Bearing the Burden of Being Christian

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.  In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

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Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.   (John 5:1-15)

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Jesus said:  And he said to all, “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.   (Luke 9:23)

The Paralytic in John 5 is commanded to rise, take up his bed and walk.  It turns out that his cross, the cross on which he had been crucified, is his own bed to which he had been nailed for 38 years of paralysis.   He picks up that cross so that he can walk with Christ and  follow Christ wherever Christ may go.

5729454201_3fe7828dcf_nToday’s Gospel lesson shows us how “taking up the cross” might be a very different experience than we usually imagine it to be – and it is possible that taking up the Cross is a blessing rather than a burden.  For most of us, there are enough trials and temptations each day of our life to make life difficult, and some would feel almost impossible to accomplish.  Why then would we want to take up the Cross to add to our burdens, sorrows and troubles?

What we learn from today’s Gospel lesson is that there are two kinds of burdens – the ones we should lay down and not carry because we follow God’s blessed Sabbath rest, and the burden we must carry In order to follow Christ – the cross that it is necessary for us to carry to follow Him. The issue is whether we can see what is the cross in my life that I have to take up in order to follow Christ. There are some burdens we must bear as Christians to be faithful to our Lord.

It is also true that in taking up the Cross we can find ourselves liberated from our own heavy burdens – our thoughts and ideas of justice, revenge, repentance, forgiveness, hatred and retribution.  These are the burdens we can lay down in order to hear and obey Christ.

Additionally, If we allow it to, the Cross can carry us through some of life’s trials.  Yet, this thought makes us squirm with discomfort for we are terrified at the thought of being lifted up on the Cross and we prefer an easier way in which there is no pain and no cost to us.

Today’s Gospel reaffirms the truth that God’s commandments are not heavy and difficult burdens.  God liberates us from our wearisome burdens.

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place at the sheep pool called Bethesda – a pool of water near one of the gates allowing passage into Jerusalem.  The sheep gate is first mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah, written about 450 years before the time of Christ.  Nehemiah records the building of the sheep gate.  He is one of the prophets who advocated that Israel must keep the Sabbath Day holy:

 When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the sabbath. And I set some of my servants over the gates, that no burden might be brought in on the sabbath day. (Nehemiah 13:19)

10352434244_7eaf34629c_nNehemiah’s prohibition against carrying a burden on the Sabbath day near one of the city gates is the basis of our the Gospel lesson in John 5.   The people in the Gospel account were practicing what Nehemiah commanded the to do when they confront the paralytic for carrying his bed on the Sabbath near the city gate.  They probably thought he was a bed salesman carrying his wares!   The Prophet Jeremiah adds:

Thus said the LORD to me: “Go and stand in the Benjamin Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say: ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. Thus says the LORD: Take heed for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers. Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction. ‘But if you listen to me, says the LORD, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but keep the sabbath day holy and do no work on it, then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall be inhabited for ever.   (Jeremiah 17:19-25)

No wonder the people were so upset with this paralytic carrying his bed on the sabbath!

So why would Jesus, the Son of God, tell this paralyzed man to carry his bed on the Sabbath at the very place where God had said through His prophets that it shouldn’t be done?

10238223875_e053b8a548_nThe answer becomes clear when Jesus asks the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?   Do you want to become healthy?”

For Jesus the paralyzed man’s burden is not his bed, but his paralysis.  His burden is also that though he is part of the people of God, he has no one to help him.   His sickness is the burden of His life.  And on that Sabbath Day, Jesus gave the paralyzed man rest from his burden for Jesus freed him of his paralysis.  [see my post The True Sabbath Rest]  When the paralyzed man picked up his bed, he was also finally laying down his burden, his paralysis and was given health.  For his paralysis had also burdened the man with bitterness and doubt, opening his heart to the oppression of Satan.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. For we who have believed enter that rest . . . For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  . . .  So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.  (Hebrews 4:1-11)

