The Centrality of the Cross

Fr. John Behr, in his book, The Mystery of Christ, takes a very close look at the earliest centuries of the Christian faith, and at the very heart of Orthodoxy itself which is to be found there. In particular he speaks with great clarity about the “rule of faith,” certainly known to all of the Apostles and to the Apostolic Church. If placed in words it sounds much like the Apostles’ Creed (which is, indeed, one of its earliest verbal expressions). We hear echoes of that same rule in various places in the New Testament, which bears witness that the writers of the New Testament, such as St. Paul, knew full well the “rule of faith” before ever they wrote a word. (It is also interesting that Creeds in some form are older than the New Testament).

The early Christian community, despite being surrounded by false teachers, Judaizers, gnostics, and what-have-you, were nonetheless not a confused bunch. It was not the “California-believe-what-you-want” paradise that the neo-gnostics such as Elaine Pagels and some others would have us imagine. Orthodox Catholic Christianity was steady on from the beginning and silenced everyone around them, not through the machinations of the state (they were not even legal yet), nor of some plot of sinister paternalism that some modern historians like to conjure.

This small minority clung to an understanding of Christ because they both knew the “rule of faith” – that is they could recite the Tradition that had been given them – but also because the Tradition that had been given to them was itself living and true. The truly Great Tradition of the Church was and is the Crucified God. It sings through every page of the New Testament. Unknown in the gnostic writings with their Ogdoads and Aeons, the gospel of Christ was and is the good news that God became man, and became the very least of us, entering even into the depths of death and hell to rescue us from the hell we had created for ourselves.

The Gospel of the Crucified God is that strength is found in weakness, triumph in forgiveness; evil is overcome by good; losing ourselves is finding ourselves; wealth is poverty and poverty is wealth; and the list could be multiplied many times over. Most importantly these are not abstract principles, but descriptions of Who God Is and How God Is in His revelation of Himself to us.

The “dogmatic consciousness” of which the Elder Sophrony occasionally writes, is finally having the truth of the Crucified God written into the very core of your heart and soul. It is knowing the God who emptied Himself and yielding yourself to be conformed to His image.

The wonder of the writings of an Elder Sophrony, and of others like him through the years of the Church, is that both they themselves and many whom they knew, embodied this knowledge of God and became bearers of the light in their own generation. The saints are the great treasury of Orthodoxy, living proof of the rightness of our doctrine. Indeed, they are what the doctrine looks like.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 3:3) …”you are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” This gives a new meaning to the “New Testament Church.” Now we can see that it means the Church which is the “New Testament,” and this same New Testament continues to be read in the Churches who have preserved that same faith.

It is simply not enough to study the Scriptures. We must become the Scriptures so that all might read Christ in our heart and know the Truth of the gospel. Talk about the gospel will not save the world. Only the gospel enfleshed in human lives can be said to constitute preaching. This is what Christians are ordained (Baptized) to do.

In a couple of weeks we will gather again around the Cross of the Christ and remember its centrality. Orthodox Christians should never make the mistake that this event is only momentary or an accidental rescue of fallen man. It is the revelation of God that must become the revelation of our own true self.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





23 responses to “The Centrality of the Cross”

  1. Fr. Wade Fahnestock + Avatar

    Glory to Jesus Christ! GLORY FOREVER!
    Dear Father,
    Peace be with you!
    Your paragraph,

    “It is simply not enough to study the Scriptures. We must become the Scriptures so that all might read Christ in our heart and know the Truth of the gospel. Talk about the gospel will not save the world. Only the gospel enfleshed in human lives can be said to constitute preaching. This is what Christians are ordained (Baptized) to do.”,

    in my opinion, should be printed, posted, pondered, and prayed until the realization of this truth becomes passionately manifest throughout the Church in America and around the world!

    Thank you for sharing!

    Fr. Wade+
    Blue Kirk Mission
    Lakeland, FL

  2. Cheryl Avatar

    “The Gospel of the Crucified God is that strength is found in weakness, triumph in forgiveness; evil is overcome by good; losing ourselves is finding ourselves; wealth is poverty and poverty is wealth; and the list could be multiplied many times over. Most importantly these are not abstract principles, but descriptions of Who God Is and How God Is in His revelation of Himself to us.”

