast, bringing us nearer to the time of our departure, our flight from this world, when we take our leave of absence from this world and our spirits migrate to the place prepared for us by the Master. Therefore, we must face facts about the kind of conduct we are manifesting to the world. Our character and conduct result from either sound or phony faith. Professional or ceremonial belief in Christ could not stand the test. Sound living, victorious faith, and appreciation of the Master’s death in our behalf will enable us to live above the world, the flesh and the devil. The early Christians minced no words in telling us that, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Either a day of judgment or a day of joy will be awaiting us when we shall stand before the Judge of all the earth. It will be, according to Jesus, either a resurrection of life or a resurrection of damnation.
What should be our response to Jesus’ sacrificial love? Our response would be reflected in our attitude toward life, and toward all human beings as a whole. If our attitude toward people is one of honest sympathy, understanding and love, if we live sacrificially, giving of our time and means toward the elevation of humanity, living lives that have for their purpose putting God first, and the affairs of His Kingdom are given the pre-eminence, then it may be truthfully said that we know whom we have believed, we have a clear vision of the Man upon the cross.
The early Christians went through the Roman world telling people about a man who had been crucified and who rose from the dead. It was an arresting item of news. At first the listener would be shocked, but as the story unfolded and its meaning became clear, new hope and joy lighted up his face, for he found in this old story of the Galilean Peasant nailed to a cross a satisfying view of life. It turned a flood light on the mystery of human existence; it revealed the secret of living triumphantly over the things that get people down; it satisfied the age-old hunger for life beyond the grave.
The striking thing about this good news was that the road to life unending led by way of the cross. By giving your life you find life. By answering evil with good, hate with love, the world’s worst with your best, you rise with Christ from the dead! You and He were as One!