Yet some of those people in Jerusalem could not see how Jesus freeing the man from carrying his burden, his paralysis, was keeping God’s law.  That is why Jesus said to them:

I ask you, is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”  (Luke 6:9)

And Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. Then he took him and healed him, and let him go. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?” (Luke 14:3-5)

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Carrying a bed on the Sabbath as is shown in the Gospel might not be a violation of the Sabbath but rather might be a sign that one is entering into the Lord’s rest.  The burden which concerns God might surprise us, as Jeremiah says:

“When one of this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, ‘What is the burden of the LORD?’ you shall say to them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the LORD.’    (Jeremiah 23:33)

The people’s mistaken understanding of the Torah made them into a burden, which this paralyzed man also had to bear in addition to the burden of his paralysis.  But the paralytic shows himself to be following God’s command because he listens to the words of Christ and obeys them:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.   (John 5:24)

We have to discern what are the burden we carry from which God will free us?  Our sins, our debts, our guilt, our desire for revenge.

Sometimes, however, we act as if our burdens are prayer, fasting, confession, Sunday worship, reading scripture, forgiving others, apologizing for our sins, giving to charity, seeking forgiveness, being generous.

24878356506_e63d42795a_nWe ask: Do I have to come to church on Sunday?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I need to tithe to the church?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to go to confession?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to forgive those who sin against me?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to fast and pray and practice self-control?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I really have to stop looking at pornography or stop getting drunk or stop my bouts of anger and rage?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask:  Do I have to stop hating people who are worthless and do I need to show mercy and be kind to those I don’t know and don’t like?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

Jesus says to us:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Sometimes we wrongly believe that the way out of our problems, our passions, our sins, is more effort on our part.  If only we have more faith or fast more or pray more, then God would help us.  But the paralyzed man couldn’t save himself, no matter how hard he tried, his problems were insurmountable to him.  He couldn’t get into the pool of water first no matter how much he wanted to.  This man had plenty of faith, after all he had been waiting at the pool for 38 years for someone to help him get into the water and be healed.  He believed God was present there and continued in this hope for 38 years!  Nonetheless, his salvation lay outside himself.  It wasn’t more effort on this part that were needed – he needed Christ, he needed to wait on the Lord, he needed Jesus to be his spiritual partner.

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It is possible, my brothers and sister, that there are people all around us, like this man paralyzed for 38 years and patiently waiting for help – people for whom we can be Christ and reach out to them and help them.  And it is possible that we have been struggling with some burden for many years feeling there is no one to help me, and the solution might be outside of myself – in seeking help from a neighbor or a stranger.  The lessons for us in this Gospel periscope are many, we need to know when we are to be Christ to another and when we need someone else to be Christ for us.  As St Paul said:  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  (Galatians 6:2)

Holy Friday (2019)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHoly Friday: The Crucifixion (Matthew 27)

“The explanation given in the Gospel account is simple if we only listen to it closely, reflect on it, accustom ourselves to it: they reject Christ, they hate Christ, they crucify Christ, not because of some one thing, not because of those fabricated misdemeanours for which He is falsely and slanderously denounced to Pilate. Pilate himself rejects these lies and slanders, even while condemning Christ to a humiliating and terrible death. No, this is not some misunderstanding, this is not some kind of accident. Christ is crucified because His goodness, His love, the blinding light that pours from Him, is something the people cannot stand. They cannot bear it because it exposes the evil they live by, which they conceal even from themselves. This is the horror of the fallen world, that evil not only has dominion, but poses as something good, always hiding behind the mask of good. Evil guarantees its domination of the world by parading itself as good! Now in our own day as well, it is always in the name of good, of freedom, of concern for mankind that people are enslaved and murdered, deceived, lied to, slandered and destroyed. Every evil screams only one message: “I am good!” And not only does it scream, but it demands that the people cry out tirelessly in response: “You are good, you are freedom, you are happiness!”

