Sojourning on the Way: Roadblocks

“Those who follow the path of God often experience times when the holy peace, that glorious inner seclusion of calm detachment, and the freedom they love are interrupted-when, in fact, they withdraw. Sometimes movements within the heart raise such clouds of dust within that one cannot see the path one must follow.

When we happen to experience something like this, we must realize and recognize that God allows it to happen for our own good. This is precisely the warfare for which God has rewarded his saints with radiant crowns. Remembering this, then, let us not lose courage in the trials we face. As in any other trouble, we may look to the Lord and say to Him from our heart, ‘O Lord my God, take care of Your servant, and let Your will be done in me. I know and confess that Your words and promise are true. I put my trust in them and stand firmly upon Your path.’ Blessed is the soul that surrenders to the Lord each time it experiences trouble and hardship.

If, in spite of this, the struggle persists and we are unable to attune and unite our will with the will of God as quickly as we wish, let us not mourn or lose heart, but continue to surrender ourselves to God, bowing willingly to His decisions. Through this we will gain victory. Remember the battle our Lord Jesus Christ had to fight in the garden of Gethsemane, when he cried, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.’ But he immediately added, ‘Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will’ (Matthew 26:39). For He indeed faced all we have to face.

When we are faced with difficulties, it is best not to take any step til we raise our eyes to the crucified Christ our Lord. There we will see written in large letters how we too should behave in the hardships which face us. So let us copy it for ourselves – not in letters and words, but in actions. That is, when we feel attacks of self-loving, self-pity, we must not pay attention to them nor crawl down from our cross. Let us rather resort to prayer and endure with humility – striving to conquer our will and to stand firmly in the determination to desire God’s will to be done in us.

If we emerge from our prayer with this fruit, let us rejoice. If we fail to attain it, our soul will be left fasting, not having tasted its natural fruit.

We must try to let nothing dwell in our soul except God – even for a short time. In the meantime, do not mourn or be distressed by anything. Nor should we turn our eyes to look at the evil of others or to bad examples. Rather, let us learn to be like a little child, which, in its innocence, does not notice such things, but passes them by unharmed.” (Jack N. Sparks, Victory in the Unseen Warfare, pp. 111-112) 

Holy Friday (2017)

“Even though he was crucified in weakness, he lives through the power of God!” (2 Corinthians 13:4, EOB)

 

On many occasions in the Old Testament God appears to have human attributes, human emotions, human limits.  God takes the dust of the earth to fashion human beings and breathes into the dust of the earth to create life. God walks in the Garden of Eden. God is saddened by human evil and grieves over having created humans. And while we who have sophistication today realize God doesn’t have hands and feet and lungs nor eyes and ears, we also realize that all of these primitive anthropomorphic descriptions of the invisible, incomprehensible, and ineffable God, prepared us humans for the incarnation, when God in fact took on flesh and became human. Not just any human, but perfect human. He became what we are created to be.  And, as a human, our God takes upon Himself our mortal nature, dying on a cross for us.  Holy Friday is the day on which we contemplate God’s love for us.  God endures everything we have to endure in His creation, including suffering and death.  Divine Love knows no limits, descending not only to earth but into Hades itself to restore life to all.  With His death on the cross, God shows His love for us is complete, total and absolute.

It is finished!

Finally finished and finally completed.

Finished and completed: “Behold the man” (John 19:5), the true human being, the image of God, the one who loved us till the end, even if I do not know him and do not comprehend him.

Among the gods there is not like thee O Lord; neither are there any works like thy works (Ps. 86:8).

God’s ways are past our understanding, shattering every constraint that limits our feeble imagination.

Christ shows us his divinity, not in a superhuman–inhuman–manner, but as truly human, human in the end common to us all.

Put to death on the cross, he yet voluntarily laid down his life in love for us, showing us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as human, for us.

And so, for us mortals, he opens up the possibility to share in his life, to live the life of God himself.

If he had shown us what it is to be truly human in any other way, what part could I have had in it?

