The Victory of the Cross

by Jacob Sparks

April 2019
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Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross].
— Colossians 2:15

Upon first examination, the cross is a strange and disconcerting symbol for Christians to use for their faith. As discussed in an earlier piece, the cross was the first century Roman Empire’s way of dealing with criminals, outcasts, and trouble makers, thus rendering the cross a symbol of torture and death. What person in their right mind would want to use an ancient instrument of torture and death as the primary image for their religion? What Christian would want to be constantly reminded of the death of their God?

The icon of Christ the Bridegroom, used during Holy Week, visually depicts the imagery of Christ as King during his mockery.

The icon of Christ the Bridegroom, used during Holy Week, visually depicts the imagery of Christ as King during his mockery.

In order to understand this strange phenomenon, it is first necessary to understand how the Gospels portray the ministry and crucifixion of Christ. When Jesus starts preaching, he goes throughout Judea and Samaria announcing “the gospel of the kingdom”, that is, announcing the good news that God himself will one day rule as the king of Israel (Matthew 4:23). After Jesus is arrested, charges are of blasphemy are brought against him by the Sanhedrin because he claimed to be the Son of God. After Jesus is convicted by the Jewish authorities, he is brought before Pilate, the Roman governor, who asks him plainly about the charges that are brought against him: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus responds in the affirmative: “You have said so.” (Matthew 27:11). After Pilate grants permission for Jesus to be executed as a criminal by crucifixion, the soldiers mock Jesus for claiming to be the king of Israel by treating him like a king:

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head, and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they spat upon him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him.
— Matthew 27:27-31

The imagery of Jesus being king of Israel is clearly there: he is given a reed as a scepter, a scarlet robe as his fine apparel, and a crown of thorns instead of a crown of glory and honor. Jesus is then exalted up not onto a throne, but onto a cross, with an inscription above his head that reads, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.” (Matthew 27:37). The Gospels show that Jesus’ crucifixion is his enthronement as king.

Furthermore, our icons of the crucifixion also demonstrate Jesus’ enthronement as king. Instead of having the inscription above Christ’s head read “King of the Jews”, they will often instead have the inscription read “King of Glory” as a reference to Psalm 23:

Lift up your gates, ye princes, and be ye lifted up,
ye everlasting doors; and the king of glory shall come in. Who is this king of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
— Psalm 23:7-8 (LXX)

This change to the inscription is made purposely to demonstrate that Jesus’ crucifixion is his entering into battle against sin and death in order to conquer them. The crucified Christ is the same “king of Glory… the Lord mighty in battle” that the Psalmist speaks of.

An icon of Christ’s crucifixion. The inscription on the top of the cross reads, “King of Glory.”

An icon of Christ’s crucifixion. The inscription on the top of the cross reads, “King of Glory.”

Orthodox Christians honor the cross of Christ because they understand it is where his glory is most clearly shown, for God’s “strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The cross is the place where God takes his rightful throne as king, not in a way that imposes his rule upon anyone, but in a way that demonstrates his humility and love. It is the location where God gives himself up “for the life of the world” so that “through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” (John 6:51, Hebrews 2:14). This is why Christians throughout time have honored the cross of Christ and why a symbol of torture and death has been transformed into a symbol of victory and love. This is why I make the sign of the cross over myself when I wake up, when I pray, before I eat, before I go to bed, and even when terrible things happen to me and to those who I love. Because Christ suffered on the cross in order to destroy death and grant eternal life to the world, I know that the little crosses of my life can likewise be redeemed and transformed into life, though they may feel like death in the present moment. We Orthodox Christians know that “through the cross, joy has come to the whole world.” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).

The cross is the hope of Orthodox Christianity. May God be merciful to us and grant us to enter into that hope.