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Yes, the crowds followed Christ as long as He helped, healed, worked miracles. And it was these same crowds that discarded Him and shouted, “Crucify Him!” They knew, with all of evil’s terrifying intuition, that in this perfect man, in this perfect love, they were exposed. They knew that through His own love, His own perfection, Christ was demanding from them a life which they did not want to lead – a love, a truth, a perfection they could not stand. And this witness had to be silenced, exterminated.

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It is only here- and this is the entire meaning, all the depth, of the cross and crucifixion – in this apparent triumph of evil, where in reality good is triumphant. For the victory of good begins precisely here, with the exposure of evil as evil. The high priest knows he is lying. Pilate knows he is condemning to death a man who is totally innocent. And hour after hour, step by step, within that terrible triumph of evil, the light of victory begins to burn more and more brightly. The victory can be heard in the repentance of the crucified criminal, in the words of the centurion who led the execution: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mt. 57:54). The man dying on the cross has completed His testimony.  And through it, from within – no, not yet on the outside – evil is destroyed, for it was exposed, and is now eternally exposed as evil. I repeat, the cross begins that victory which is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of the Crucified One.

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Christ “suffered…” says the Symbol of faith. Why this repetition, since surely the word “crucified” can be understood to include suffering? The answer to this question needs to be put as follows: in saying “crucified,” we are primarily speaking about those who crucified Christ, we are speaking about evil, about that visible triumph and victory of evil expressed by the Cross and crucifixion; and by exposing evil as evil, Christ’s crucifixion strips evil of all its masks and begins its destruction. But when we say “and suffered,” we are speaking about Christ, we are focusing our inner, spiritual sight on the Crucified One and not on the crucifiers. If Christ did not suffer on the Cross – as was taught by certain false teachers condemned by the Church – if He did not go through physical and emotional suffering, then absolutely everything about our faith in Christ as Savior of the world would be completely different. This is because we would be removing from our faith that which is most essential: faith in the saving nature of this voluntary suffering itself, in which Christ gives Himself up to the most terrible, most incomprehensible, most inescapable law of “this world,” the law of suffering.”    (Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith, p. 80, 81, 82)

Following Christ from the Desert to the Crucifixion

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From the beginning of Great Lent this year I have been framing the Great Lenten experience as a journey.  I mentioned Israel’s departure from Egypt into the desert as a model for our own journey into Great Lent.  And today the Gospel reading reminds us that the journey of Great Lent takes us to other destinations even to Jerusalem, not the heavenly one, but the city in which Christ will be crucified.    As Mark 10:32-33 reports:

Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. 

We might imagine many reasons why the disciples were both amazed and afraid as they follow Jesus, the text only tells of their spiritual and emotional state without giving us an explanation as to why.  They are clearly walking behind Jesus, who is leading them to Jerusalem where he tells them He is going to be killed.  But we don’t know if they follow reluctantly or are trying to slow their journey down.  We know there will be a surprising welcome for Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and no doubt that gave the Disciples a moment to hope that maybe things would not be as a bad as they feared.

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In one of the hymns we sing from Monday of Holy Week, we are given an interpretation of this Gospel lesson in which we ourselves participate in the events.

AS THE LORD WAS GOING TO HIS VOLUNTARY PASSION, HE SAID TO THE APOSTLES ON THE WAY, BEHOLD, WE GO UP TO JERUSALEM, AND THE SON OF MAN SHALL BE DELIVERED UP, AS IT IS WRITTEN OF HIM.  COME, THEREFORE, LET US ALSO GO WITH HIM, PURIFIED IN MIND.  LET US BE CRUCIFIED WITH HIM AND DIE THROUGH HIM TO THE PLEASURES OF THIS LIFE.  THEN WE SHALL LIVE WITH HIM AND HEAR HIM SAY: I GO NO MORE TO THE EARTHLY JERUSALEM TO SUFFER, BUT TO MY FATHER AND YOUR FATHER, TO MY GOD AND YOUR GOD.  I SHALL RAISE YOU UP TO THE JERUSALEM ON HIGH IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. 

