Holy Friday (2018)

Holy Friday

God entered into the human condition in the incarnation – in Christ.  In Christ, God experienced sighing, sorrow, suffering and death. God takes on our human condition in order to redeem and transfigure it – not to help us escape it.  The beauty of the human condition is found in the fact that God can enter into it, as we are. God loves us in our frailty, in our fears and fragility. It is what makes us uniquely human and yet the very beings with whom God wishes to share his Divinity and to whom God gives eternal life.  In God dying on the cross we see the Divine work of creation accomplished – God sharing every aspect of our human existence. God redeems everything in our existence and shares even in our suffering and death so that we might share in His eternity. God’s death on the cross is not the defeat of humanity, but the accomplishment of God’s will that He be fully united to us.

It is finished!

We are much happier with our god in the heavens than with the man lying before us: “I do not know the man” (Matt. 26:72). We want a god who conforms to our expectations: an all powerful and all-knowing puppet-master, not one who confronts us as all-too-human, serving others, crying, dying.  Show us the Father, we ask, and it will be enough for us.  We yearn for a god who will lift us from our uncertainty, frailty, and fear, to see things from his lofty and implacable perspective, with all things in his providential control, all problems solved as if by magic.  

And in so doing, we ask to escape not only from our frailty, our suffering, and our tears, but also our joy and laughter – all the things that make up the particularly fragile beauty of human existence.

(Fr. John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p. 64)

Advertisements

Christian: What Does It Mean to Be Successful?

 The cross of Christ is central to our spiritual lives and to the glory we will obtain from God.

Taking up the cross to follow Christ is essential to our discipleship.  We cannot be Christians unless we do what Christ commanded:  Take up our cross and follow Him.

This week as you fast, pray and prepare yourself to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, focus on the cross bearing we are called to do.

It is not easy to follow Christ – every day in the most mundane and simple ways we see how hard it is to do the right thing.  We struggle with patience, sloth, forgetfulness, greed, envy, jealousy, anger, being thankful, not getting our way, with disappointment, with having to share the world with others.   And all of that can occur just in the morning before we go to church!

We must die with Christ in order to live with Him.  As St. Paul writes:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.   (Romans 6:3-8)

But we do have to die with Him if we want to live with Him. This dying to self is hard because we so want to get our way always.

To be a Christian is to live for the kingdom of God, which means denying ourselves in this world.  We are not Christians in order to become more prosperous in this world, for as Christians we claim citizenship in God’s Kingdom.  We may experience blessings in this world, but we aren’t to live for them, but must live with a willingness to give up the things of this world for life in the world to come.  We receive blessings from God so that we might share those blessings with others.

There is an account in the lives of the Orthodox missionaries to Alaska of an event that happened in 1796.  There was a certain Aleut Indian chief who was notorious for his bad behavior – drunkenness, fighting, stealing, rape and adultery.  His villagers sought out an Orthodox missionary to try to convert their chief to Christianity as they wanted to improve his behavior.  The missionary priest came to the village and saw the evil going on and did his best to present the Gospel to all the people in the village.  Surprisingly the chief demanded to be baptized at once, threatening harm to the priest if he refused. The priest reluctantly baptized him.   The chief however did not undergo any conversion and continued his evil ways.  The villagers were furious at the priest for having failed them.  They told the missionary priest: “You lied to us.  You told us that if we or the chief converted to Christianity that we would be better people.  Our chief was baptized and is as bad as ever.”  In a rage they took the priest and killed him on the spot.  This is the story of St. Juvenaly, whose icon we have in our church.

My point in telling you this story is that those Aleuts only thought of Christianity as making their life on earth better.  They wanted to improve their material lot in life.  They did not accept the Gospel as a call to set aright their own lives with God, nor did they intend to follow Christ in suffering for truth and righteousness.  They in fact rejected the Gospel and in bitter disappointment became murderers.  They were not able to see beyond life in this world.

We follow Christ not for material gain in this world but in order to give our life to Him.

What does it profit someone to gain the whole world but to lose their life?  (Mark 8:36)

In the Service for Receiving Converts into the Faith, one of the petitions we say in the litany for the new convert is this:

That grace may be given to him/her through anointing with the all-holy Chrism, so that boldly, without fear and unashamed, he/she may confess before all people the Name of Christ our God, and that he/she may be always ready for Christ’s sake to lovingly suffer and to die, let us pray to the Lord.

Yes, as Christians we commit ourselves to always be ready to lovingly suffer and die for Christ!