    This paragraph, is exactly why I’m [soon-to-be] Orthodox. I believe it is the most profoundly Biblical example of the Gospel, and yet just not talked about enough. Not LIVED out enough.

    Thank you, Father.

  3. john brantley cox Avatar
    john brantley cox

    Dear Cheryl,

    Glory to God! It is good that you will be joining our company. Prayers for you as you prepare to enter the Church. God give you ever greater grace and ever more faith as you try to live a holy life.

    in Christ,

    john brantley

  4. Prudence True Avatar

    The message here is spot on – Transparent and simple, and yet for many the message is opaque and unheard.

  5. Micah Avatar

    Thank you for this excellent article Fr. Stephen. You do well to remind us of the heavenly banquet that awaits.

    If the world knows anything at all about God, it is because Christ has made Himself known to the Church.

    Alleluia, alleluia. Gaudete, justi, in Domino : rectos decet collaudatio. Alleluia.

  6. Darlene Avatar


    Your words here, actually your very message, that speaks of a Church that carries within her the Tradition, and that very Tradition is the living out of Christ’s life – this message is one that has come to trouble my husband deeply as of late.

    He cannot accept that there is a Church that Christ has founded. Rather, he embraces the Protestant notion of church and all that such an idea encompasses. This resistance has manifested itself (again very recently) in his taking offense that the Eucharist is not open to all at Divine Liturgy. “Am I a second-class Christian that I am not worthy to partake of the chalice?” he has asked. “Jesus regards me as a child of God, not as a Protestant,” he insists. “God is angry that we have so many denominations. What if we should all have to suffer together and be thrown in prison together to suffer for Christ? Will we care then about the labels we give ourselves?” These are the kind of comments I have been hearing on a daily basis for the last several weeks.

    Oddly, for the last 3 – 4 yrs, my husband has known that I have been on a journey AWAY from Protestantism. He has permitted such a journey, even understood it, or so it seemed. But now in these last few weeks before I am to be christmated, he has sounded an alarm out of the blue. He has expressed his concern for me – he is afraid for me. Sometimes he wants to impede me from going forward into Orthodoxy, other times he verbalizes that he must let me continue onward.

    I cannot express with words alone how DIFFICULT this division between us has become. Hours of conversation have ensued with sadness and even tears on both our parts. And deeper struggles of which I cannot mention here.

    Suffice it to say that I have become worn out inside and at the point of giving up going to church – ANY church – altogether.

    Father, please pray for me. I mean this in the deepest and most sincere way.

  7. […] via The Centrality of the Cross « Glory to God for All Things. […]

  8. David Dickens Avatar

    Darlene, the enemy is at the gates! His weapons are strong, his arrows sting; but the wall holds. I promise, the wall holds; it has always held. That is the Church that Christ founded. You did not err in trusting to the veil of our Holy Mother.

    I have bled in the battle, and others far more than my feeble offering, all to testify that “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

    And I confess that I have too often lost that good cheer. But whereas I am faithless, He is faithful.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    These tempations in the last hours, point to the concrete reality of the Church. It is, of course, a difficult matter for your husband, and for all of us.Jesus does not regard your husband as a Protestant. But why should your husband approach him as a Protestant? If He would approach Him, let him come as a penitent and a catechumen, not in the righteousness of his protestant theology. But you know all this. Be humble and Christ will bless all things – our families and all things.

  10. MuleChewingBriars Avatar

    My wife throws the same in my face – “I’m already saved. What do I need with all that fasting, all those rules, all that boring chanting? I just need to hear the Word of God” Then I read something by an angry Arab Orthodox parishoner that a lot of former Evangelicals in the Orthodox Church treat the Church and her practices like icing on the cake – they already have their spot reserved, so all of their Orthodoxy doesn’t do anything but give them a more authentic Christian experience down here.

    God help me, I’ve had the same thoughts myself – “Hey! I gave my life to Jesus when I was 22. I’m saved. What would a cheeseburger hurt right now?”

    Then I remember that I am by no means “saved”. Left to myself I am the worst of scoundrels, far closer in my hidden fantasies and motivations to the guys who drove the airplanes into the World Trade Center than I am to Saint John the Wonderworker, or even Father Gordon Walker, who may not be a saint but who is awfully darn close, or even to my wife’s sincere and humble Pentecostal minister.