Like the Twelve Disciples, we too might both be amazed and afraid when we consider that we are going to Jerusalem not to watch Christ die for us but rather so that we might die with Christ.  We are going there in the words of St Paul to have the world be crucified to us and ourselves to the world  (Galatians 6:14).  Crucifixion even if it is intended to mean spiritually crucified, still means death,  which should give us pause and cause us to cringe at the thought that to follow Christ means we must choose to die with Him.

We Christians do not come to Holy Week to be spectators watching a passion play unfold like a nicely done drama, we are here to die with Christ.   The annoying inconveniences of the Great Fast were reminding us that death involves the body and the soul.

St. Paul says in Romans 5:6-8 –

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

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Indeed He died for us, the sinners, but not so that we could enjoy a passion play each year, but so that we too would die to sin, die to the world, die to ourselves, so that we might live with Him.

Our Lenten sojourn takes us like the Israelites out of the great Egyptian empire into the desert to encounter our God free of the distractions and temptations of civilization.   In the desert we are able to free our minds of all the cultural and nationalistic ideas about God  – the One who has unlimited power sending forth His invincible armies, or the One who destroys His enemies in the eternal fires of hell, or the One and pours out unending abundance upon His people.  In the desert where there are no comforts of civilization to prop up these ideas of God, we are freed of our false images of God so we can encounter the God of love who humbly dies on the cross for sinners.  Not only is He nailed to the cross and executed like a common criminal, He invites us to share in His death!  We are to die to the world in order to live with Christ.

The Lenten sojourn, however, doesn’t keep us in the desert but rather the desert is the way to Jerusalem, where Christ is crucified.  We don’t like this idea of a crucified, suffering Lord any better than the Twelve did.  We like them don’t want to go to that Jeruusalem in which God is crucified.  We want the triumphant Jerusalem where God reigns in power from on high, not nailed to a cross.  We prefer not to think about it.  We prefer victory, triumph, blessings and glory, but the Way who is Christ is through the Cross.  Through the Cross joy  comes into all the world.

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If we want to follow Christ, we have to listen to what the Lord Jesus actually taught, and then we will know our life will not be one of being served and pampered or of having all our needs met or of having all our prayers instantly answered, but rather our life in Christ will be one of constantly looking in love to serve others, which means we each have to practice self-denial and put others ahead of our self.  Lent tries to free our minds from the images we receive from the culture about God and to encounter the God who is revealed dying on the cross.   For example, America does give us an image of God and it usually is an image of prosperity and power as in “God bless America”, but the Gospel calls us to see the God revealed in the Scriptures.  The God who humbles Himself and dies on the cross for all sinners.

We should be able to discern that the images of God which are shaped by the culture are often distorted and serve the purpose of the culture.

Thomas Merton once commented about the monastic movement of the 4th Century which started as a reaction not against pagan culture but against imperial, prosperous Christianity.  The men and women who fled the conveniences and comforts of the Roman Empire also moved into the desert, in imitation of Israel of old, in order to find God who was not subverted by the state nor subservient to the state.

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“Society … was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life.   . . . These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the ‘world’ was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve.    . . .   The simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. There can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world. And thus to leave, the world, is in fact, to help save it in saving oneself. This is the final point, and it is an important one. The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them. . . . We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God.”   (Thomas Merton)

The call to leave Egypt, civilization, the greatest nation on earth, and go into the desert (Great Lent) reveals to us the nature of civilization itself.  Culture wants to shape us into its own ideal about what it is to be human or Christian, and into people who are willing to serve the needs of the culture, and to enslave themselves to it.  Nations want us to accept their nationalistic ideas of God, so that God too serves the goals of the nation.  This is why the desert fathers thought the society was a shipwreck and the only way to find their true self, the self which God intended each of us to be, was to separate themselves from all of the benefits, temptations and allurements of society.  It is only when we get a new perspective and aren’t totally immersed in or dependent on our culture that we come to understand the Gospel of Christ, not the Gospel mediated by the culture.  Republicans and Democrats both think they know best what the Gospel really means.  We as Christians need to hear Christ, not what others say about Him.   An example of this is to think about Christ’s words to “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27, 35).  Christ’s words are simple and straightforward, but our culture will do its best to explain away the most straightforward meaning so that the words are practical, doable, sensible and reasonable and made to justify and serve the values of the culture.  But the cultural understanding and explanation is not necessarily the one offered by Christ in the Gospel.