But by his death, his life lived for others, a path of sacrifice and service, in his love and compassion for us, he has shown us a more noble way still, beyond our self-aggrandizing aspirations and merely human projections. And this life has led, as it must to the grave; yet it is not bound by the tomb.”   (Fr John Behr, The Cross Stands while the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year, pp. 66-67)

God became human in order to die for us on the cross, to descend to the place of the dead in order to destroy death.  What we truly commemorate and celebrate on Holy Friday is not only the death of the Son of God, but the death of death itself.  God overthrows the tyranny which Death claimed over humanity.  

The Crucifixion of Death

In one of the Lenten hymns from the 4th week of Great Lent, there is an interesting exchange in which the nailing of Christ to the cross and piercing His side with the spear is actually bringing about the death of Death.  In the hymn, Hell/Death is personified and is at first puzzled by what it is experiencing  during Christ’s crucifixion.  The confusion turns to panic as Death realizes its own effort to kill the Christ has resulted in its own destruction.

Pilate set up three crosses in the place of the Skull, two for the
thieves, and one for the Giver of Life. Seeing Him, Hell cried to
those below: My ministers and powers! Who is this that has fixed a
nail in my heart?

Crucified heel bone pierced by a nail. (1st Century)

A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly, and I am
torn apart! I suffer inwardly; anguish has seized my belly and my
senses. My spirit trembles and I am forced to cast out Adam and his
posterity! A tree brought them to my realm, but now the Tree of the
Cross cries out to them: Enter again into Paradise!

The hymn is perhaps an Orthodox version of the “substitutionary” theory of atonement.  In the Orthodox hymn, however, the emphasis is not on the innocent Christ dying on the cross in the place of sinful humanity.  Rather, Christ’s torment, suffering and death is actually crucifying Death.  Christ’s own death turns out to be the annihilation of death.

Clinging to the World or to the Wood?

Our Lord Jesus Christ chose His disciples not from the wise, not from the noble, not from the rich or the famous, but from among fishermen and tentmakers and poor and illiterate men. This was to make clear to all that neither poverty, nor lack of learning, nor lowly origins, nor anything else of that sort is an impediment to acquiring virtue and understanding the divine sayings and mysteries of the Spirit. But even the poorest and lowliest and least educated person, if he gives proof of eagerness and an appropriate inclination towards what is good, can not only come to know the divine teaching but also become a teacher himself through God’s grace.

And the things that hinder us from understanding and grasping the meaning of spiritual teachings are our own indifference and the fact that we cling with all our might to the fleeting concerns of this life. As a result, we do not allow space or time for listening and studying and recalling to mind what we have heard, nor do we care about the things which are to come and things eternal.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, “Homily 47,” p. 366)

The Cross as a Weapon of Peace

“The Cross is the Weapon of Peace, we sing. Yet, despite the militaristic overtones, the Cross is not simply a more mighty or powerful weapon in some kind of divine arms race! No, it is the weapon of peace, it is a weapon which doesn’t resort to greater fire-power to blow apart our enemies in a cycle of violence, but rather brings that cycle of violence to an end, ushering in the peace of God for those who are prepared to live by it.

When someone strikes or offends us, Christ does not direct us to hit back or retaliate, but to turn the other cheek, to bear one another’s weaknesses, not so that we can be beaten some more for the sake of it, but to take upon ourselves the anger that is in the other person, to neutralize it, to put an end to it, as Christ himself did, the blameless lamb led to the slaughter, or rather going willingly, taking upon himself the sin of the world.

This is not simply a matter of being passive, but rather being passive actively, creatively, and being creative in the most divine way possible–for it allows God to work in and through us, rather than just doing whatever it is we ourselves can come up with.

But God can only work through us if we ourselves take up the Cross and live by it, for if we do so–dead to the world–we will already, now, be in the peace of God, untroubled by anything the world throws at us, and the peace that we will know will spread through us to all those around us.

