Protestantism is all about the Cross.
In my Protestant world, everyone seems to focus on the Cross all the time.
It is all about the Cross, especially in the Evangelical segments.
So we feel good biblical support for bringing every sermon, and a whole lot of our hymns and praise songs, back to the cross. We hear Paul say he aimed to preach nothing but Christ and him crucified, and that clenches the deal.
So year after year at seminary convocations and commencements, we sing “Lift High the Cross.”
And at commitment services, as people fain would take their stand, we sing “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.”
We can be a bit myopic on this: My wife visited Oxford over Easter one year and relished the chance to visit both Anglican High Church (Anglo-Catholic) and Anglican Low Church (Evangelical) services. Neither church, she found, preached about the resurrection. They preached about (you guessed it) the Cross.
As she likes to joke, for Protestants Good Friday is “The Cross — Sad” and Easter tends to be “The Cross — Happy.”
Friends, on Easter Sunday the cross is two days into the past. The big deal of Easter is that Jesus is actually ALIVE. And that is something we Protestants have a hard time explaining.
Orthodoxy is all about the Cross too.
In Orthodoxy there is no shortage of talk about the cross either.
The Cross is there in every service too, in icons and in hymns and in readings.
- You see Jesus on the Cross in icons, his body bent with pain of death but still clearly the Lord of Life.
- You hear the Cross mentioned in hymns and texts and prayers.
- And the Cross takes its prominent place in Holy Week where participants hear and see the biblical drama unfold.
- Plus the Cross gets its own special feast day.
Whether in regular week by week worship, or on a major feast, how different the emphasis is between the two traditions.
The difference is both in content and in tone.
The Daily Difference.
In the day to day mentions of the Cross there is a key, if subtle, distinction of between Protestant and Orthodox.
For the Protestant, the typical reference is
Christ died for you on the Cross.
The emphasis is on substitution.
We have absorbed, in the West, the drama of the divine courtroom:
- We are guilty.
- A just God says somebody must pay the price.
- The Father sends his Son to be our substitute, an innocent human being suffering instead of us guilty ones.
This, in recent decades, has prompted some theologians and commentators to suggest our view of salvation smacks of divine child abuse. How could God do such a thing?
For the Orthodox the typical reference is instead
Christ who willingly chose the Cross
or something to that effect. The emphasis is on Christ’s generous self-giving, his freely chosen sacrifice. The idea of the Father imposing it on the Son doesn’t enter the picture.
(By the way, I didn’t believe this when I found the observation in a book by Frederica Mathews-Green, but after a lot more exposure to the prayers and hymnody of Orthodoxy, I’m convinced.)
The Feast Day Difference.
But there is also an extra day each year to celebrate the Cross. Today, August 14, happens to be that day.
This morning I attended Orthos (or Matins or Morning Prayer) and Divine Liturgy at an Antiochian Orthodox Church to check it out.
The liturgies of the feast of “The Elevation of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross” give a more thorough exposition of the theme. In the process other kinds of differences emerges.
- Protestant theology tends toward argument and explanation.
- Orthodox theology often tends toward poetry and making meaningful connections.
Both traditions are richly biblical. They just approach the Bible very differently.
The Protestant wants to articulate the human stance before God’s justice, and explain how Jesus solves our problem, using the Gospel narratives of the Cross and Paul’s expositions of the point.
The Orthodox also know from Paul and the Gospels how important the Cross is. But they look to the poetry and images of the whole Bible to fill our hearts and minds with an understanding of salvation.
They look for echoes of salvation through the Cross all the way back through the Old Testament.
- As the first Adam fell into sin and death through a tree, so Jesus, the New Adam defeats death itself and solves the problem of sin through a tree.
- Moses, at the first big act of the salvation drama, struck the Red Sea with his staff to part it for the Israelites to pass through. Then Moses turned his staff perpendicular and struck it again so the waters drowned their enemies — Moses made a cross to save Israel.
They find other Cross images. They play with the stories. They use their poetic imagination, and the intertextual connections throughout the Bible, to build up a rich web of meaning.
The meaning is that the Cross brings salvation. And the Cross has always brought salvation. And this has always pointed to Jesus.
The Elevation of the Life-Giving Cross of Christ
So why August 14? That’s another story:
That was the day Emperor Constantine’s mom, St. Helena, found the True Cross. It had lain buried under a pagan temple.
Actually she found three crosses, so she had to do an experiment: Which one belonged to Jesus, and which ones were those of the thieves.
Solution: Only one of them was able to raise a dead man.
There is poetry and storytelling, literary and artistic meaning, unutterable beauty and a rich source of life in all of this.
If you are looking for an argument to convince your rationalistic mind you probably won’t fine one.
But you might find yourself drawn by something else…
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