1 Corinthians 1:18-24; John 19:6-11, 13-20, 25-28, 30-35
Before Pilate said of Christ “Behold your King!,” his soldiers had beaten and mocked Him. They put a crown of thorns on His head, dressed Him in a purple robe, and slapped Him in the face as they said, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Pilate could see that the Savior was no political threat to Rome and was reluctant to crucify Him, but allowed it after the religious leaders of the Jews shouted, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar…We have no king but Caesar.”
John’s gospel provides the context for these statements from the response of the Sadducees and Pharisees to the Lord’s raising of Lazarus: “’Here is this man performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’ Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’” (Jn. 11:47-50)
Like crime bosses arranging to have someone murdered without bloodying their own hands, these men found a way to preserve their own power by getting the Roman Empire to do their killing for them. They ironically presented themselves as being more loyal to Caesar than Pilate and publicly challenged him to prove his fidelity to Rome. He reminded them of their subservient status by putting a sign on the Lord’s Cross that read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek in order to make perfectly clear to everyone who had the upper hand in this situation.
John’s gospel tells us that the Savior’s legs were not broken in the rush to get the bodies off the crosses before the Sabbath because He was already dead. That was in fulfillment of the Old Testament instructions for how to prepare the Passover lamb, for “Not one of his bones will be broken.” (Ex. 12:46) In the midst of all this deadly political intrigue, the Savior fulfills St. John the Forerunner’s proclamation: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29) God delivered the Hebrews from Egypt through the blood of slaughtered lambs in a way that foreshadowed Christ’s victory over death through His Cross. He is not merely a creature, but the God-Man, fully divine and fully human, offering Himself up to the point of death for the salvation of the world.
Our Passover Lamb is nothing like the corrupt religious leaders who showed their complete lack of integrity by challenging Pilate to prove that he was as loyal to Caesar as they claimed to be. The Cross of Christ is foolishness according to the ways of the world, for it does not serve the self-interest or power of anyone in a conventional sense. As St. Paul wrote, it is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The established religious and political powers of first-century Palestine did their best to destroy our Lord in the most painful and humiliating way possible. All that they accomplished, however, was to reveal their own impotence before a Kingdom that remains not of this world. Their kings are dead and gone, and the same will be true of all people, nations, and groups who seek to impose their will upon the earth in every generation, including our own.
Death, however, could not hold captive the God-Man Who offered Himself on the Cross for our liberation from corruption. Only the Cross stands as the invincible trophy and weapon of peace through which our Savior rose up in glory and brought the joy of eternal life to the world. By ascending the Cross in free obedience, He revealed the power of divine sacrificial love that empties the tombs, raises the dead, and brings us by grace into the communion of the Holy Trinity. That is why we elevate the Cross today as the great sign of our salvation in Jesus Christ.
It is not enough, however, to limit our exaltation of the Cross to what we do in services. As the Lord taught, we must take up our crosses and lose our lives for His sake, dying to the corrupting power of sin in all its forms. Only then will we truly embrace the holy joy that the Savior has brought to the world through His great Self-Offering. We must ground the meaning and purpose of our lives not in any false gods of this world, but in the Lord Who has liberated us from slavery to sin and death. If we do not embrace the Cross by offering ourselves to Him in free obedience each day, then we will refuse to enter into the meaning and power of this feast. We will be in the false position of celebrating that in which we refuse to participate. To know God is to share in His life, and we will never unite ourselves to Him in faith and faithfulness if we admire the Cross from a distance and then go back to life as usual on our own terms.
The challenge of living cruciform lives is surely great because nothing about the Cross makes sense according to conventional standards. We simply cannot get around the truth that the Cross was and is a scandal in this world. Humble self-sacrifice is not the path to power. Dying at the hands of enemies is not a sign of success. Dead people do not rise up from their graves. Such apparent wisdom is revealed to be utter foolishness, however, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul taught, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” The One Who reigns is not the person with the largest army, greatest amount of money, or the most political power. The One Who reigns is “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.”
As we celebrate the Exaltation of the Cross, let us examine ourselves to see if our lives appear foolish and scandalous by the standards of the world because of our faithfulness to Jesus Christ. If they do not, we should seriously discern whether we are taking up our crosses and uniting ourselves to the Lord in His great Self-Offering. His salvation still comes to the world in ways that are shocking and contrary to our usual assumptions about how life works. St. Paul’s words remain true today: “Brethren, the word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” In order to celebrate this feast with integrity, we must embrace the power of holy folly by sacrificing ourselves out of faithfulness to the Lord and love for our neighbors.
We all have the opportunity to do so every day of our lives. Prayer, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines serve no earthly goal. Apart from what our Lord accomplished on the Cross, they are wastes of time and energy. The same is true for every other aspect of the Christian life, including generosity to the poor, forgiving our enemies, and pursuing chastity. As St. Paul taught, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins…If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15: 17-19) But since Christ has conquered death, we must live in accordance with our great hope, elevating His Cross by bearing witness to His great victory over the enslaving powers of sin and death every day of our lives. That will make us appear foolish in the eyes of the world, but it is the only way to share in the life of the Lord Who offered up Himself to the point of death for our salvation.