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Some years ago, I read the book A STRANGER TO MYSELF: THE INHUMANITY OF WAR, in which a young German man describes how he was shaped from what he was, a youthful German citizen into a cog of the Nazi war machine. He was brutalized in order that he would be brutal – dehumanized so that he would be inhuman for the benefit of the Third Reich.   He indeed became a stranger to himself, and not only to himself but lost all feeling for the people around him whom he no longer saw as humans.  He was willing to serve the war machine no matter what it did to himself or to others.    He did what he needed to do to survive in that state.  He became the person the state needed him to be for the state to attain its goals.   He tried to save himself by adapting to what the state demanded of him, but in this process he lost his soul and lost any shred of humanity.  His story is exactly what the monks feared was happening to themselves even as the Roman empire became Christian – the Empire told them it was OK to be Christian, but only to be Christian to the extent and in the way that the Empire approved in order that they be the kind of citizens that benefited the Empire.

Great Lent challenges us to think like the desert fathers thought as they contemplated the empire they lived in.  They had to ask themselves if they could in fact be Christian if they limited themselves to what the “Christian” Empire defined and approved?   They asked themselves whether being a Christian simply meant serving the Roman Empire, or did they have allegiance only to the Kingdom not of this world? They were in the world but not of it (John 17:11-16).   They questioned whether accepting the protection and Lordship of Caesar meant that they no longer lived under the sole protection and Lordship of God.   They had to find a way to remember the self-sacrificing love of Christ rather than see love as self-serving or a way to benefit the empire’s insatiable needs.

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These are the same questions we need to ask ourselves. We still live in the same world that the apostles and desert fathers lived in.   Many like to think about America as being a Christian nation, but does that serve the Kingdom of Heaven or does it mostly serve the goals of America?   Some might say but it’s not an either or, why can’t it be both?

And then we hear the Gospel:  “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matthew 6:24)

It is because of the Gospel that the Roman Government persecuted the Christians, the Muslims persecuted the Christians, and the communists persecuted the Christians.    All of these governments heard the Gospel as a challenge to their authority and power.  And the Christians did not work to overthrow those governments, rather they chose to live as lights to the Kingdom of God in the midst of the world.  No wonder the disciples were afraid as they followed Christ into Jerusalem.  They accepted Jesus as Lord, but were walking into a City in which Caesar and Herod both laid claim to that title, and the religious authorities were beholden to Rome and Herod for maintaining their own positions.

It is not only the state that wants us to temper the Gospel to meet the goals of the state.  Our own self-interest can demand that we make the Gospel subservient to our own personal interests.

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John and James ask of Jesus:  Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”   Isn’t that so like us and how we pray and approach God?  God give me what I want, what I demand, what I lust for, what I think I’m entitled to.  Be my servant God, do my bidding and do it now.  We make ourselves our own Lord and Master and demand that God serve us.

We convince ourselves that discipleship, faithfulness to Christ, certainly will be rewarded in this world not just in the world to come.  Christ reminds us of the cross, that He came to serve, not be served, and we are supposed to imitate Him.

And when we realize that Jesus tells us that to follow Him means to love one another, to deny the self, to die for Christ, then we might decide like Peter that we want to follow Christ but only at a safe distance: Then they seized Jesus and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance …  (Luke 22:54)

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Or we might decide that we really want to live for Christ, with Christ and in Christ.  And that will help put all other values and blessings in perspective, and we will live by and for the eternal Kingdom of God.