To follow Christ is to take a new look at the questions: “What does it mean to be successful?”   and   How do I measure success?

For Christians success can only be measured in terms of whether or not we are following Christ.

In the Gospel lesson today, we could paraphrase Jesus as saying: “If any wants to be my disciple  and enter into eternal life, then say no to your self, say no to your desires, say no to your self interest, say no to your self preservation.”

We live in a country full of over weight people, people with porn addictions, binge drinkers, and drug addiction partly because we refuse ever to say no to our selves.  We confusedly think abundance means over indulgence is blessed.  Great Lent says precisely because there is such abundance we need to learn self control and how to say no to all that abundance which surrounds us so that we don’t literally become buried in over indulgence.

You want to be a Christian?  Then take up your cross and deny yourself and follow Christ.  Great Lent is given to you and me as a gift – an opportunity for us to seriously and literally fulfill the teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

The Icon of the Crucifixion

“The icon encourages us to reflect on this climax to our Lord’s earthly life; his work has been accomplished, and he commends himself to the Father. The following verses come to mind: ‘I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work that thou gavest me to do’ (John 17:4); ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30); ‘Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And these verses from the letter to the Hebrews seem equally appropriate: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:1-2); ‘So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no abiding city, but we seek the city which is to come’ (Hebrews 13:12-14).

The following extract from St. Theodore the Studite’s On the Adoration of the Cross shows how the victorious nature of Christ’s death on the Cross was interpreted by a great teacher of Orthodox theology (759-826):

How precious is the gift of the cross! See, how beautiful it is to behold!…It is a tree which brings forth life, not death. It is the source of light, not darkness. It offers you a home in Eden. It does not cast you out. It is the tree which Christ mounted as a king his chariot, and so destroyed the devil, the lord of death, and rescued the human race from slavery to the tyrant. It is the tree on which the Lord, like a great warrior with his hands and feet and his divine side pierced in battle, healed the wounds of our sins, healed our nature that had been wounded by the evil serpent. Of old we were poisoned by a tree;  now we have found immortality through a tree.

…By the cross death was killed and Adam restored to life. In the cross every apostle has gloried; by it every martyr has been crowned and every saint made holy. We have put on the cross of Christ, and laid aside the old man. Through the cross we have joined Christ’s flock, and are granted a place in the sheepfold of heaven.”

(John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, pp. 108-109)

The Way to Joy? Take Up Your Cross

“The kingdom of God cannot be imposed; if it is to be brought about we must be born again, and that supposes complete freedom of spirit. Christianity is the religion of the Cross, and it sees a meaning in suffering. Christ asks us to take up our own cross and carry it, to shoulder the load of a sinful world. In Christian consciousness the notion of attaining happiness, justice, and the kingdom of God on earth without cross or suffering is a huge lie: it is the temptation that Christ rejected in the wilderness when he was shown the kingdoms of the world and invited to fall down and worship. Christianity does not promise its own necessary realization and victory here below; Christ even questioned whether he will find any faith on earth when he comes again at the end of time, and foretold that love itself will have grown cold.

Tolstoy believed that Christ’s commands could be easily fulfilled simply by recognizing their truth. But that was a mistake of his over-rationalizing consciousness; the mysteries of freedom and of grace were beyond him, his optimism contradicted the tragic depths of life. “The good which I will I do not,” says the apostle Paul, “but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” This testimony of one of the greatest of all Christians unveils the innermost part of the human heart, and it teaches us that the “failure of Christianity” is a human failure and not a divine defeat.”

(Nicholas Berdiaev, Tradition Alive, pp. 96-97)

The Purpose of the Liturgy

“This gets more to the heart of things,” said Father. “What does each of us do? Only we can answer that for ourselves. Doesn’t Christ say, ‘Where your treasure is, there also is your heart’? If you remain passive or a spectator, you never experience the inspiration and challenge of liturgy. You remain locked within yourself. You rate the liturgy like a TV show and grade it on the basis of how it entertains–without it ever entering your mind that the purpose of liturgy is not entertainment.”

