Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Sign of the Son of Man, Part 1

Dear Parish Faithful,

 "Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven…"
 (MATT. 24:30)

Contemporary scholars debate the meaning of the word “sign” in the words of Christ found in the above passage that describes, in highly symbolic terms, His parousia or return in glory.  This sign, whatever it may be, will be impossible to miss or misinterpret.  It will overwhelm those who are present to observe it and stand in its shadow, so to speak.  Yet, for many of the Church Fathers – including St. John Chrysostom - the word “sign” in this passage refers to the cross of the Savior.  Commenting on this passage as found in the Gospel According to St. Matthew, St. John writes the following:

“The cross will be brighter than the sun.  The sun will be darkened and hide itself.  The sun will appear at times when it would not normally appear. .. For having the cross as the greatest plea, the Son of man thus comes to that judgment seat, showing not only his wounds but also the reproach of his death.”  (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 76.3.)

The Church Fathers were in direct continuity with the New Testament in their emphasis on the Cross in the divine economy.  There was no conceivable way to legitimately underemphasize or somehow “get around” the centrality of the Cross. If Jesus was Lord, then His lordship had been fully revealed following His death on the Cross: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified”  (ACTS 2:36).   St. Paul knew that the Cross of the Lord was a “stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” (I COR 1:23).  It was no different in the centuries to follow, including the great Patristic Age when the Church Fathers offered their great commentaries on the Scriptures.  And it is no different today:  there will always remain a deep sense of incomprehension before the mystery of the Cross.  How can suffering and death be the path to glorification and life with God?  St. Paul, however, did not flinch from what God had revealed, and he drew his own hard conclusion:  “For 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”  (I COR. 1:18).  Even more emphatically for the great apostle, the Cross and Christ are so closely bound together, that both are  considered to be “the wisdom of God” (I COR. 1:20-25).  The Cross may be “foolish,” “low,” and “despised,”  (I COR. 1:27,28) but it is Christ Jesus, the Crucified One, “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption”  (I COR. 1:30).  In a beautiful image from St. John Chrysostom, we hear him say that “I call Him King because I see Him crucified.”

The Cross does not stand alone, but is always linked to the Resurrection of Christ, the event that reveals the inner meaning of the Cross and its fulfillment.  Without the resurrection of Christ, the Cross would indeed remain an instrument of suffering and death, having the “last word” in a fallen and irredeemable world.  We express the unity of Cross and Resurrection  liturgically, through the powerful hymn that accompanies our veneration of the Cross as now during the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection, we glorify!

This organic and inextricable union of the Cross and Resurrection is beautifully expressed in every celebration of the Liturgy, when immediately after the reception of the Eucharist we chant:

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One.  We venerate Thy Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Thy holy Resurrection; for Thou are our God, and we know no other than Thee; we call on Thy name.  Come all you faithful, let us venerate Christ’s holy Resurrection!  For, behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world.  Let us ever bless the Lord, praising His Resurrection, for by enduring the Cross for us, He has destroyed death by death.

Christians live under and by the Sign of the Cross.  Many Christians – certainly the Orthodox -  even “make” this sign over their bodies when they “cross themselves.”  This can, of course, be nothing but an empty gesture, or a vestige of a cultural tradition that has long lost any power or significance in our lives.   The sign of the Cross can even be manipulated in a manner dangerously approaching superstition:  as if the cross was a sort of charm or talisman that protects one more-or-less magically.  However, let us assume that we are no longer subject to such crass temptations. Let us further assume that our intentions are to treat the sign of the Cross with respect and reverence.  At this point there may be additional and more subtle temptations that we must contend with.  If we compartmentalize our lives in such a way that “religion” –  or even God – is consciously or unconsciously only a part of our lives, or apart from our daily lives, then we can find ourselves living under or by a different “sign” than that of the Cross.  How can that happen?

(To be continued)

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