Spiritual Training: Overcome Evil

God cares for man’s freedom as the most precious principle that he possesses, and so in humility draws the soul to His love. But on the path to this love man comes up against the violator, the devil. The Lord allows that it should be so. God trains man’s soul, not by removing evil from his path by giving him the strength necessary to overcome all evil.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 220)

Denying the Self

Throughout our life, we go through many changes, experiences many ups and downs. Today we are children of the light (cf. Jn 12:36), but tomorrow we are filled with doubts and wonder: ‘Who is God? Where is God? God has forgotten me.’ This happens because the ego has placed itself in opposition to God, has made a god of itself, and it is impossible for the two to coexist. The presence of one requires the absence of the other. It’s as if two mighty gods, the God of my salvation and the god I have made out of myself, have come into conflict. If the ego wins, I will experience psychological isolation, which will include isolation from those around me, along with feelings of bitterness and sorrow. These feelings are the proof that the ego has rejected the God of salvation. The ‘ego’ – taken to include body, soul and spirit – has sent God into exile. Before this happens I am locked in a struggle with God, and woe to me if I should win.

…If, however, I am victorious; if I decide to put my ego to death, then the King of Glory will rise from the dead (Ps 23:7), the Lord of my salvation (Ps. 87:1; Is 38:20) for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 16:24). The darkness of my isolation will be dispersed by the light of God, and He Himself will be my companion; He will grant me genuine spiritual life, which is something greater than my life, for it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). I shall discover that Christ lives in me. His experiences shall become mine. This is the goal of my struggling; this is why I wrestle with God. And it is not just my struggle, but the struggle of every soul, and of the Church as a whole.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 218-219, 219-220).

In the Canon of Repentance of St Andrew of Crete we contemplate the following words which mark the same struggle between ego and God:

I have become an idol to myself, utterly defiling my soul with the passions, O compassionate Lord.  But accept me in repentance and allow me to behold your presence.  May the Enemy never possess me; may I never fall prey to him.  O Savior, have mercy on me.

The Cross and Our Salvation

“The sword of flame no longer guards the gate of Eden,

for a strange bond came upon it: the wood of the Cross.

The sting of Death and the victory of Hell were nailed to it.

But you appeared, my Savior, crying to those in hell:

“Be brought back again to Paradise.”

(St Romanos, On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 155)

The Cross: The Way to the Joyous Kingdom

NOW THE FLAMING SWORD NO LONGER GUARDS THE GATES OF PARADISE;  IT HAS BEEN MYSTERIOUSLY QUENCHED BY THE WOOD OF THE CROSS!  THE STING OF DEATH AND THE VICTORY OF HELL HAVE BEEN VANQUISHED, FOR YOU, MY SAVIOR, CAME AND CRIED TO THOSE IN HELL: ENTER AGAIN INTO PARADISE!    (Kontakion for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross)

We come to the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent, the very middle of the Fast, a day dedicated to the Cross of Christ.  We have heard Jesus’ words, “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”  (Mark 8:34-35).  And the common interpretation of these words in Orthodoxy make us think about the self-denial of the fast or perhaps about the passion and suffering of Christ Himself on Holy Friday.  We are often told that the very purpose of focusing on the Cross in mid-Lent is to encourage us to carry on with our fasting and self-denial:   we may be tired of the fast or tired by the fast, but we must shoulder the cross and soldier on.

Yet, there is another connection with the Cross that we can readily note in the Epistle reading:  “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need  (Hebrews 4:15-16).   It is the Cross of Christ which enables us to approach the throne of grace boldly – with the same boldness with which we dare to call God our heavenly Father when we say the Lord’s Prayer during the Divine Liturgy.  Christ’s arms stretched out on the cross are not in our Church hymns portrayed as lifeless but rather are full of strength and are welcoming us into His embrace.

