59. The Meaning of the Cross

The following is sung during the procession of the Holy Cross at our Orthodox Holy Thursday evening “Twelve Gospels” service.

Last Holy Friday (Blog post 9) I compared the Orthodox and Roman Catholic crucifixes. A picture is worth a thousand words, so probably I should now keep quiet. However, being a Blogger, I can’t help talking about it.

What Orthodox believe about Christ’s Crucifixion

The following magnificent passage is from the Anaphora (consecration of the Holy Gifts, the Bread and Wine) of the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great.

“And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages. He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with mankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us into the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ. He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry. He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things.”

Saint Basil’s Anaphora is the best short history of our salvation that I know. If it isn’t read aloud in your church (which would be a pity), please read it for yourself. Google it on the OCA or Greek Archdiocese websites.

In context of the entire Anaphora of Saint Basil, you’ll see that we understand the Cross of Christ in context of God’s creation, mankind’s fall from grace, and God’s acts of redemption from the beginning. In the passage above we see the purpose of Christ’s Crucifixion in light of Christ’s Incarnation, his saving teaching, his Resurrection, our resurrection and much more. The overarching theme here is of Christ’s victory over death. “Now the prince of this world shall be cast out.” (John 12:31)  In his book On the Incarnation” * Saint Athanasios the Great wrote, “The chief object of His coming  was to bring about the resurrection of the body.” (chapter 22)

  • In this short classic book, Saint Athanasios covers themes mentioned here and below in detail. It’s available from Amazon, with a preface by C.S. Lewis. Please read it.

I italicized a part of the Anaphora to point out what Saint Basil does not say. There is nothing here of the classic Western understanding of the atonement, that on the Cross Christ paid a legal price or a ransom to God the Father, that some sort of “reparations” or “satisfaction” had to be made to the Father before he could or would forgive us. That is not Scriptural. It is a Western medieval theory imposed upon the New Testament. We’ll come back to that a bit later.

Yes, Saint Basil says a ransom was paid – in accord with 3 New Testament passages: Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28, I Timothy 2:6. But to whom are ransoms paid? To the kidnapper, not to to the rightful owner! Saint Basil says Christ “gave himself as ransom to death“, to the enemy, not to our loving Father. Or we can understand that the ransom was paid to the Devil or to Hell. At Holy Saturday Vesperal Divine Liturgy, we hear that Christ who is deathless allowed himself to die and be taken ransom in order to deceive Satan and conquer death: “Today, hell cries out groaning: ‘My power has been trampled down. The Shepherd is crucified and Adam is raised. I have been deprived of those whom I ruled. Those whom I swallowed in my strength I have given up. He Who was crucified has emptied the tombs. The power of death has been vanquished.’ Glory to Your Cross, O Lord, and to your Resurrection!”.

The chief purpose of Christ’s Crucifixion was so he could go before us into death, to conquer death, and lead his people, past, present and future, through death, out of death, and into the Resurrection. From Saint Athanasios again: “Death had to precede resurrection, for there could be no resurrection without it.” (chapter 23)

Were Christ’s suffering and death necessary? Yes. That was how he showed his unbounded love for mankind. “Greater love has no man than to give up his life for his friends”. (John 15:13) I once heard a Protestant bishop from India say that he had seen so much suffering, so much horror, that without the Cross he thought he would not believe in the goodness of God.

Was the kind of death he died necessary? Yes. So he could fulfill Old Testament prophecy, voluntarily giving himself to be the new Paschal lamb and lead his people up from a slavery greater than that of the Hebrews in Egypt, to a new and better Promised Land.

Was Christ’s death a sacrifice? Yes, a sacrifice of loving obedience to his Father, and a sacrifice for us, out of his love. But his sacrificial death did not stand alone. As Saint Basil’s Liturgy indicates, Christ’s whole life on earth was sacrifice from beginning to end – as God taking on the vicissitudes of being human, living in his Mother’s womb, learning to be obedient to his parents, being tempted, walking the roads of Galilee with “no place to call his home”, dreading what was to come upon him, sweat running down his face in Gethsemane, and his horrible and glorious Crucifixion, the culmination of his sacrifice.

Did Christ “bear our sins”. Yes. As prophesiedSurely He has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows… He was wounded for our transgressions… He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) Mankind had fallen into sin which led to death, and he came to share our burden, take it on and rescue us.

