Monday, April 5, 2021

'Cross-bearers' - Not Simply 'Cross-wearers'


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Shine, Cross of the Lord, shine with the light of thy grace upon the hearts of those that honor thee!
Hail! life-giving Cross, the fair Paradise of the Church, Tree of incorruption that brings us the enjoyment of eternal glory.
Hail!  life-giving Cross, unconquerable trophy of the true faith, door to Paradise, succor the faithful, rampart set about the Church.

(Stichera of Great Vespers for the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross)


At the very midpoint of Great Lent we venerate the Life-Giving Cross of the Lord.  If we have in any way taken up the cross of asceticism in obedience to the Church and in reaction to our over-indulgent surroundings, then by the Third Sunday of Great Lent the purpose of our ascetical efforts - and the very goal of our journey - are brought to our attention:  to stand by the Cross of the Lord as we journey toward Jerusalem and Holy Week. 

The timing is perfect, for by this third Sunday of Great Lent we begin to tire, if not "wear out" with our lenten effort to this point.  However, in our weakness we can find the strength and resolve to continue our journey with enthusiasm, and not simply obligation. This is made possible by the presence of the Cross, not only at the heart and center of Great Lent, but at the heart and center of the biblical revelation; of the entire historical process; of the cosmos; and at the heart and center of the Trinity, as the Lamb of God is slain before the foundation of the world.  

With that in mind, we can chant and sing the appointed hymns cited above, not only as fine examples of Byzantine rhetoric, but as profound insights into the meaning and purpose of the Cross. 

What may appear at first sight as hyperbole or exaggeration in the Church's hymnography, is discovered, upon deeper meditation, to be the search for words and images adequate to the great mystery of the Cross, in itself the inexhaustible wisdom of God as the "breadth and length, and height and depth" of that wisdom which will fill us "with  the fulness of God" (EPH. 3:18-19).  The only response to this Mystery once we begin to assimilate it, is to "bow down" in worship before the Master's Cross in awe and adoration.  

In our liturgical tradition we decorate the Cross with flowers in order to enhance and reveal its inner beauty, as we bring the Cross in solemn procession into the midst of the church for veneration.  The decorated Cross is one way of trying to capture the paradoxical nature of the Cross.

For in no way is the Church trying to cover up the horror and brutality of crucifixion as one of the most  perverse and twisted means of humanity's sinful capacity to inflict pain and humiliation on others.  Here is the dark side of human nature at its most lethal.  This is all clearly beneath the surface in the Gospels and their restrained and sober narrative of the Lord dying on the Cross.  And it is on Golgotha "when they had crucified him" (MATT. 27:35) that we can begin to understand why the Lord "cried with a loud voice, 'Eli, Eli, la'ma sabach'-tha'ni' that is 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (MATT. 27:46).  It is in and through this cry of solidarity with suffering humanity while lifted up on the Cross that we never soften or "sing away" the horror of the Cross.  We respect what it meant for the Lord to ascend the Cross. A clear-sighted realism demands that of us.

Yet, Christ is our Passover, the Lamb of God "who takes away the sin of the world" (JN. 1:29).  On the Cross, as the sinless Son of God, Christ absorbs and takes upon Himself all of that sin in order to overcome it from within.  He died on the Cross, but death had no hold over Him. He died for the life of the world and its salvation. By His obedience to the will of the Father,  Christ destroys death by death.

For this reason, when we venerate the Cross we simultaneously glorify the Lord's "holy Resurrection." It is on the Cross that Christ is victorious, not in spite of the Cross. The Son glorifies the Father precisely while lifted up on the Cross. "I call Him King, because I see Him crucified," said St. John Chrysostom. 

As we sing at every Liturgy after having received the Body and Blood of Christ: "for through the Cross joy has come into the world."  That is an incredible claim, but through faith we understand that claim as the very heart of the Gospel, the "good news" that life has overcome death "once and for all."  Whenever we taste of that joy, we taste of the glory of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps here we discover the paradoxical nature of a decorated Cross:  the ultimate sign of defeat and death has become the "unconquerable trophy of the true faith."  Or, as the Apostle Paul has declared:  "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).

The Lord taught us:  "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (MK. 8:34).  These words challenge us to never be content with being passive observers of the Cross, but rather active participants in the life of self-denial and co-suffering love that are implied in taking up the Cross.

This further means that by our very vocation as Christians, we are "cross-bearers" and not simply "cross-wearers."  It is one thing to wear a cross, and another thing to bear a cross.

Of course it is a good thing that Christians do wear a cross.  This is something of a identity badge that reveals that we are indeed Christians, but this worn cross is certainly not another piece of jewelry - Byzantine, three-barred, Celtic or Ethiopian!  By wearing a cross we are saying in effect:  I am a Christian, and therefore I belong to the Crucified One, who is none other than the "Lord and Master of my life."  My ultimate allegiance is to Him, and to no other person or party. With the Apostle Paul, I also confess:  "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel:  it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith ..." (ROM. 1:16).

Such a confession already takes us way beyond passively being a "cross-wearer" to actively being a "cross-bearer."  Dying to sin in Baptism makes the impossible possible.   And with a faith in Christ that is ever-deepening in maturity, we can further exclaim with the great Apostle:  "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (GAL. 5:24).

The Third Sunday of Great Lent - The Adoration of the Life-Giving Cross - reveals, I believe, that here is something that makes Lent potentially great.  Here are reasons that make taking Lent seriously a worthy and noble endeavor.  We are slowly learning to be Cross-bearers, and in the process transforming the simple profession "I am a Christian," into a powerful confession of Faith.