The Cross for us is our sign of victory – it is through the Cross that Christ brought humanity to the throne of the Father.  Through the Cross joy comes into all the world and we are restored to communion with our God.   We hear this in the hymns for this day.  For example from the Matins Canon:

COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE LIFE‑CREATING TREE.  CHRIST, THE KING OF GLORY, STRETCHED OUT HIS HANDS ON IT AND EXALTED US TO PARADISE, FROM WHERE HE HAD BEEN DRIVEN BY THE DEVIL’S INSTIGATION.  COME, FAITHFUL, LET US FALL DOWN IN WORSHIP BEFORE THE TREE.  BY IT, WE ARE EMPOWERED TO CRUSH THE HEADS OF INVISIBLE ENEMIES.  COME, ALL GENERATIONS OF NATIONS.  LET US HONOR THE CROSS OF THE LORD WITH SONGS.  REJOICE, PERFECT REDEMPTION OF FALLEN ADAM.  NOW ALL CHRISTIANS VENERATE YOU IN FEAR AND LOVE, SINGING, HAVE MERCY ON US, GRACIOUS LORD AND LOVER OF MANKIND!

Doing a word count of the hymns that are found in the Matins Canon for this Lenten Sunday of the Cross we see:    the word fasting occurs only once,   abstinence only 3 times, the word sin or passions occurs 10 times, and references to the crucifixion or Christ being nailed to the cross occurs 15 times.    On the other hand words related to resurrection, Pascha, life, the destruction of hell and demons occur 54 times.  Add to those, words about rejoicing, salvation, light, paradise, and Kingdom we find 143 references in the Canon.  More than 80% of the Canon is about Christ’s victory, Christ’s triumph, the destruction of death and the resurrection of the dead.  This is the focus of this Sunday.  The Canon for the Sunday of the Cross has in it all the Irmos hymns from the Paschal Canon and thus today we are already proclaiming the resurrection of Christ.  Here are two hymns which are good examples of the focus of the hymns for the day:

This is a festival day: at the awakening of Christ, death has fled away; The light of life has dawned; Adam has risen and dances for joy!  Therefore let us cry aloud and sing a song of victory!

Behold, Christ is risen! said the angel to the Myrrh‑bearing women!  Do not lament, but go and say to the apostles: Rejoice, for today is the world’s salvation! The tyranny of the enemy has been destroyed through the death of Christ!

We find this emphasis on the glory and victory of the cross in the writings of the early church fathers as well.   As some church historians have noted, the Cross as a symbol of God’s salvation and love and triumph was the focus of the early church.  Only later in history does the Cross become more a sign of Christ’s passion and  suffering.  And only when this more ascetic theme takes over does the focus of the cross turn away from our participation in Christ’s salvation and turn more toward ascetical themes of personal self-denial, fasting and abstinence.  St. Paul himself writes about how we participate in and benefit by the Cross of Christ:

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.   (Ephesians 2:14-22)

For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him…   (Colossians 1:19-22)  [For other Pauline references to the Cross and Christ’s death as the instrument of our salvation see Romans 5:6-6:11, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, Galatians 2:19-20, Colossians 2:12-15]

A few more examples of the hymns from the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross:

You have risen from the tomb, never‑setting Light, shining upon the world with the bright dawn of incorruption!  In Your compassion You have driven out the dark sorrow of death from the farthest corners of the earth!

You crushed death, O Christ, and rose as a mighty King, recalling us from the depths of hell!  You brought us to the land of immortality, granting us the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven!

Faithful, let us cry aloud with joy as we greet the Cross of the Lord.  Let us sing triumphantly to God, for it is a fountain of holiness to all in the world!

During Great Lent, we don’t just focus on Christ’s suffering or our own self-denial.  The Cross of Christ reminds us that we are to be united to God our Father and to rejoice in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Cross reminds us that Christ has obtained salvation for all.  The Cross is for us has opened the door to Paradise.

