I hope that everyone is doing well following yesterday's Midwest extension of the fury of Hurricane Ike. Power is on at the church, hence this meditation. However, there is no power in my neighborhood, so perhaps you are joining us in a bit of a scaled-back lifestyle for yet a few days more. Just imagine, if the water was also off, we could have played at an urban version of House on the Prairie! Not quite, for our contemporary version of "roughing it" is qualitatively softened by the ready availability of cars and cell phones. However, one intriguing question/challenge emerges: how well are we able to preoccupy ourselves without access to the screens of the television and the computer? Time to do some serious reading by candlelight ...
The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (September 14) offers us one more of many opportunities to contemplate the meaning and power of the Cross. In a Christian worldview, the Cross is inscribed on our minds and hearts, but also over the entire cosmos, as this "sign of the Son of Man" emerges from the depths of eternity, for the Cross reveals the pre-eternal plan of God to bring salvation to a fallen world and a groaning creation. (cf. ROM. 8:19-23) If, by the grace of God, we accept the truth of the Cross unto our salvation, we must never lose sight of the fact that the Cross has always been a "stumbling block" and "foolishness," not only to the Jews and Gentiles spoken of by the Apostle Paul, but to countless others who cannot detect the presence and power of God in and through what has always been a symbol of suffering and death. A crucified (Jewish) Messiah is the Savior of the world. His resurrection vindicated that claim. No wonder the apostles were accused of turning everything upside down!
Without in any fashion trying to strip the Cross of its inherent "foolishness," St. Athanasius the Great also strives to find the "reason(ableness)" behind Christ's crucifixion. This leads to one of many wonderful passages in his now classical work On the Incarnation:
But if any honest Christian wants to know why He suffered death on the Cross and not in some other way, we answer thus: in no other way was it expedient for us, indeed the Lord offered for our sakes the one death that was supremely good. He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He "become a curse" otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." (GAL. 3:13; DEUT. 21:23) Again the death of the Lord is the ransom for all, and by it "the middle wall of partition" is broken down and the call of the Gentiles comes about. (EPH. 2:14) ... Again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one arm and the Gentiles with the other, and to join both peoples together in Himself. Even so, He foretold the manner of His redeeming death: "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to Myself." (JN. 12:32) Again, the air is the sphere of the devil, the enemy of our race, who, having fallen from heaven endeavors with the other evil spirits ... to keep souls from the truth and to hinder the progress of those who are trying to follow it ... But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make a way for us to heaven ... This had to be done through death, but by what other kind of death could it be done, except by a death in the air, that is, on the cross? ... Fitting indeed then, and wholly consonant was the death on the cross for us; and we can see how reasonable it was, and why it had to be accomplished in no other way. Even on the cross He did not hide Himself from sight, rather, He made all creation witness to the presence of its Maker. (On the Incarnation, 54-55)
Although the cross will always remain a sign of struggle and hardship, if not of suffering and death, the Lord, by His death on the Cross, has simultaneously transformed the Cross into a sign of victory and glorification:
Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross,
The invincible trophy of godliness,
The door of Paradise,
The protection of the faithful,
by which corruption is utterly destroyed
and the power of death swallowed up
and we are exalted to heaven from earth.
The invincible weapon,
The adversary of demons,
The glory of martyrs,
The true beauty of saints,
The haven of salvation
which grants mercy to the world. (Great Vespers of the Feast)
How does the Church express the great paradox of the Cross, embracing both aspects of suffering and glory; and of death and victory? By proclaiming that this Feast Day is also a "strict fast day." It is the only great Feast Day of the Cross that is so designated. We greet the decorated Cross with festal joy and venerate it with the full knowledge that we are all lost without the Cross. And yet we practice the self-discipline of fasting as a concrete sign of our solidarity with our Lord Who ascended the Cross so that He may nail the handwriting of sin against it.
In the present Afterfeast of the Elevation of the Cross - through and including next Sunday - let us call to mind that we belong to the Crucified One. That means that we must stand with any others who are suffering innocently, unjustly, or at the hands of the powerful of this world. Otherwise, we may empty the power of the Cross of its redemptive value.