St Cyril and the Meaning of the Cross

I was reading the Commentary of St Cyril of Alexandria concerning the Gospel of St John this afternoon. In one passage he discusses the Scripture which says…

And Pilate wrote a title also, and put it on the Cross. And there was written upon it, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

It is always worth reading carefully the exposition of St Cyril on the Scriptures. He does not always express things in the way we might expect. We have very easily been influenced by either our own opinions on the meaning of Scripture, or by the opinions of others which are not based on the Patristic tradition of understanding. There is also the danger that we only read the Fathers in brief fragments to support our own interpretations. The best way to understand the Scriptures is to read them comprehensively with the Fathers so that we gain an insight into the broad scope of their exposition. St Cyril writes a few hundred words of instruction about this one verse, and we can consider it together sentence by sentence to understand what he says.

He begins…

This is, in fact, the bond against us which, as the inspired Paul says, the Lord nailed to His Cross, and in it led in triumph the principalities and the powers as vanquished, and as having revolted from His rule.

What does it mean that the bond against us is the board upon which was written the words, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews? It seems that St Cyril means that the Kingship which was written on the board, almost by way of mockery, was in fact that eternal truth which bears witness against the disobedience of Adam, and our own continuing disobedience. It condemns not only the Jews, as the special people of God, but all men, and the angelic hosts who had also rebelled against the King, their Lord and their God. This statement was nailed above the Lord on the cross. Not as a vague hope that his Lordship would be remembered – as the Jews wanted it to be changed to say “He said he was…”, but as as statement of fact. He is the King, even as he is crucified.

And even if it were not Christ Himself that fixed the title on the Cross, but the fellow-worker and minister of the Jews, still, as He suffered it so to be, it is as though He were recorded as having inscribed it with His own Hand.

What does St Cyril mean here? It is that although Jesus did not put the sign there himself, as a statement of his own eternal and divine authority, nevertheless it was Pilate, who was working with the Jews and serving their purposes, who had it written and placed there. And Jesus made no objection, in word or deed, and so can be said that he consented to its meaning and substance, and it expressed a truth about him. He is indeed the King, the Lord, not only of Jews, but of all men and the heavenly host.

And He triumphed over principalities in it.

We tend to think of the cross as a moment of weakness, but in the writings of St Cyril, as an expression of our Orthodox Faith, it is always the moment of victory. It is Satan who represents the principalities, the spiritual forces which imagine that at the moment of the crucifixion God’s purposes are frustrated. But on the contrary, the cross is the sign of triumph over these forces, as St Cyril states. Christ is not the weakened and humiliated servant of God who dies in failure, but as the sign above his head declares, he is King, βασιλεύς in Greek, and in his crucifixion he manifests his kingship and triumphs over his enemies.

For it was open to the view of all who chose to learn, pointing to Him Who suffered for our sake, and Who was giving His Life as a ransom for the lives of all.

So we have seen that St Cyril considers the Cross to be the triumph of Christ over the principalities. But now he starts to explain further what he wants us to understand. He says that those who saw this sign above Christ on the cross could have realised that it was not describing a false hope but an eternal truth. But we also are to understand that Christ, the Lord and King of all, was truly suffering for our sake, and was giving his life to ransom us all. What was he suffering? It was the death of the cross. And what was he giving, but his own life, his human life, for the life of all men and women. We need to note that St Cyril is clear, Christ ransoms all, not just a few. Whatever else salvation means, on the Cross we find that Christ is giving his life for all. He is suffering the death of the Cross for the sake of all.

For all men upon the earth, in that they have fallen into the snare of sin (for all have gone aside, and have all together become filthy, according to the Scripture), had made themselves liable to the accusation of the devil, and were living a hateful and miserable life.

