Seeing Our Salvation: The Language of Icons - A Sermon on the Procession of the Cross (2022)

Seeing Our Salvation: The Language of Icons - A Sermon on the Procession of the Cross (2022) - Holy Cross Monastery



The Orthodox Church has preserved the custom of making the sign of the cross in liturgical and private prayers. It is even attested to by St. Basil the Great as being an inseparable part of the tradition of the Church.[1] Christians make the sign of the cross over themselves during prayer and at the beginning and end of any task. A priest’s blessing is expressed by making the sign of the cross over the person approaching him. The transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the blessing of the water at the mystery of baptism, and other important priestly actions, are accomplished by the aid of the sign of the cross.[2] The image of the Cross has been brought forth from the Altar and placed in the middle of the church for the faithful to see and venerate because today we celebrate the Feast of the Procession of the Precious Wood of the Life-Giving Cross.


There is an account which cites the Greek Horologion of 1867, indicating that this Feast was celebrated due to the various illness that arose in the month of August in Constantinople however it offers no date as to its origins.[3]

St. Nikolai (Velimirovich), in his Prologue from Ohrid, offers the twelfth century as the beginning of this feast following the victory of the Greeks over the Saracens and Russia over the Bulgar armies, wherein the armies carried crosses, and it was noted that “heavenly rays blazed forth” from them. Therefore, the procession of the cross became a commemoration of the miraculous help of the Cross in these battles.[4] Others trace it back to at least the tenth century because a book from that century called the “Book of Commemorations” describes the services for various cross precessions.[5]

Despite the imprecision of dating the beginning of this Feast, many people might say, “Why bother?”

“Whether it is actually true that the cross was brought out in order to miraculously heal the sick, or whether this feast was instituted because of the aid that the cross provided in battle, or for some other reason, why would we bother to do the same nowadays?”

Although we live in a world of icons throughout our secular society, whether as apps on our phones and computers, or company logos and brand names, nonetheless, we remain in a predominantly iconoclastic world. Moreover, when it comes to the religious sphere, many may be more apt to talk and philosophize about spiritual realities. The Orthodox Church, however, not only speaks about these realities, it demonstrates them through icons, relics, the Divine Services, and most significantly, the Holy Mysteries.

Spiritual realities are revealed through material/physical objects that participate in that reality,[6] whether the image is of Christ, the Mother of God, the Cross, or any number of events.


Within the Church, spiritual realities have always been depicted through images and guidelines have been introduced to offer the most precise representations of these realities.

I. Images are part of the unwritten/oral tradition

The presence of icons and images within the Orthodox Church is a consequence of oral tradition. Many are familiar with this quote already, but it is worth repeating in this context, those famous words of St. Basil the Great, who speaks of and defends the oral tradition of the Church, saying,

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.[7]

If you want to be Biblical, the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians, “I praise you … for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you”(1 Cor. 11.2). Again, to the Thessalonians, he writes “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle”(2 Thess. 2.15).

That is, there has always existed an oral and a written tradition from the very foundation of the Church, especially when there was no formal canon of Scripture, no Bible.

II. Hearing is equal to sight

When it comes to images versus words, the Fathers of the Church do not pit one against the other; instead, it is both images and words. St. Theodore the Studite (8th–9th cent.) frequently writes, “Hearing is equal to sight, and it is necessary to use both senses.”[8] He says, “[Christ] nowhere told anyone to write down the concise words, yet His image was drawn in writing by the Apostles and has been preserved up to the present. Whatever is marked there with paper and ink, the same is marked on the icon with varied pigments or some other material medium.”[9]

III. Intellectual and Material

It is not enough for us to only think about the Gospels, Christ, and salvation. St. Theodore says that if that was all that was needed, then Christ would have come to us only intellectually and not physically. “If merely mental contemplation were sufficient,” he writes, “it would have been sufficient for [Christ] to come to us in a merely mental way.”[10]

Because we accept the use of images and texts, we need not think that this parallels or brings us close to any notion of idolatry because what the images do is draw our attention towards the reality represented in them. As St. Theodore further writes,

If you admit that sight is equal to hearing, then whether in an image, or in the Gospel, or in the cross, or in any other consecrated object, God is evidently worshipped “in spirit and in truth,” as the materials are exalted by the raising of the mind toward God. The mind does not remain with the materials, because it does not trust in them: that is the error of the idolators. Through the materials, rather, the mind ascends toward the prototype: this is the faith of the orthodox.[11]

IV. The prototype, the spiritual reality which permeates the image

An analogy of this relationship can be seen in the value that Christians place on all human lives. This value stems from the fact that humanity has no inherent value within itself except that every human being is made in the image of God, an image which we can mar within ourselves but never erase. This logos of man’s nature, as St. Maximus calls it, or this “image,” which many of the Greek Fathers term, indicates the essence of every human being and is the true spiritual unconscious reality of all of humanity which links each person to their Creator.[12] (The ability to see this is dependent upon the grace of God which works through each individual’s acquiring of the virtues and uprooting of the passions in order to make this image more brilliant within oneself.[13])

“The honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype,” says St. Basil the Great[14] , which is why it is not the material of the icon or cross that we adore but what it represents, says St. John of Damascus. “just as we do not adore the material of the Gospel or that of the cross, but that which they typify,” he further notes.[15]

V. An Old Testament Example

“Okay,” someone might say, “That does seem to be a good case for why we should have images, however, that in no way indicates that there is some type of power which manifests itself through these images; no type of grace.”

