Monday, September 20, 2010

Inscribing the Cross in our Hearts

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Extol the Lord our God. Worship at His footstool, for it is holy!" (PS. 99:5)

The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross is behind us, as yesterday we celebrated the Leavetaking. Yet, we should bear in mind, that in addition to the many feasts or commemorations that bring the Cross before us for both interior reflection and outward veneration, the Cross is never absent from our lives for a day. As Orthodox Christians, we wear crosses; we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves throughout the day; and we fast on Fridays in honor and remembrance of the Cross as concrete examples of our awareness that "through the Cross joy has come into the world." We are a "Cross-conscious" people. When, in the providence of God, we must be a "Cross-bearing" people - either individually or collectively - this is all meant to strengthen us in the time of our testing. In fact, if our "worldview" does not have the Cross at its center, than it can hardly be described as Christian. It is precisely the schizophrenia of doing one thing in church, and then living by a set of different principles once we leave the church, that undeminds our Faith and witness to the world.

Of course, we do not contemplate the Cross in isolation from the Resurrection of Christ. We do not tear the seamless robe of the paschal mystery that holds together the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord, distinct as those two "events" may be in the economy of our salvation. For the Cross without the Resurrection would devolve into a stoical stance before human suffering, at best; and eventually become an unhealthy cult of that very same suffering, at worst. (Although, I am convinced that without the Resurrection, we would not even know about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. He would have, to borrow the harsh phrase, disappeared into the "dustbins of history"). The Apostle Paul wrote that the Lord Jesus "was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (ROM. 4:25) This formulation is the equivalent of a short creedal confession of Faith from the earliest days of the Church, embedded in the New Testament. In his great testimony to the Church's earliest Tradition, the Apostle Paul wrote with further elaboration:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. (I COR. 15:3-5)

We capture this perfect integration of Cross and Resurrection expressed so powerfully and joyfully in the New Testament, in the hymn that accompanies our veneration of the Cross in the Church:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.

Although never losing sight of the sufferings of the Lord on the Cross, the Feast of the Elevation brings to mind the victorious nature of the Cross; or rather the paradox that through the Cross our Lord was victorious over sin, death and the devil. "I call Him King, because I see Him crucified," St. John Chrysostom joyfully cried out. In a remarkable passage from his classical work On the Incarnation of the Word of God, St. Athanasius the Great witnesses with great eloquence, spiritual insight and exegetical skill, the more cosmic and universal dimensions of the Cross of our Lord:

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 every one 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 up 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 constant was the death on the cross for us; and we can see how reasonable it was, and why it is that the salvation of the world could 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.
(St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 25, as quoted in Fr. Thomas Hopko's essay, "The Tree of the Cross.")

The ultimate divine revelation to the world was that of the Father, revealing His love for the world through the outstretched arms of the Lord on the Cross - a crucifying love pointing toward to the crucified One. And this crucifying love was "perfected" by the Holy Spirit. For Christians, there are no prophets bringing a further revelation to the world following the Cross - and Resurrection - of the Lord. As expressed by Fr. Thomas Hopko in his talk, "The Word of the Cross:"

Beyond the Cross there is nothing more that God can do.
Beyond the Cross there is nothing more that God can say.
Beyond the Cross there is nothing else to be revealed.

If we can only inscribe the Cross in our hearts in addition to wearing a cross, or signing ourselves with the cross; then that revelation will be incarnate in each of us and a revelation to the world.

Fr. Steven

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