Crucifixion was an ancient form of capital punishment. It was degrading, humiliating, and caused agonizing pain. Ultimately the HOLY CROSS symbolized absolute failure and death. Due to its barbaric nature, crucifixion was reserved for the lowliest of criminals: the slaves’ death or the murderers’ punishment. Today, many still look upon the HOLY CROSS with profound horror as a cruel way to inflict punishment or bring about death.
It probably took our Lord Jesus Christ’s followers years to accept the symbol of Him on the HOLY CROSS as a symbol of their faith. Now, accepted as a symbol of faith by all Orthodox Christians, the HOLY CROSS has come to mean limitless love, triumph of good over evil, and hope for eternal life. From the past to present day, the HOLY CROSS steadfastly remains the cornerstone of our Orthodox faith.
How important is the HOLY CROSS? Made of wood, not glittering gold nor shining silver, the HOLY CROSS represents the Savior’s greatest and most wonderful blessing. This blessing is threefold. First, through the HOLY CROSS we can attain the ultimate of treasures, the gift of our salvation. Secondly, the HOLY CROSS allows us to realize the true glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. A third significant fact about the HOLY CROSS is that it is a strong motivator for service as it makes us keenly aware of the Lord’s service and sacrifice. Indeed, this was a transformed HOLY CROSS. St Paul tells us, “I determined not to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Cor 2:2).
Ever mindful of these three points, let’s examine the magnificent gift of salvation in terms of the suffering thief crucified on the HOLY CROSS beside our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The thief on the right side of the Lord Jesus Christ’s HOLY CROSS did not perform outstanding good works during his lifetime nor did he face adversity and strife for his salvation. How then, did the thief on the Lord’s right side receive salvation? Was there something other than his mere faith that we need to consider regarding the crucified thief receiving the gift of salvation?
The thief believed in the Lord Jesus under the most difficult and dire circumstances. He was nailed on a HOLY CROSS beside the Lord watching people hit Him, mock Him, spit upon Him, and ridicule Him. At the time the Lord Jesus Christ had three nails and a spear driven into His Holy body, people despised and disdained Him. The pain of the Lord Christ’s crucifixion was amusement to the crowds on Golgotha.
The thief must have fought many doubts and had great conflict within him to believe on the Lord seconds before his own painful death. With astounding phenomena occurring all around–the veil of the temple was rent, the sun was darkened, and the rocks rent–most did not believe. While the chief priests, priests, elders, scribes, and Pharisees did not believe; this thief near death, drawing his last breath, believed! Most of the people continued to be offended at witnessing the events of the HOLY CROSS. St. Mark tells us in his Holy Gospel, “All ye shall be offended because of Me this night; for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Mk 14:27). Only the three Marys and the beloved St John stood near the Holy wood of the Lord Jesus Christ’s HOLY CROSS offering consolation and support during the crucifixion.
The faith of this thief was inspirational. The thief not only believed but also confessed his faith publicly. He confessed his sins. His last thoughts were of the eternal salvation not salvation from the death of the flesh. The thief also with his dying breath defended the Lord. The Lord and Savior with a crown of thorns, nails hanging his flesh, having been scourged and slapped, and finally bleeding from His right side had not one person blessed by His miracles to defend him, not one of His apostles or followers to glorify His name. But the thief on the HOLY CROSS beside Him defended Him to the death saying, “But this man has done nothing amiss.” Without a doubt, he deserved to hear the Lord Jesus Christ say, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Truly the Lord’s HOLY CROSS not only brought salvation to the repentant thief but also through the dying voice of the thief brought even more glory to His name. This thief perhaps has brought more glory to the name of the Lord Christ than anyone else recorded in Biblical history. Also through the thief’s solemn awareness of our Lord’s sacrifice, he leaves us motivated to do good works in His Holy name. The thief crucified near the Lord’s transformed HOLY CROSS leaves us contemplating his own transformation.
What happened to our beloved HOLY CROSS? Has history recorded the HOLY CROSS as a lost and forgotten treasure? On the seventeenth day of the blessed month of Tute, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast Day of the Appearance of the Honorable Cross. St Helena, a devout Christian queen and mother of Emperor Constantine, is credited with the discovery of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Can you imagine that a once spiritless piece of lumber sent a Queen in search of its blessing? This only endears to our hearts even more, the significance of the HOLY CROSS. The story of her search and discovery of the Honorable Cross is one of enduring perseverance.
When she came to Jerusalem, she inquired of the Jews in that town as to the whereabouts of the HOLY CROSS. They would not disclose to her the information she requested but instead told of an aged Jew named Judas who might assist her. At her persistence, he told her of a pile of dirt and rubbish that the HOLY CROSS could be found beneath. How did this pile of dirt and rubbish come to cover our sacred HOLY CROSS? The Jewish leaders in those days following the crucifixion, when they saw all the signs and wonders made manifest from the HOLY CROSS, wished to do away with the HOLY CROSS. They commanded all of Judea and Jerusalem to cast the sweepings and dirt from their houses over the HOLY CROSS in which our Messiah carried to Golgotha after He was condemned to death. Tradition tells us the dirt continued to be placed upon the HOLY CROSS for more than two hundred years. How frightened the Jewish leaders must have been of that wooden HOLY CROSS!
Queen Helena ordered the immediate removal of the Lord Jesus Christ’s HOLY CROSS from the trash heap. She then built a church for it and consecrated the church. The actual appearance of the Cross was on the tenth of Baramhat but because this date is always during fasting, the early church fathers substituted the seventeenth of Tute, for the Feast of the Cross, which is the date of the church consecrated in honor of the appearance of the HOLY CROSS.
What profound meaning has come from a simple piece of wood! Our Master was not only willing to carry His HOLY CROSS but He loved us so much that He was willing to die on His HOLY CROSS for us. The HOLY CROSS, utilized to hold the nails necessary to crucify our Lord Jesus, deserves much reverence. In dying Lord Jesus Christ gives us the example of living.
The Lord Jesus Christ told His disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their CROSS and follow Me” (Mt 16:24). Self-denial is for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we grasp the earthly, we will lose sight of the eternal. With the faith of the thief, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Live like the Lord Jesus Christ. Reverently, with the transformed HOLY CROSS before us, love the Lord Jesus Christ.
H.G. Bishop Youssef
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States