But to this, we would respond with the words of the Studite when he refers to Moses in the Old Testament:

If God formerly condescended to be symbolized by a serpent in order to heal those who were bitten, how could it not be pleasing to Him and appropriate to set up the image of the bodily form which has been His since He became man? And if the symbol in animal form cured those who had been bitten by its sight alone, how could the holy representation of Christ’s very form do otherwise than hallow those who see it?[16]

VI. The Experience of Images

Furthermore, this is what has been the experience of the Church with icons, with relics, with the Cross. The spiritual reality of which they are a part is conveyed to those who look on them, and what is more, grace flows from these images,  working miracles and hallowing those who look on them.

St. Theodore offers the example of a miracle that took place in the 4th century through the Deisis icon (an icon of Christ where He is portrayed in the center with the Theotokos on His right and St. John, the Forerunner and Baptizer of the Lord, on his left. Two unmercenary martyrs (i.e., physicians) Sts. Cyrus and John, who lived in the fourth century, came into this church and knelt and prayed before this icon for the recovery of a young man from a particular ailment whom they could not cure. Three times they prayed before this icon, and on the third time, a voice came from the icon, saying, “Christ has had pity as He is merciful, and has nodded assent, and has said, ‘Give him his medicine before the icon.’” They then worshipped before this icon as though they were before Christ.[17]

A second and final illustration of this point is from a life we are all familiar with and was transcribed by Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem, and it is from the life of St. Mary of Egypt (344-421). Although she continued to live a depraved life, she conceived of the idea of traveling to Jerusalem if only to look at the Cross. In the process, a miracle occurred which first prevented her from approaching the Cross and then which allowed her to do so, after which she repented and renounced the world. She recalls this event to the monk Zosimas, recounting how she had come to the church but was barred from coming near to the Cross:

[O]nly then, with great difficulty, it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart.

And so I stood weeping when I saw above me the ikon of the most holy Mother of God. Not taking my eyes off her, I said, ‘O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honor or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy icon, O ever-virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity. Rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.[18]


The Procession of the Precious Wood of the Life-giving Cross of the Lord, wherein the image of the cross is brought out for the faithful, for us to look upon, is not a formality of the Church for the sake of custom and ritual. However, it is a custom, and a ritual, and a tradition because that image raises our minds toward that which it represents: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” writes the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 1.18). Or, as we sing in the Expostilarion for the Exaltation of the Cross:

The Cross is the guardian of the whole world!

The Cross is the beauty of the Church!

The Cross is the dominion of kings!

The Cross is the confirmation of the faithful!

The Cross is the glory of the angels and the wounding of the demons![19]

The greatest miracle that can come from the presence of the cross is not that God would heal the ailments of our body or mind, but that when we look to the precious wood of the life-giving Cross of the Lord, God softens our hardened heart and renews our mind so that the life that is worth living is restored in us.



[1] “[W]ho has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?” St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 27.66.

[2] Paraphrasing Met. Hilarion (Alfeyev), Orthodox Christianity, 2.316.

[3] @

[4] The Prologue From Ohrid, entry for August 1 @, cf. Bulgakov Handbook, entry for August 1 @


[6] Icons do not depict, they reveal (Alfeyev, 212)

[7] St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 27.66.

[8] St. Theodore, On the Holy Icons, 37.

[9] St. Theodore, On the Holy Icons, 30-31.

[10] St. Theodore, On the Holy Icons, 37.

[11] St. Theodore, On the Holy Icons, 34.

[12] Cf. John of Damascus, The Fountain of Knowledge, IV, 16.

[13] Cf. Larchet, Jean-Claude, The Spiritual Unconscious, 118-122.

[14] St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 18.45.

[15] St. John of Damascus, The Fountain of Knowledge, IV, 16. [W]e say that Christ is one thing and His image is another thing by nature, although they have an identity in the use of the same name. Moreover, when one considers the nature of the image, not only would he not say that the thing he sees is Christ, but he would not even say that it is the image of Christ. For it is perhaps wood, or pain, or gold, or silver, or some one of the various materials which are mentioned. But when one considers the likeness to the original by means of a representation, it is both Christ and the image of Christ. It is Christ by the identity of name, but the image of Christ by its relationship. For the copy is a copy of its original, just as a name is the name of that which is named, (St. Theodore, On the Holy Icons, 32)

[16] St. Theodore, On the Holy Icons, 25.; and also, If someone says that divinity is in the icon, he would not be wrong, since it is also in the representation of the cross and in the other sacred object; but divinity is not present in them by a union of natures, for they are not deified flesh, but a relative participation, because they share in the grace and the honor. (ibid., 33)

[17] St. Theodore, On the Holy Icons, 54.

[18] The Life of St. Mary of Egypt, 89-90.

[19] Cf. For on [the Cross] the impassible Word suffered, and it has such power that by its mere shadow it burns up the demons and drives them far away from those who bear its seal. (St. Theodore, On the Holy Icons, 35)

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