The Double Mystery of Christ’s 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.





16 responses to “The Double Mystery of Christ’s Cross”

  1. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless!

    I have recently come across a western Christian writer who asserts in one of his books that the Cross as a Christian symbol (on and in Christian sites of worship) does not appear in Church history until about 430 A.D., and even then is not prominent. He claims that it is rather Christ’s Resurrection and His miracles, etc., that feature much more prominently as symbols of the faith up until that point. It seems primarily he has in mind the archeological evidence, since he only mentions one specific church building. (He does not attempt to invoke the writings of the Fathers in support of his contention.) He makes this assertion to bolster his point that modern Evangelicals have tended to really lose sight of the role of the Resurrection in the story they tell of our salvation, tending to see it only as a validation of Christ’s authority to be our substitutionary sacrifice purchasing our forgiveness on the Cross (a point I think you have also made in other posts).

    From your own knowledge of the use of the Cross as Christian symbol in Church history, could you comment on this? From my own reading, it would seem at least that the use of the sign of the Cross being made on one’s own body is much earlier than this–being one of the secret means Christians used during the age of the martyrs to identify themselves to each other.

  2. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Two statements:
    1. God is eternal and, thus, will always be in the past and will always be in the future.
    2. We pray into eternity that includes the past and the future.

    When I became Orthodox in 1993, I began repenting and confessing my sinful past. I had been quite promiscuous and sinful during extended periods of my adult life.There was even a time in the mid-70’s, when a member of a new age cult, that I was evil. As I began to reflect on my evil past I wondered why I had been rescued and others had not. Then it came to me that I should pray in 1993 to be rescued by God from what I was involved in in the mid-70’s. There were two specific clear examples of rescue:
    1. I became extremely afraid, paranoid if you will, and ceased an activity. My friends thought I was crazy. Many of them are dead.
    2. I was on my way to do an evil deed and I picked up two hitchhickers. Whether they were men of angels I do not know, but through their Christian counsel I was turned from that path.

  3. bb29 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, where is this photo from? I’ve never seen a bishop’s mitre like that before.

  4. Philip Jude Avatar


    The cross has been a major Christian symbol from the start. The Pauline epistles should be proof enough of its prominence. Tertullian, in the early 200s, talks about Christians tracing the sign of the cross on their foreheads, a custom still carried on by Catholics today. Clement refers simply to the “Lord’s sign” in a number of his writings, indicating that the reference was already clearly understood and closely associated.

    That said, many western Christians have prioritized the Passion at the expense of the Resurrection. Healthy Christian theology holds in balance the Incarnation, the Transfiguration, the Passion, the Resurrection, and the descent of the Holy Spirit. That is why the most important feasts of the church are Nativity, Transfiguration, Good Friday, Easter/Pascha, and Pentecost.

    +Philip Jude

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo is of Met. Jonah at St. Nicholas Cathedral. I believe the mitre is one of the historic mitres, dating back possibly to St. Tikhon. Looks kind of like the Monomakh Crown, doesn’t it?

  6. […] THE DOUBLE  MYSTERY OF CHRIST’S CROSS by Fr. Stephen Freeman […]

  7. bb29 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thanks for your response. Monomakh’s crown was exactly what I was thinking of, with the fur lining. I was curious if anyone still made them like that, but if this one indeed dates back to St. Tikhon, it’s quite fitting to see St. Tikhon’s successor wearing it.

  8. Philip Jude Avatar


    The cross was always central to Christianity. A simple perusal of Paul’s epistles will demonstrate this. The fathers refer to the cross, as well as the sign of the cross, as early as Tertullian and Clement. That said, the Passion has been over-emphasized in the west, especially in modern times. It is important to hold in tension the Nativity, the Transfiguration, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.


  9. Karen Avatar

    Thanks, Philip. That was my impression also. I was just wondering whether there were, in fact, apart from the NT itself, historical witnesses to the earlier use of the Cross as a Christian symbol in Christian liturgy (i.e., in the Catacombs, on ossuaries, sites of worship, etc.). I believe I read some of the material on the subject by Tertullian in a book discussing the history of the gesture of making the sign of the Cross upon the body.

  10. Philip Jude Avatar

    There is a famous graffito of a crucified donkey, under which is inscribed: “Alexamenos worships God.” It is usually presumed to have been carved by a pagan mocking a Christian acquaintance for his boorish belief in the dying/rising Nazarene. However, it may also have been the mark of heretical syncretists who were fusing Christian and oriental ideas. Either way, it is thought to have been from the the 2nd or 3rd centuries.

    The wiki page provides a brief overview:

    +Philip Jude

  11. Julianna D. Avatar
    Julianna D.

    Why do you believe it to be more than analogy?

    Living with my atheist husband, I find myself second guessing myself a lot. It seems to work on so many levels, I don’t see where it falls apart, and it means so much to me. But if all it is is a good analogy it seems wrong of me to let my “imaginary friend” (God) come before real flesh and blood people. But if it is actually true and real, the way to truly love those people is in Christ. So, I guess that’s why I ask, how do we know whether it’s just an analogy or not.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    A short response. You’re very right about the West prioritizing one feast over another. I notice within the typicon of Orthodox services that one feast doesn’t trump another (except that Pascha is everything). But even under the Old Calendar when Pascha and Annunciation occasionally coincide, the typicon directs that everything in both of them be celebrated (in a proper order, of course), because Pascha (which is the whole gospel of Christ) is indeed everything (or everything is Pascha). I hear this in echoes of music used in places of feasts where the music is meant to point towards Pascha. The shape of Theophany and Christmas are specifically Paschal, etc. It is this “everything” within Orthodoxy that I never see anywhere else (not even close) but you may already know all this. I just like saying it a lot. 🙂

  13. Philip Jude Avatar


    Indeed, I was wrong to group Easter with the other major celebrations. It is the Feast of Feasts, the reason for our faith. Christianity is essentially paschal, as you never tire of saying, and I never tire of hearing.

    +Philip Jude

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Julianna D.
    I believe these realities of the Cross, even through time, are real, rather than analogies, because they proclaim one single reality – the Crucified Christ and His victory over death. I’ve seen the historical places of the cross and tomb – but much more – I know people who live “crucified with Christ” and whose lives are a gift to all around them. Some of that experience has been for me, found in the heart and life of the Orthodox Church – Christians in many places that are the descendants of many martyrs and confessors. Even the Patriarch of Russia had his father imprisoned in Solevstsky Prison by the Communists during the Soviet Period. But what I know of these men and women is not bitterness, but the joy of the Paschal Lamb. The shout, “Christ is Risen,” rings through Orthodox lands, joined with the voices of thousands of bells.Unconquered and undying. It’s real because it’s true, and vice versa. It’s makes it worthy loving anyone and everyone.

  15. Julianna D. Avatar
    Julianna D.

    Thank you, Father Stephen. That helps.

  16. Guadalupe Avatar

    Praise God! Thank you Father Stephen for your Blessed meditation/reflection on St. Gregory Palamas’ Homily on the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. Wow! It was Life-Giving indeed and leading into in-depth understanding of The Cross, of Our Blessed Savior’s LOVE for US.
    I had just finished attending Holy Eucharist, Tuesday of the 5th week of Lent in which the priest invited us, Lent being a season of grace, to take a deeper look into the Cross…only then will it give us the power to die to sin ourselves. He too connected the image of the bronze serpent and the cross..the in depth mystical understanding. So after the Eucharist I searched, asking God to help me go deeper into His Love for us in the Cross…to truly go deeper into the grace of Lent and Holy Week. And look…! Praise God, Our Father!

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