Why did Christ give himself as a ransom for all by suffering death on the Cross? St Cyril explains that it is because all of us have made ourselves subject to the Devil. We have all fallen into the snare of sin, and all of us find that we are living what St Cyril perceptively calls as hateful and miserable life. We are all in this state, and we all need the same saving act of God as man on our behalf. This makes sense. If we are all fallen into the snare of sin – and we should be clear that this is not the same as saying we are all born sinful – then none of us are able to free ourselves, and so none of us can deserve salvation. We are all in the same state, and so Christ gives himself to suffer death to ransom all of us. We have made ourselves liable to the accusation of the Devil, and so we are ourselves responsible for our sinfulness. If we were born sinful, and so liable to the power and authority of the Devil in our creation, then we could not be made responsible for our sinfulness.

And the title contained a handwriting against us—-the curse that, by the Divine Law, impends over the transgressors, and the sentence that went forth against all who erred against those ancient ordinances of the Law, like unto Adam’s curse, which went forth against all mankind, in that all alike broke God’s decrees.

St Cyril draws so much out of this one verse and this one incident. If Christ is the King, then this sign posted above his head also describes our own transgression. We have been disobedient to our Lord, and so we are also liable to the curse, the doom, which was pronounced over Adam, we also are worthy of death. Not simply the mortal death of the body, but the spiritual death of separation from God. The warning which Adam heard was this – On the day you eat, you shall surely die. The day you disobey, that day you will experience death, and not just the death of natural mortality, but the death of separation from God. This was Adam’s experience. The fact of Christ’s kingship is the writing which condemns us, because we have been disobedient, as Adam was disobedient. And so we find ourselves not only in a state of mortality and separation from God, but from our youth we bring upon ourselves the personal guilt and condemnation of a personal disobedience.

For God’s anger did not cease with Adam’s fall, but He was also provoked by those who after him dishonoured the Creator’s decree; and the denunciation of the Law against transgressors was extended continuously over all.

It is clear from the words of St Cyril that God is angry with those who sin, and that our sin dishonours him, and we are transgressors of the Law of obedience. Those who have an understanding of their sinfulness do not minimise its consequences. But those who know God, do not directly attribute to him human emotions, as if he was simply a human King. God is not angry in the way that he is love. Nor is God angry in any way as a man is angry. Rather the Fathers teach us to understand that the anger of God is our own experience of rejecting God and being disobedient. This makes sense. We are created by God to know God and be in union with him. To reject God, and sin is the wilful rejection of God, then we reject life and light, and every good thing, and we are separated from God in our experience, even if we can never be separated from God in our being. Certainly we all deserve to hear the same condemnation – and disobedience deserves condemnation, because we also have become disobedient towards God. But to be exact, it is the Law which condemns us, according to St Cyril, even though our disobedience has consequences.

We were, then, accursed and condemned, by the sentence of God, through Adam’s transgression, and through breach of the Law laid down after him; but the Saviour wiped out the handwriting against us, by nailing the title to His Cross, which very clearly pointed to the death upon the Cross which He underwent for the salvation of men, who lay under condemnation.

In the understanding of St Cyril, we are certainly cursed and condemned to death by the word that God spoke – on the day that you eat, you will surely die. Not only because of the consequences of Adam’s sin, but because of our own. But this does not mean, that God willed this upon man, or that these consequences are a direct punishment. Indeed there was no other possibility for mankind. To reject God is to choose death. Death does not come after the rejection of life, but is itself the consequence of abandoning life. If a man was at the door of an enclosed room with only one door and no windows, and heard the doom – the moment you close the door you will be in darkness, this would not be a punishment, it would be a statement of fact, of terrible fact. Indeed, this is the most miserable aspect of our existence, we have chosen the way of death ourselves by the exercise of our free will, both in Adam and in our own experience. What were we cursed to endure – it was death. And we doubly deserve this death, both natural mortality and spiritual separation from God.

But this condemnation was wiped away by the Cross, and by the title posted above Christ. How can this be? It is because the statement, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, proclaims that a man has become King and Lord, as God intended, and as Adam had failed. This man deserves the title of King, but this man, worthy of Kingship, is also experiencing death. Thus death is transformed for man, from an end and a cause of despair, to a new beginning and a victory. What does Christ experience on the Cross? It is death, death on our behalf. The death that Adam brought upon himself and us all, and the death which we all deserve. Not punishment, though we were condemned to experience this death if we disobeyed. Not cursed by God, though certainly miserable and accursed by Adam and our own wilfulness.