(John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp. 38-39)

Defying Our Self-Loving Nature

And the Lord called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?   (Mark 8:34ff)

Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky comments:

“Suffering is repulsive to a natural person. Almost all his life consists in applying solicitude to solicitude in order to avoid suffering. But then the Apostle tells him that he rejoices in sorrows, that he glories in them. The Gospel blesses those who are banished, dishonored, or beaten, calling everyone to follow a narrow path which few travel. It demands that one renounce oneself, that one despise one’s life. The Gospel foretells woe to the wealthy, the satiated, those who laugh and are spoken well of by all men. In order to follow such teaching, we must defy our self-loving nature. What will rouse is up to this?” (The Moral Idea of the Main Dogmas of the Faith, pp 90-91)

As Metropolitan Anthony says we must “defy our self-loving nature” not deify it!

 

Christ Lives in Me

St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians, writes:

“For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  

(Galatians 2:19-20)

The Elder Porphyrios writes:

“In the Church which possesses the saving sacraments there is no despair. We may be deeply sinful. But we make confessions, the priest reads the prayer, we are forgiven and we progress towards immortality, without any anxiety and without any fear. When we love Christ, we live the life of Christ. If, by the grace of God, we succeed in doing this, we find ourselves in a different state, we live in another, enviable state. For us there is no fear; neither of death, nor of the devil nor of hell. All these things exist for people who are far from Christ, for non-Christians. For us Christians who do His will, as the Gospel says, these things do not exist. That is, they exist, but when one kills the old self along with the passions and desires, one gives no importance to the devil or to evil. It doesn’t concern us. What concerns us is love, service to Christ and to our fellow man. If we reach the point of feeling joy, love, worship of God without any fear, we reach the point of saying, It is no longer I who live; Christ lives in me. No one can prevent us from entering into this mystery.” (Wounded by Love, The Life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, p 90)

The Cross of the Temple

We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” (Mark 14:58)

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.    (John 2:19-22)

Metropolitan Hilarion writes that St. Isaac the Syrian says:

“The cross is a symbol of ‘the Man who completely became a temple’ of God; the cross is made in the name of ‘that Man in whom the Divinity dwells’; the humanity of Christ is the ‘garment of his Divinity’.” (Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, p 54)

Then King David rose to his feet and said: “Hear me, my brethren and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building.  (1 Chronicles 28:2)

“Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool!” (Psalm 132:7)

Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he! (Psalm 99:5)

King David had it in his heart to build a temple as a footstool for God.  It turns out that the temple of God is not made with hands for it is Christ Himself who is the temple of  God and the footstool is the cross of the Lord.

Exulting in the Cross

THE CROSS WHICH CARRIED THE MOST HIGH AS A CLUSTER OF GRAPES FULL OF LIFE

IS SEEN TODAY EXALTED HIGH ABOVE THE EARTH.

THROUGH THE CROSS WE ARE ALL DRAWN TO GOD

AND DEATH HAS BEEN FOREVER SWALLOWED UP.

UNDEFILED WOOD, THROUGH YOU WE ENJOY THE IMMORTAL FRUIT OF EDEN AS WE GLORIFY CHRIST.

The hymns above and below are both taken from matins for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.   The poetic imagery of the festal hymns reminds us that truth and beauty are related and united in the Kingdom of Heaven – and in the Church on earth.  In the  world of the Fall, God uses His creation to restore us humans to our natural state, and to heal the wounds of sin.

Let all the trees of the wood rejoice,

for their nature is sanctified by Christ.

He planted them in the beginning,

and on a tree was outstretched.

At its exaltation on this day, we worship Him and magnify you.

 

 

The Cross: Sign of Victory over Evil

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 “You should venerate not only the icon of Christ, but also the similitude of His cross. For the cross is Christ’s great sign and trophy of victory over the devil and all his hostile hosts; for this reason they tremble and flee when they see the figuration of the cross. This figure, even prior to the crucifixion, was greatly glorified by the prophets and wrought great wonders; and when He who was hung upon it, our Lord Jesus Christ, comes again to judge the living and the dead, this His great and terrible sign will precede Him, full of power and glory (cf. Matt. 24:30).

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So glorify the cross now, so that you may boldly look upon it then and be glorified with it. And you should venerate icons of the saints, for the saints have been crucified with the Lord; and you should make the sign of the cross upon your person before doing so, bringing to mind their communion in the sufferings of Christ.”

(St Gregory Palamas, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 46350-46360)

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May Christ our God who died on the cross

for the salvation of the world

bless you and have mercy on you.