    So what if Jesus’ death “saves” me from the “legal consequences” of my sins? Big deal. A person like me isn’t even going to be able to breathe the air in that other world. It’ll burn and scorch my lungs like sulfuric acid fumes.

    I need Jesus and I need the Church. I don’t need Chicken Soup. I need Chemotherapy.

  11. Marsha Avatar

    MuleChewing Briars,

    pardon me while I clean up the coffee I just snorted out my nose 🙂

    But seriously, you are SO spot on!

    So what if Jesus’ death “saves” me from the “legal consequences” of my sins? Big deal. A person like me isn’t even going to be able to breathe the air in that other world. It’ll burn and scorch my lungs like sulfuric acid fumes.

    I need Jesus and I need the Church. I don’t need Chicken Soup. I need Chemotherapy.


  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I wish I had an award or something I could give you. Your comment made my day! And I agree about Fr. Gordon Walker.

  13. Durk Avatar

    What happens when, while following the “rule of faith,” at a certain point one sees only parish factions and fractures, rules imposed on others but not personally followed by hierarchy, insistence on “true belief” but the merest sketch of conformity to what Jesus Christ actually seemed liked in the Gospels? One should not judge — one should simply be the best Christian one can be — but at a certain point, when does one say to oneself “you shall know them by their fruits?” I’ve been Orthodox for a long long time, and suddenly it seems that the only healthy parishes within 100 miles are — believe it or not — Episcopalian.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    What you describe is deeply saddening. There is nothing within Orthodoxy that promises that people will not sin, nor that that sin becomes a dominating fact of the community. This is not a judgment upon the Orthodox Church – but a judgment upon those who are refusing to live the life. I think that in such circumstances we pray, faithfully, even painfully, for God’s mercy and their salvation. May God give you grace!

  15. David Dickens Avatar

    Every once in a while a zealousness for Orthodoxy grows in me and I would plead with other Christians I know to taste and see. (I actually used that line just the other day on a blog.)

    But then I am humbled in the realization that to those given much, much will be expected. Rushing someone into the Church is like rushing them into the lions den. True there are angels and the salvation of heaven, but there are also mouths full of teeth and fear, and many long nights of trembling prayer.

    Then I sit back down and quietly wait on the Lord to act in his own time.

    Even the rain must wait and come in its time, else the crops of the field will be washed away.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In the US we are fumbling our way to a genuine understanding of what it means to be Orthodox. There are a lot of competing versions not to mention all of the other Chrisitan and ‘spiritual’ paths out there. Our mother Churches have been hamstrung for centuries by one form of persecution or another and seem to have little to give us in the form of direction let alone in transmitting by living example what Holy Tradition is.

    It is confusing, challenging, even discouraging at times. I know two things:
    1. Jesus Christ led me to the Church
    2. God forgives.

    The rest I’m still working on.

  17. Karen Avatar

    Darlene, hang in there! I will pray for you and your husband. I am still traveling this journey, too, with my own family, though it is smoother for me a couple years down the road post-Chrismation (and hopefully will even out a bit for you, too). The enemy doesn’t like that you are this close to being enfolded fully into Christ and His Church, and he’s going to try to rattle you. May the Lord break his teeth! I pray you may be able to rest in the Lord’s mercy and let Him fight this battle for you on behalf of both you and your husband. I pray your husband may be released from his fears and that your steady faithfulness in your marriage, your true friendship as his spouse, and Christ’s peace, empathy and kindness increasingly shining through you will drive out his fear and cause him only to hunger to know Christ in the way that is possible for us all only in and through His Church. I have learned to not speak of spiritual things with my husband except where I can affirm and support his faith in Christ’s mercy (remembering that there is something of Orthodoxy that extends even outside its boundaries, however incomplete). I have had to learn to let only my actions speak with regards to the reality of the fullness of the Church and trust the Holy Spirit to work in my husband’s heart. He has already done MUCH there that I know would not have occurred had I not become Orthodox and been learning to step back and trust the Lord to fight this battle for us. The Lord will not leave any of us without His help and mercy. Of this, I am sure.

