The Double Mystery of the Cross

St. Gregory Palamas, in his Homily on the Precious and Life-Giving Cross (Homily 11), makes reference to what he calls the “double mystery” of the Cross. He cites St. Paul’s statement, “The world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

The first mystery is embodied in our denial of the world – the second mystery in our denial of ourselves. The great saint also sees the Cross as always having been at work, even before it was manifest in history. Indeed, he states that none are saved apart from the Cross. Thus Abraham’s leaving his city and his earthly father in obedience to God to go to a place God would show him is this first mystery of the Cross. The world was crucified to Abraham. Abraham’s encounter with God (the three angels) in Genesis 18 is an example that St. Gregory cites as belonging to the second mystery.

This mystery of the Cross at work throughout time and in the lives of God’s faithful people occupies a homily of great length, and far more than I can reproduce in the course of a blog post. Many would be willing to grant that there is a “principle” of the Cross that may run through salvation history, in which we can say by analogy that the world is crucified to someone and someone is crucified to the world. This is the approach of modernity. Analogies are but mere ideas, intellectual games.

St. Gregory’s contention, however, is far more realistic. Similar to the approach of other fathers of the Church, such workings of mysteries are not intellectual games or mere analogies. They are the mystery of the work of God’s salvation, in which time is overcome. The Cross at work in the life of Abraham is none other than the Cross of Christ. The Cross at work in the life of Moses (such as in the defeat of Amalek) is no mere fore-shadowing of the Cross, a literary feat, but is the Cross itself, transcending history and manifesting Christ’s victory throughout the ages.

Our own historical mindset is married to  linear chain of cause and effect. That which happens now must have a cause that took place in some before it. This is perhaps useful if the world operates like some great billiard table. However, not even physics thinks in such categories. Far less, should the faith of Christians feel bound by such out-moded models of the universe. Long before physicists had broken free of a purely Newtonian concept of reality, the Church proclaimed the transcendant power of God’s work. Bound neither by space nor time, it was nevertheless manifest within space and time.

As we take up the Cross in our lives we should not be bound by space or time. To take up the Cross of Christ (whether in our hearts by faith or in making the sign of the Cross or in taking up a figure of the Cross) is no mere recollection of a point in history. We do not excercise our memories when we proclaim the Cross of Christ – we proclaim a transcendant reality – manifest at Calvary – but also manifest in the defeat of Hades – and equally manifest in the victory of Christ in our lives at all times and places.

One of the weaknesses of the modern world is its literalism. Literalism (in one meaning of the word) can describe a particular event, but it generally tends to define the event as self-contained and as relevant only by its historical character. Such literalism is two-dimensional: it is flat.

The world in which we live, particularly the world which God created is not flat. There are depths and layers and constant connections which lead to more depths and layers and connections. The Scriptures are a particularly example of this reality. The literary character of Scripture, with its foreshadowings, types, allegories, etc., is more than an interesting form of literature. According to the faith taught in the Scriptures and upheld in the life of the Church and the teachings of the Fathers, this “literary character” is also the very character of reality.

The Cross of Christ is indeed a historical event – but many other events (such as the many enumerated by St. Gregory Palamas) embody the Cross and find the power of the Cross to be present within them. St. Paul speaks of the Cross in this manner. When he describes the world being crucified to him, and himself to the world – he goes far beyond a literal description of the events on a single day on a single cross of wood supporting the crucified body of a single man. For St. Paul the entire world is crucified on the Cross and in a manner that clearly transcends the merely figurative. In the same manner St. Paul describes himself as crucified, again in a manner that transcends the merely figurative.

If the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8), then the Cross has stood from the foundation of the earth. Those whose view of the world cannot allow for such realities will be unable to follow the Christian testimony of Scripture. That which is real will be relegated to the imaginary or the merely  figurative. The life of faith becomes an exercise of the mind and the Cross a merely symbolic action (in such a world-view, need it be more?).

Instead we live in a world to which the Scriptures bear witness – a world in which the Cross has depths upon depths and layers upon layers. That reality bears the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, His defeat of sin and death. It contains the victory we have in Christ. We sign ourselves with this victory. We proclaim this victory in the Cross we wear. We discover the Cross to be the “weapon of peace.”

We discover the mystery of the Cross at work around us – in its double mystery – crucifying the world to us – and us to the world.

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.





7 responses to “The Double Mystery of the Cross”

  1. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your explanation of history as being so much more than cause-effect was very helpful to me. Thank you!

  2. yannis Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen,
    and a good month to you and all your readers; i see you are still putting together great posts 🙂

    The ancient Greeks had two gods to denote time: one was Chronos, from whom we derive chronological, linear, time: “its two o’clock” etc; the other is Kairos, who may be thought of as the god of timing, “the time is right to expand the business, marry” etc. Last but not least there is perceived time, which as we all know by experience slows or accelerates depending on our state of mind. During intense focus (be it because one is into things due to danger or enjoyment or intensity of experience such as in competition – or prayer), time slows down or even dissapears – “Dear me, has that much time passed?” etc.

    In some versions of the Our Lady of the Sign icon, Christ is seen in her womb bringing with his hands the world into being; he does this continuously as you note in your great post – in the αεναον(ever) present.


    PS I’d like to share this series about Father Thadeus, a Serbian hesychast monk/elder who has passed away not so long ago. His elder was a Russian refugee if i am not mistaken who was a disciple of Saint Ambrose of Optina (on whom Starats Zoshima is partially based).

    A conversation with Father Thadeus, in 6 parts with english subtitles:

  3. Paddy Avatar

    My…what a lesson in Christian temporal mechanics. Thank you, father.

  4. FrGregACCA Avatar

    That principle of which you speak, Father, is “kenosis”, seen in the eternal self-emptying of the Father by which the Son is generated and the Holy Spirit is breathed forth and, according to St. Paul, manifested in the mystery of the cross.

  5. ryan Avatar

    Father, would you be willing to write about the position of the Church as Mary being “ever virgin?” The 1st chapter of St Matthew’s gospel has given me some unrest on this. Perhaps you could suggest some reading.

  6. Photini Avatar

    Your words remind me of how awesome it is to have the honor of carving a beautiful cross for the purpose of holding the reliquary , containing a tiny fragment of the original cross of Christ. Sometimes I kind of forget just how deep it goes. Thank you, Father Stephen

  7. yannis Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    apologies, i’ve just noticed that the final youtube link i posted (which in terms of order i posted first) comes out in your video links at the frontpage. I have no clue how this hapened – it was antirely unintentional. Please feel free to correct as appropriate as it spoils somewhat your present post.


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