Father’s voice grew passionate. “Liturgy truly is ‘work’ in the sense that it requires us to move outside ourselves, to prepare, study, attend, sing, and listen together in faith and love. When liturgy is celebrated correctly and with care by everyone involved, its beauty and majesty does nourish and inspire us. These become the very vehicles that enable us to meet the mystery of God, giving us the strength to live life well and deal creatively with its problems. Only then does this ‘work’ bring us to Christ. Let’s face it: Liturgy is also about energy and belief, life and death. It’s not about comfort, amusement, entertainment, and distraction. Christian liturgy is about dying, leaving behind the old self and becoming a new person, so that we may life more fully, more abundantly.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pp. 227-228)

Being a Member of Christ’s Body

But the victory – let us repeat it again and again – has been achieved on the Cross; and His Cross is not only the supreme revelation of the boundless condescending Love of God, but also the center, the backbone and pivot of our own new life. We enter this new life only by participating in the Cross of Christ, crucifying thereon our “old Adam” and partaking in the perfect obedience of Christ.

Christianity is therefore much more than a message: it is a new reality, a new life, a painful and courageous transfiguration of the old man into the “new creature,” into a “member of the body of Christ.” “The old things have passed away. Behold! Everything has become new!” It is a promise and a beginning of – let us repeat it – a New Reality, already revealed and given to us in the coming, the death and the resurrection of Christ, which are the “leaven” of the new order of being. This leaven has to permeate the whole lump. (Nicholas Arseniev, Revelation of Life Eternal, p. 87)

The Tree at the Heart of Creation

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

According to Genesis 2, God planted the Tree of Life in the very center of the Garden of Delight.   As wonderful as this Tree seems, it is not the Tree that plays the first and great role in the history of humanity.    That Tree is the more infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  However, in Christian history, many poems and hymns were written connecting the Tree of Life to the Cross of Christ.  Christ is nailed to the Tree that gives life to the world.  And so we Orthodox sing:  “Through the Cross joy has come into all the world.”  So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.

One of the daily Matins hymns offers an interesting picture of the cross:

When you freely willed to die on the cross, O Savior, you planted the cross at the heart of the entire creation, and to save us you allowed them to fix you to that tree with nails, so that the sun and the moon were stunned into darkness. 

The thief gazed in disbelief at all that was happening, but his faith won him the blessing of paradise when he cried out to you:  Remember me, Lord, when you come in the glory of your Kingdom.   (Friday, Tone 3)

The reference to the cross planted “at the heart of creation” certainly makes me think about the Tree of Life which also had this central location in God’s planted Garden of Eden.   The cross is at the heart of creation for the God who is love also makes love central to created world which the Holy Trinity brought into existence.

Yet the humans whom God created, do not embrace this love.  They see the Tree of Life, the Cross, at the center of the Garden and are not willing to deny themselves in order to lovingly obey God.  Instead, they turn away from the Tree of Life (which they were not forbidden to eat), the Tree that gives eternal life, and they instead selfishly eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Not willing to die for God, they think they can live without God.   It was a terribly grave deception.

Adam and Eve were not willing to choose the Tree of Life – the Cross.  They were not willing to sacrifice all to remain fully united to God.  They foolishly, selfishly and mortally choose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They could not see how the Cross could bring joy into all the world, they could not see how choosing the cross could lead to life.

Christ, however, showed the way.  The new Adam did not forsake the Cross, but saw it as the way to eternal life for all humans.  In love and obedience, Jesus Christ saw that the life of the world came through that cross, which could only be embraced by love.

For Adam and Eve, knowledge looked like life but turned out to be death. Christ, knowing the way to Life, walked the path to the Tree of Life and thereby gained salvation for all people.

May the cross be graven on our hearts.

(See also The Cross is the Mirror of My Soul)

Taking Up the Cross to Keep United to Christ

16426634004_48a15a5332_n

Today, we carried in procession our crosses in order to follow Christ, but we didn’t do this just to perform some religious ritual, we did it to remind ourselves what it means to be a Christian in this world.  The procession was indeed a ritual, but the world we live in is real.  The ritual ties us to the reality of this world, and in this world, Christians sometimes are called to suffer because they are united to Christ who Himself died on the cross for us.  We carry our crosses not only to follow Christ but to remain united to Him, as we are reminded by St. Paul:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:34-39)

Some imagine, if I’m “good” I will be protected from suffering.  I can avoid suffering as long as I am “good.” “Goodness” becomes some kind of charm, an amulet or talisman to ward off evil.  Some even imagine and teach that people are suffering because they are not good or not good enough.  We end up blaming the poor for their own poverty and the persecuted for their persecution because, the logic goes, if they were good they wouldn’t be in their condition, they wouldn’t be suffering.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was good:  he was sinless, holy, perfect, and yet he was crucified on the cross.  The powers of this world arrayed themselves against Him.  Being “good” does not necessarily protect us from evil, and in fact, as in the case of Jesus, being good is exactly what made evil oppose Him and attempt to destroy Him.