    Durk, may the Lord help us all! I’ve not been Orthodox long, and I’m glad I didn’t become Orthodox in the present state of things (humanly speaking) in the Church while I was still in my idealistic 20s! If we look only at the human aspect of what is happening in the Church, we will be sorely disappointed, but now I am weeks away from my 50th birthday, I know this is true absolutely *anywhere* in the human family (and in every other kind of Christian institution). I don’t know of any answer except to keep my eyes on Christ and on Him in His Saints. I sorrow over the sorry state of things in many “Orthodox” quarters these days, but really it was no different when I was Protestant (although in some quarters things were more covered up under a veneer of cordiality). It seems to me if the Christian institution with which one is associated is not really giving the enemy grief and provoking him much, he’s going to tend to leave you (and your congregation) in peace! I guess the reality manifested by both your experience and Darlene’s is that the battle is always the hottest and most intense nearest the front lines! Christ’s advice to people about their own corrupt leaders, the Pharisees (i.e., Do as they say and not as they do!) surely applies to your situation. I hope you will continue to pray for the improved spiritual health of your local Orthodox parishes and their hierarchies and try to be part of the solution, not the problem. Just as important, I pray if He has not already, that the Lord will direct you to a spiritual father or mother whom you can trust to keep you rightly directed and support you in your struggle. May He not leave you comfortless!

    Mule . . .
    I agree with Fr. Stephen and Marsha–well said! Now, I have to know more about Fr. Gordon Walker . . .

    Father, bless!

  18. Daniel M Avatar
    Daniel M

    I can empathize with your frustration and despair. My conversion (former Protestant) has, at times, been a point of contention between my wife and I. There have been times when I threw my hands up and felt deep despair, but it always passed/passes. I believe you are carrying your cross. Some would even say that you should thank God for this suffering for His sake. In your heart you know the Truth. Its too late, now. Since you’ve been blessed with this knowledge, you must follow through. You are in my prayers.

  19. Darlene Avatar

    Dear Mule et al,

    I understand well the mindset of “I gave my life to Jesus when I was 22. I’m saved.” That’s the view that salvation is a done deal, wrapped up in a pretty package and fastened tightly with a bow. I’ve never held to Once Saved Always Saved and neither has my husband.

    OTOH, I recognize that I am very much influenced by the Christian culture from which I have resided for over 3 decades, namely Evangelicalism. I am still in many ways a Protestant. Some of what I learned is detrimental and erroneous, and I have shed much of that although no doubt, not all. And yet, there is much GOOD (gasp) that I have learned within Evangelicalism, which I will take with me.

    Although the Arab Orthodox Christian may observe the problems with converts from Evangelicalism, I would say that there is plenty of fault to go around (if one wants to find fault) within all Christian circles, whether it be Orthodox, Protestant, or Roman Catholic. The tit-for-tat game never gets anywhere because where humans are, problems reside. What is necessary is that we love, “not in word and speech, but in deed and in truth,” as the Apostle John said.

    I cannot ignore the good influences from within Evangelical Protestantism. It was an Evangelical who first told me of God’s love and forgiveness and that it could be found in Christ. It was as an Evangelical that I came to love the Holy Scriptures, finding in them great food and sustenance. It was as an Evangelical that I was taught to SHARE Christ’s love and forgiveness with others. Would that it had been through an Orthodox Christian that I had heard about the love of Jesus and His death on the cross and His resurrection. But it was not. At the point in my life, when I was ready to end my life in despair, God sent an Evangelical to tell me of the love of Christ, of His forgiveness, and that there was a way I could come to know the Living God.

    And that Evangelical culture is with me even now. I am able to have fellowship with non-Orthodox Christians in ways that I have not been able to have with Orthodox Christians. Even today an Evangelical brother in Christ called whom I have not spoken to in quite a while. We immediately began speaking of our urgency in living the Christian life and the deception of apathy and laziness that has infiltrated the church. It is this urgency, this willingness to embrace the culture with Christ’s love, the desire to openly speak of what Christ is doing in our lives, and the compassion displayed between brothers and sisters by praying for one another that I fear I will sorely miss within Orthodoxy. I do not say this with triumphalism or glee, but rather deep concern and sadness.

    I recognize the treasures within the Orthodox Church. Her blessed martyrs are still honored to this day. She carries within her the Holy Mysteries. She honors and recites the Creed. She gives deference to the Councils and Early Church Fathers. She suffers with her Lord in the fasts. She blesses all those who have suffered for the faith in her feasts. The beauty of her unchanging prayers in a post-modern culture have been of great help to me. I could go on and on as regards the treasures that have been entrusted to this Church.