For our sake He paid the penalty for our sins.

We should not doubt that there is a penalty for sins. It is death. We have deserved this penalty and experience it already in a mortal life, separated from God. The penalty is not some other punishment and torture at the hands of an angry God. Only those who do not truly know God could imagine that there is any greater punishment for the sinner than being separated from God. Those who have tasted any of the sweetness of the divine presence will know that this separation is the only punishment, and is unbearable for the soul. The Father does not torture the Son on the Cross. Nor does the Son try to placate the Father. The righteousness of God brings about the mortality and separation of those who disobey, brought about by the disobedience of the one who chooses death and self-will. The one who closes the door of his heart on God finds only darkness. But the love of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, brings about the salvation of mankind. God does not demand death, nor does he inflict pain on his Son. But death is the result of our rejecting life. It is the natural penalty, not a legal one. If I walk near the edge of a crumbling cliff I may fall, and will pay the penalty of my stupidity. But if a fireman runs into a burning house and rescues a child, but dies in the effort, then he is also said to have paid the cost, the penalty, of saving the child.

For though He was One that suffered, yet was He far above any creature, as God, and more precious than the life of all.

St Cyril insists that Christ suffered, and he did suffer truly in the mortal humanity which he made his own. But he did not suffer at the hands of the Father. He was not punished by the Father, or tortured as the Father might have wanted to inflict pain on us. He suffered in that he experienced a true death, and not simply a death, but at the hands of his creatures, and together with thieves, while he was blameless. Death is what we deserve, not torture. And Christ suffered what we deserved on our behalf. It was for a purpose. It was for victory over death, because he is more precious than even the life of every person who has ever lived, and he suffered while being God, yet in his own humanity which was able to suffer and die.

Therefore, as the Psalmist says, the mouth of all lawlessness was stopped, and the tongue of sin was silenced, unable any more to speak against sinners.

What a wonderful understanding St Cyril presents. By his death on the Cross on our behalf, there is no one left to speak against sinners. The victory is complete on behalf of mankind. The lawless one is Satan, the Devil, and when Christ has once died on behalf of all mankind on the Cross, paying the penalty of death which we deserved and already experienced, he can no longer claim mankind as being under his own jurisdiction.

For we are justified, now that Christ has paid the penalty for us; for by His stripes we are healed, according to the Scripture.

We are put right with God, now that Christ has experienced death in our place, and paid the penalty of death which our own disobedience required. If we are put right with God then he is no longer angry, even in the sense we have considered, for all mankind is found in Christ on the Cross, and he pays the cost of our disobedience to the full and for all. We are all healed by the suffering of death which he endured. St Cyril has no conception in this commentary that we are saved from the anger of God, as if he wished to harm us. Rather it is the death we have brought upon ourselves which made us accursed, and which was our debt, and which Christ has fully paid, not to God, though he offered this obedience to God, but for our salvation.

And just as by the Cross the sin of our revolt was perfected, so also by the Cross was achieved our return to our original state, and the acceptable recovery of heavenly blessings; Christ, as it were, gathering up into Himself, for us, the very fount and origin of our infirmity.

Death had come upon us through disobedience. Disobedience leads always to death. Disobedience is the expression of our rebellion against God, who is rightly our Lord and King. But on the Cross our disobedience, our rebellion, was finally and completely dealt with, by the obedience of one man, Jesus Christ, the God-man. In the Cross this perfect man destroyed the power of death by experiencing it on our behalf, so that we might be reconciled to God, and might receive again the heavenly blessings which Adam had lost for us. There is no understanding in St Cyril in this passage, that God desires to punish mankind, and waits to punish Christ instead of us. Rather Christ, fulfilling the loving purposes of God for our salvation, gathered all of mankind in himself, took up that weakness which was in Adam, and the death we experience which originates in him. He removes it forever, bringing us back to the state in which God made us, and intending us for even greater blessing.

This is what the Cross means. It is the victory of God in Christ over Satan and death. It is the renewal of mankind for union with God. And it is the full payment of the death which we brought upon ourselves by our disobedience and the rejection of God.

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