Did Christ “pay the price” of our sins? Yes. Galatians 3:13-15 says “Christ paid the price to free us from the curse that the laws in Moses’ teachings bring by becoming cursed instead of us… Christ paid the price so that the blessing promised to Abraham would come to all the people of the world through Jesus Christ”. Christ “paid the price” not in a legal sense but in the figurative sense that he took on suffering because of our sins, as a result of our sins. He took on the curse of death so that we would no longer be held captive to death.

The “Satisfaction” Theory of the Cross

What we Orthodox do not believe is that on the Cross, Christ paid some kind of legal reparations or satisfaction to the Father. As I’ve written before, since the time of Saint Anselm, the Western understanding of salvation, and Western devotion as well, have been focused almost entirely on the Cross. (“Stations of the Cross”, “On a hill far away stood the old rugged Cross”, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion which virtually omitted the Resurrection.) In this context even John 3:16 is misunderstood to refer exclusively to the death of Jesus.

Here is a contemporary Evangelical version of the Satisfaction theory. “There is some kind of Universal Law that God cannot violate, that a sinless one must die for the sinners. God had made a Law that a sinner must go to Hell and He cannot violate it or doesn’t want to. Hence, God sent His Son to pay the price in order to satisfy Himself.” * https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/32952/why-did-christ-have-to-pay-the-price

I’m afraid even C.S. Lewis bought into this in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I can hear this theory early Sunday mornings on Milwaukee’s Lutheran Hour: “Because we are sinners, God had to condemn us to hell. But Christ paid the price of our sins on the Cross, and now God can send us to heaven.” (Dear friends, what ever happened to the Resurrection?!) This leads directly to the story about the little girl who had been paying too close attention to certain sermons and said, “Mother, I love Jesus, but I hate God.”

I keep emphasizing this point because this non-Scriptural non-Patristic theory of the atonement is believed by many Evangelicals today, as well as some Roman Catholics, and elsewhere is still just “in the air”. I stress it also for personal reasons: I who have been Orthodox for 30 years still have to make a special effort not to understand the Crucifixion that way.

To this theory we Orthodox can only say No! No! No! John did not teach that “God is law”; he said “God is love”. God’s universal law is the Law of Love. God is not bound by some arbitrary legalism which he “cannot violate or doesn’t want to.”  Lord have mercy. This is a dreadful doctrine. It turns God into a tyrant or a God bound and controlled by some arbitrary higher Law which he dare not violate. No! God is the unbounded Lord of all. God is the father of the Prodigal Son who rushes out to forgive us in Jesus Christ before we can even say we’re sorry, let alone make reparations. God does not condemn anyone to Hell; if we go to Hell, it is by our choice, not his. I cannot think of anything more unlike the God of the New Testament, the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ – the God we know who “is good and loves mankind”, as the priest says at the end of each Orthodox service.

Christ the Victor

In the early 20th century a Swedish Lutheran theologian, Gustav Aulen, rediscovered the Patristic understanding of the Crucifixion which had for so long been forgotten in the West, though never in the East. He called it the “Christus Victor” theory, which is the perfect name for it. He wrote: “The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.”

To which we Orthodox say Yes! Jesus Christ is above all our Hero, who gave himself as a sacrifice for us, who died to conquer death and to lead all who will follow him through death and into the Resurrection. “The last enemy to be conquered will be death.” (I Corinthians 15:26)  In another way the first enemy to be conquered was death, for he has already rescued us from the Darkness below, and from the fear of death which held all mankind in bondage since the Garden of Eden. Already “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”




Next 2 Weeks: Travels! Saint Nektarios, Crete, and some other things. 




Pay price?



2 thoughts on “59. The Meaning of the Cross

  1. You are right to be suspicious of Anselmian satisfaction, but the Catholic understanding is a lot more fluid than you give credit for. Even the traditional Roman Canon of the sacred liturgy reflects that. Don’t let polemics bias you. Preach Christ and Him Crucified.

    1. I’m sorry to be so slow in posting your comment. Holy Week and Pascha are full-time, even for us retired (ha!) priests. Yes, the traditional Roman Canon is “safer”, written long before Anselm, which is why it is approved for our few Western Rite Orthodox congregations. I do not know Roman Catholicism from the inside, so maybe I should be more careful not to fall into “polemics”, though I did say only that “some” Roman Catholics are still wedded to Anselm. And I do think Western devotion is still out of proportion – not too much Cross but too little Resurrection. I was reacting chiefly to modern Evangelicalism which I do know well, where many are still very Anselmian. It’s kind of bizarre, isn’t it? that “Sola Scriptura” folks are preserving an un-Scriptural medieval Roman Catholic doctrine without realizing it.

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