We choose goodness to be with Christ, to remain in Communion with him, not to gain benefit in this world from our relationship with Him.   We choose to be with Christ, no matter what is going on around – peace and prosperity or persecution and poverty.  As St. Paul says in today’s Epistle:  “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)  I live with Christ and I die with Christ.

23717313864_c53832a910

As Christians we should want to be wherever Christ is – no matter what the conditions of the world are where Christ is.  The one thing we do not want to lose is union with Him – even if we lose the world or our life, we have lost nothing if we remain in Communion with the incarnate God.

We choose goodness to remain in Communion with Christ, not to gain benefits and rewards in this world, because this world is passing away.

32217826112_6f9778d33b_nToday we have symbolically carried our crosses – the reality of the symbol is we are every day to  take up that cross and follow Christ.  We stay with Christ no matter where that cross leads and no matter what happens around us.

Remember that any form of self denial we do, any fasting, abstinence or ascetical practices aren’t done to earn us some “good” points with God.  Rather they serve to prepare us for whatever suffering we may ever experience in this world – suffering that is not voluntary but comes upon us because of natural disaster or human choice or because of the evil one.  Asceticism is training for the day in which our faith is put to the test.

We also  practice such self denial in order to identify with our fellow Christians who are suffering because they are Christian.  Christ who is goodness, who is God’s love incarnate, suffered in this world.  We are to suffer with all the afflicted Christians of the world as though we are with them, as it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3).

And, those of us who are now suffering from whatever cause and for whatever reason can take heart.  Suffering does not mean God has rejected you – God Himself suffered in this world, in the flesh, as a human.  Those who are good should take note and hold on to the goodness – hold on to Jesus Christ – no matter what happens around you.  Again, St. Paul says:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [9] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, [10] so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:4-11)

We choose to take up the cross in order to follow Christ, to imitate Him.  We know when Christ took up His cross that led to Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of His crucifixion.  Christ didn’t enter into glory simply by taking up the cross, but by dying on it.

25930809643_8d2b39dda6

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.   (Romans 6:3-6)

Today, we chrismated one new member into the Body of Christ.  One more person who has agreed to carry the cross, and as we prayed for him this morning, who has agreed even to lovingly die for Christ, if that is where Christ leads him.

When Jesus had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them:

“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-39)

We are those who are not ashamed of Christ or of Christ’s words.  We choose to live with Him and in Him and to have Him abide in us.  We live in communion with all those who bear the name of Christ.

(sermon notes for 2017-9-17)

Christ’s Death on the Cross

The Savior came to destroy death by His own death. ‘The ultimate reason for Christ’s death must be seen in the mortality of man.’  Redemption is the ‘liberation of man from the ‘”bondage of corruption”.’ However, this means that ‘the Cross is more than merely suffering Good.’  ‘The death on the cross was effective, not [simply] as the death of an Innocent one, but as the death of the Incarnate Lord. ‘We needed an Incarnate God; God put to death, that we might live’ – to use a bold phrase of St. Gregory of Nazianzus.” Here we see Florovsky’s a-symmetrical Chalcedonianism at work: as he writes, ‘It may be properly said that God dies on the Cross, but in his own humanity.’

The death of Christ is of necessity for salvation precisely because through it, eternal life enters the realm of death. Thus, Holy Saturday itself is ‘the very day of our salvation.’ As the icons suggest, Christ enters hades as Victor despoiling death.”(Matthew Baker, On the Tree of the Cross, 114-115).

The Exaltation of the Cross (2017)

The [Feast of the] Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross … (September 14).   The association of the words ‘feast’ and ‘Cross’ is a paradox: the Cross, to the Jews a stumbling block, to the Greeks a folly, yet ‘to those who are called, the power and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1:23-24).  We commemorate the Passion and the Crucifixion not as ugly episodes inspired by a sordid politicking, but as the voluntary sacrifice of the Son of God who became man to save us.  therefore the liturgy of the Cross is not a lamentation over a dead hero, the wailing of devotees working themselves up to a paroxysm of frenzy, but the memorial of an event of cosmic significance, reaching beyond the limits of history.

The Cross stands while the world rolls . . . proclaims the motto of the Carthusian hermits.  We see in the cross a reason for hope, and the Resurrection makes this hope to become the unshakable assurance of our Christian faith.”  (Georges Barrois, SCRIPTURE READINGS IN ORTHODOX WORSHIP, p 142)