On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suff’ring and shame,
And I love that old cross where the Dearest and Best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross . . .
Our voices harmonized as we sang the hymn, one of my favorites. However, an elderly man in our group was clearly frustrated. As soon as we were done, he scolded us. “You give too much glory to the cross! You keep on singing about it as if it were your savior. You seem almost to worship it. The cross itself means nothing. It is just a piece of wood!”
Why was our elderly brother in Christ so upset? It was somewhat hard to understand his outburst since the cross is a deep part of Greek identity, for to be Greek is to be Orthodox. To be Orthodox is to accept that the triune God sought to reconcile humanity to Himself and accomplished that by paying the penalty of sin through the death of Man-God Jesus Christ on the cross. To show that you are an Orthodox Christian who reveres the sacrifice of Christ, you display crosses, wear a cross at all times, and cross yourself whenever you pass a cross.
So what do Greek Orthodox people believe about the cross that made our elderly brother consider our hymn almost blasphemous? For them, the cross first of all is the embodiment of the sacrifice of Jesus, the Only Begotten Son of God. Therefore, it is holy as God is holy. As the symbol of the holiness of God, it is believed to have highly protective and sanctifying properties. For example, it is believed that even the shadow of the cross makes demons flee. Crossing yourself is the way to have a demon-free life.
Many priests warn that if you cross yourself hurriedly you will profane the holy sign. “Listen, brethren, to what the cross means,” a priest might say. “The Holy Gospel tells us that our Triune God is glorified in heavens above anyone. We worship God through crossing ourselves. Put the three fingers of your right hand together and place your hand to your forehead, because the head is dome-shaped, like the heavens. While doing so, we say, ‘Even as you angels worship the holy Trinity in the heavens, so do I, unworthy slave, glorify and worship the Holy Trinity in heavens. Even as my fingers are three, separate and yet together, so is the Holy Trinity, three persons yet one God.’
“Lower your hand to your stomach and say, ‘I bow down before You and worship You, my Lord, because You came down and were embodied in the belly of the Godbearer for my sins.’
“Raise the three fingers toward your right shoulder and say, ‘I beseech You, God, to forgive me and place me on Your right side together with the righteous ones.’
Continue toward your left shoulder and say, ‘Lord, do not place me on the left with the sinners.’
“Then, looking down to earth, say, ‘I glorify You, my God. I worship and bow down before You. Even as You entered into the grave and were raised from the dead, so will I be also.’
“As you lift your head and thus declare the resurrection, you should say, ‘I praise You, God, I bow down before You and worship You because You rose from the dead in order to give us life eternal.’”
A Greek Orthodox Christian is taught never to be ashamed of the cross of Christ. He should wear his baptismal cross necklace proudly, displaying it clearly so the demons will flee. He should cross himself often and on any occasion. Thus, for the Greek Orthodox, the cross becomes the greatest phylactery.
Wow! The words of our elderly Adventist brother make a lot of sense in the Greek cultural context. While the cross is certainly a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice that frees us from demonic oppression, it is not a magic wand. Wearing crosses and crossing ourselves will not bring us into communion with God or grant us entrance into His kingdom.
Please continue praying that the people we serve would discover the true meaning of being a Christian, the true meaning of not being ashamed of the cross, and the joy and security of belonging to Christ.