Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Cross Implanted in the Center of Our Lives

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Let all the trees of the forest rejoice, For their nature is sanctified by Christ who planted them in the beginning, And who was Himself outstretched on the Tree. At its exaltation today we worship Him and glorify Thee.
(Canon hymn from the Matins of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross)

At last Sunday's Divine Liturgy, the "Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross," we heard the inexhaustibly rich passage from the Gospel According to St. John that contains the verse:

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (JN. 3:16)

This verse, of course, is embedded in the Anaphora Prayer of the Liturgy, so that we hear it constantly as reminder, synopsis and actualization of the love of God that imbues the entire New Testament. In biblical language we could say "Woe to anyone who hears this verse with indifference!" At every Liturgy are hearts can truly be "lifted up" to the Lord - perhaps even soar heavenward - when we hear of how God "so loved the world." No matter what is happening in the world, or in our own personal lives, we are reassured that ultimately the love of God will place us in the indescribable realm of eternal life, safe from the dangers of the world and saved from sin and death.

Interestingly, in some versions of the New Testament, these words are ascribed to Jesus directly; though in many others - including the RSV - they are ascribed to the evangelist as a kind of theological commentary on the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus recorded in 3:1-15.

When we celebrated the Feast this week, we declared the Cross to be the "invincible trophy" by which we are granted victory over our "adversaries." Historically, this hymn is referring to military victory over the enemies of the Christianized Roman Empire that we now call Byzantium. The Empire was surrounded by "enemies" and endlessly attacked. The soldiers of the Empire were inspired by the Cross carried in battle as they put their hope in Christ for victory. For good reasons this may sound to us today as being very anachronistic, if not terribly sinful. We can only wince at some of the deadly excesses of battle unleashed upon the "enemy" by Christians fighting under the sign of the Cross. We may judge that as we choose, but singing this hymn today we need to recognize our "adversaries" as the many demonic thoughts and temptations that assail us in our daily "spiritual warfare." When those adversaries capture our minds and hearts, then we betray Christ through the sinfulness we are led into. The sign of the Cross is our "weapon" in this spiritual warfare, because it was through the Cross that Christ overcame the "power" of sin, the devil and death:

He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them through him (Or in it, that is, the Cross - COL. 2:15).

The "wisdom of the world" did not uncover the truth of the Cross, for that same "wisdom" would hardly seek truth where it was believed that only a "stumbling block" (scandal) and "folly" were to be found. (I COR. 1:23) The "foolish wisdom" of the Cross could only be revealed by God, and then accepted in faith as the means of our salvation:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (I COR. 1:25)

The Cross must therefore remain at the very center of our lives and in the expression of our Orthodox Christian Faith, for otherwise we will "suffer" the consequences of that loss in terms described by Fr. Thomas Hopko:

When the tree of the cross is removed from the center of our lives we find ourselves cast out of paradise and deprived of the joy of the communion with God.

Yet, the fruit of that cross-centeredness is also ably described by Fr. Hopko in an inspiring manner:

But when the cross remains planted in our hearts and exalted in our lives, we partake of the tree of life and delight in the fruits of the Spirit, by which we live forever with our Lord. Rejoice, O Lifegiving Cross!

Today the Cross is exalted and the world is sanctified.
For Thou who art enthroned with the Father and the Holy
Spirit have have spread out Thine arms upon it,
And have drawn the world to the knowledge of Thee,
O Christ.
Make worthy of divine glory those who have put their
trust in Thee.
(The Hymn of Light at the Matins of the Feast)

Fr. Steven

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