“The Cross: Our Ladder to Heaven and Source of Peace”
Sermon for An Ecumenical Service of Salutations to the Holy Cross
with Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church, Belmont
March 10, 2022
It is always a happy occasion for our two communities to gather together every year to celebrate these Salutations to the Holy Cross, and we are happy to do so once again this year. However, we must admit that our gathering this year is tinged with a certain somber tone and sense of urgency, as we are following with horror of the war being waged on our brother and sister Christians in Ukraine.
Perhaps, on the other hand, there could be no more appropriate occasion for us to exalt the Holy Cross, for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine are certainly bearing their cross at this time. And after the manner of the vision of the Emperor Constantine (whom we also honor tonight in our hymns) at the Milvian Bridge, when the Cross appeared to him in the sky announcing to him that he would win with this sign, a luminous cross appeared above the Golden-Domed Monastery of St. Michael in Kiev last week on Wednesday and Friday (March 2nd and 4th). What a powerful reminder that it is the Cross that is our ladder to heaven, which pulls us out of the violence, chaos and sin of this world into the peace and order of God’s Kingdom.
Is that not what we sing tonight in our salutations to the Holy Cross as we make our pilgrimage through the discipline of Great Lent to the Feast of the Holy Pasch: “A LADDER as lofty as Heaven is the Cross of the Lord become, leading up all from earth to the height of heaven, that they might always dwell together with the choirs of Angels, abandoning things present as though they were not”? This chant harkens back to the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch who described the Cross as a sort of cosmic hoist that lifts us up to heaven: “O what truly divine wisdom is this! O Cross, thou hoist up to heaven! The Cross was driven into the ground – and behold, idol worship was destroyed. No ordinary wood is this, but the wood that God used for victory”.
Truly there is no other way to heaven. We must pass through the Cross, there is no other way. Is this not the lesson of Lent? We fast, we intensify our prayer, we confess our sins to receive God’s absolution in the sacrament, we give alms to the poor and carry out other works of charity, as we keep our vision focused on the goal of this holy season: the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ from the dead, our pledge of eternal life with him. We must bear this in mind as the news of the loss of life, destruction of property, and threat of obliterating a deep and thriving Christian civilization cannot but fill us with anguish. With our prayers and material generosity, let us keep the Ukrainian people uppermost in our intentions and come to their aid with spiritual and temporal assistance.
Ukraine indeed holds a unique and pivotal place in the Christian world, a land where East and West, Latin and Greek, Catholic and Orthodox come together and intermingle. And it was in Ukraine where Christianity spread to the wider Slavic world. As is well known, Saints Cyril and Methodius introduced Christianity to the Slavic people in their own language and devised the alphabet to write that language in the ninth century. Then, with the conversion of Grand Prince Vladimir to Byzantine Christianity and the Baptism of Rus’ in 988, when all of the citizens of Kiev were baptized into the faith, Byzantine Christianity was adopted as the religion of the land. From there it spread north and east to other Slavic lands, bringing those peoples into the greater Christian world as part of the Hellenic Christian heritage. As the great Orthodox theologian Fr. John Meyendorff said of that event: “For the Byzantines, the ‘baptism of the Russians’ signified their integration into the [Byzantine Roman] empire itself.’
That integration of the empire, begun by the Emperor Constantine after his victory at the Milvian Bridge 1,710 years ago, now seems to be falling apart, and violently so: not only the physical violence in the eastern part of what was once the Christian empire, but also the moral violence tearing society apart in the West. Why is this happening? It is happening because we have taken our eyes off of the Cross. The entire cosmos is marked with the cross, and instead of looking up to heaven we keep our sight focused on the worldly pursuits of pleasure, possessions and power in this life. This cosmic orientation of the cross explains the ancient Christian tradition of praying facing east, as explained by Pope Benedict XVI:
Facing east … was linked with the ‘sign of the Son of Man’, with the Cross, which announces the Lord’s Second Coming. That is why very early on the east was linked with the sign of the Cross. [T]he cross [in Christian worship] … should … be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community. In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: … Turn toward the Lord! In this way we look to gather at the One whose death tore the veil of the Temple – the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in his arms in order to make us the new and living Temple.
This is where the true Christian heart lies, in the new and living Temple of the Father’s heavenly Kingdom. Only keeping our eyes fixed on the Cross will we gain a foretaste of that life of heaven here on earth, the peace, order and holiness of God’s Kingdom.
“O what truly divine wisdom is this! O Cross, thou hoist up to heaven!” We have taken our eyes off of heaven, we have turned our backs on the Cross. There is no peace without looking at the Cross, taking up that cross, each one of us, and following after our Lord to Calvary. The Cross “was driven into the ground” in order to destroy idol worship. If we take our eyes off of the Cross, we will begin to worship idols. Enter disorder, violence and social breakdown into the world.
The Cross was driven into the ground. We must go down into the ground, be buried with Christ, if we wish to be lifted up to heaven and have God’s peace flourish in this world. This is the truly divine wisdom of the Cross, wisdom which we can learn from our ascetical ancestors in the early centuries of the Church, the Desert Fathers. The story is told that
Abba Moses said to Abba Macarius at Scetis, ‘I should like to live in quiet prayer and the brethren do not let me.’ Abba Macarius said to him, ‘I see that you are a sensitive man and incapable of sending a brother away. Well, if you want to live in peace, go to the interior desert, to Petra, and there you will be at peace.’ And so he found peace.
The “interior desert”: Abbot Moses may have retreated geographically into the deeper, further away desert of Petra, but it is the interior desert of the soul where we will find that space of quiet prayer. We must attend to the work of the interior desert, seeking the Lord in silence, solitude, stripping away all earthly distractions, in order to dispose ourselves to allowing Him to lead us to the greener pastures where He wishes to take us.
This is for us the lesson of Great Lent: to refocus our vision on the Cross by our acts of self-denial, so that we might begin to get a foretaste of heaven by living more faithfully and excellently the vocation God has given to each one of us, in the little and big circumstances of life.
We have been reminded once again that world peace is always a very delicate and shaky prospect. But Great Lent reminds us that that peace begins in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our parishes, in the quiet of our own souls. What we sing of the Cross, then, we can sing of this holy Lenten season: we appropriate the Cross to ourselves, freely and lovingly embrace it, so that we “might always dwell together with the choirs of Angels, abandoning things present as though they were not”.
What we sing about the meaning of the Holy Cross, so with the meaning of Great Lent in our lives and in our world: “weapon of peace”; “wisdom and firm support of the saved”; “folly and destruction of the damned”; enlightenment of hearts; “alliance of the kingdom against the enemy”; “abundant wealth of goods”; “height of the wisdom of God.”
May Great Lent teach us to live by the wisdom of God: folly to the world, but also its salvation, its peace, and its ladder to heaven, the true longing of every human heart.
 Quoted in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy John Saward (trans) (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000) p. 183.
 The Spirit of the Liturgy, pp. 83-84.
Photo by Dennis Callahan, Archdiocese of San Francisco.