    Yet, what good is a hammer and chizzle to a carpenter who does not use them? What good is a level and trowel to a bricklayer who does not make use of them? What good are all these treasures if they are not recognized and accessed by most of the Orthodox? What good is ritual without practicing and living the faith? What good is a beautiful mausoleum filled with dead men’s bones? “We are Abraham’s children,” the Pharisees said, these who had the Law and the Prophets and the true faith. Yet, they did not recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

    I will carry with me the “fire” and the earnestness that I inherited within Evangelicalism. Perhaps it is offensive – if so, so be it. It is who I am. Furthermore, the prophets and Apostles, and martyrs and saints who have gone on before carried within their bosoms the fire of the Holy Spirit, and they offended many. But now they have won a crown and bask in God’s glory.

    Forgive me if I have offended any – it was not my intention. The struggles continue and Oh how I long for more of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, King and Master.

  20. Barbara Avatar

    Dear Darlene,

    Thank you for sharing your struggles with us. I know it is not easy to reveal suffering. The weekend before my chrismation was incredibly difficult. My husband, who is a nominal Christian and has never attended church regularly with me and has never expressed any concern about my commitment to church, became extremely and increasingly concerned about my choice to become orthodox. I think he sensed that he was losing me because he could see me changing quite radically and the increased level of commitment to not just a set of beliefs, but a way of life. We had a very rough and emotional weekend that shook the foundations of our marriage, and although he came to witness my chrismation, my joy at being received into the Church was greatly tempered by the concern of my husband. He saw it a a choice between him and the church. It’s now 2 years since my chrismation and, like Karen, I’ve learned to speak minimally about spiritual things and to focus my attention on becoming peace for my family (something I still struggle to become, but I have so many more tools than I used to have and the support of my priest and parish family). Thank God, my husband is now very supportive of my journey. I hope that is because I’ve become even more what he always loved in me and hoped for in me. He is not in any way interested in becoming orthodox, but he has come a few times and has enjoyed getting to know my orthodox family. He likes to tease me about which special day it is today :). He even took me to Greece and climbed thousands of stairs to holy places with me. In a very mystical way he is more of an icon of Christ to me now than ever before. I hope I am more of an icon of Christ to him as well. I would never have expected this the weekend before my chrismation. I didn’t know what the future would hold then and it was very much a step in the dark.

    I think it is very normal for a spouse (Christian or not) to be concerned about their partner undergoing such a significant change in direction. Your husband loves you and doesn’t want to lose you. I think I would be more worried for you if your husband didn’t care. May God help you reassure him with your attention and gratitude for him. May your journey into Orthodoxy also be a journey towards your husband – the two are not opposed. Your longing for your husband is also where you will meet Christ.

    You are in my prayers.

  21. Micah Avatar

    Darlene, if I may.

    Mankind is simply called to love. The root of sin is always the cooling down of love, both towards God and man.

    Salvation is a very simple path.

  22. Jeremiah Avatar

    That is a great reminder. I like the thought of the Saints being what Orthodox doctrine looks like.
    The other day during a lunch break I was reflecting on how saints and icons are a witness to us in our daily lives, an “accountability partner” (to use the Protestant term) that is in the presence of the Undivided Trinity, interceding for me and encouraging me to continue on my journey toward salvation. I think I may have been prompted by a glance at the small Cross with the icon of Christ on it, that hangs from my rearview mirror (a zealous catechumen move, I know).
    Something else I recently heard, is how the Canons we read in the Church bring us into the experiences of the Bible, from Adam & Eve to our LORD on the Cross, to the most contemporary saints. It reminded me of the verse in Tuesday’s Vespers service, when we sing of how we have sinned like the Publican, but have the arrogance of the Pharisee. OUCH! I never thought of it like that, but it’s true.
    I thank God for the prayers and canons of the Church. They have made the Gospel and its Cross come more alive than all my years prior to learning of Orthodoxy.

  23. […] one of the blogs I read, a priest from the Orthodox tradition writes, The truly Great Tradition of the Church was and is the Crucified God. It sings through every page […]

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