A last thought:  Frequently in the early church writings there is mention of the two ways –  the way of the world which leads to death and the way of the Cross which leads to eternal life.      You can follow the way of the world ( for example just keep watching the news  and the news feeds and you will see exactly how the world defines glory, power, what is right – might, political power, military, the kingdom of this world).  Or you can turn the news and news feeds off and  pay attention to the themes of Great Lent, the way of Christ (self denial, humility, tears, broken-heartedness, the cross, a kingdom not of this world).   You can rejoice in the Lord or lament the condition of the world.  That choice is yours.  There are three weeks left in Great Lent, three weeks for you to allow your heart and mind to give up on the way of the world in order to follow Christ.  If you give up on the way of the world –  stop paying attention to the news or new feeds and instead come to the Church services to hear about Christ and the way to the Kingdom.  You will find the way to abundant life and the joy of the Lord God.

The Cross: How Joy Comes Into the World

Faithful, let us cry aloud with joy

as we greet the Cross of the Lord.

Let us sing triumphantly to God,

for it is a fountain of holiness to all in the world!

(Hymn for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross)

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In his book, THE THEOLOGY OF JEWISH CHRISTIANITY,  Jean Danielou points out that in the literary works from the first two Centuries of Christianity which focus on “the Cross as a theological symbol” the Cross is portrayed “as the power of Christ in his resurrection, as a sign of the cosmic scope of the redemption, and as an object of eschatological expectation” (Danielou, p 265).   This focus will change over time and as monasticism gains dominance as being “normative” Christianity the Cross becomes more focused on the passion of Christ and on asceticism as a response to Christ’s passion.  The more ancient focus in the literature “… is, however, obviously not the Cross as an image of Christ suffering, but the glorious Cross which will precede him at the Parousia.  The modification of its significance in the former sense was brought about by later Christian asceticism, which saw in it not a prophecy of the Parousia, but a memorial of the Passion”  (Danielou, p 269).

Monastic asceticism turned the focus away from the Parousia to the Passion of Christ.  But then the humanism which followed in European Christianity turned the focus ever more on the human suffering of Christ.  In Orthodoxy this tended to manifest itself by focusing on Mary’s own lamentations about the suffering of her son, while the West developed not only Mary’s suffering but also the human agony of Christ Himself as he is tortured and dies on the cross.   I find it interesting that in the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross (the midpoint of Great Lent), we see that focus on the glorious and life-giving Cross far more than on the passion of Christ or on asceticism or fasting.  The Cross thus is not so much a symbol of Christ’s death as it is a sign of His triumph over death.  The Lenten Sunday of the Cross appears to be more in line with the earlier Christian emphasis.

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In the Canon for the Sunday of the Cross we see what Danielou describes in his book as the focus of early Christianity:

“The Cross has thus been promoted to represent the whole plan of redemption.  It reaches out to the whole of Creation; it symbolizes the action of the Word as well in the farthest heaven as in the abysses of hell, and represents the spread of this action over the breadth of space and the length of time.”  (Danielou, pp 291-291)

The Cross represents Christ’s cosmic victory over all evil whether in the air, on earth or in hell.  It is the sign of God’s triumph in which heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.

We also see the Cross as a sign of victory when the hymns of the Canon make reference to the Old Testament:  Moses prefigures the Cross with outstretched arms in defeating Amalek, Moses prefigures the Cross in dividing the sea with his rod and then causing the sea to close on the Egyptians, Daniel stretches out his hands cross-like in the lion’s den, the wood is thrown into the bitter waters to make them sweet and drinkable, Jonah arose on the 3rd day from the whale.  The Old Testament thus anticipates the Cross of the Lord, making it possible for us now to see God’s victorious triumph over death through Christ’s death on the cross.

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On the Lenten Sunday of the Cross, the canon also contains all the same Irmos hymns that we sing in the Canon for Paschal Matins.  We begin the Matins Canon for the Cross with:

THIS IS THE DAY OF RESURRECTION:
LET US BE ILLUMINED, O PEOPLE!
PASCHA, THE PASCHA OF THE LORD!
FOR FROM DEATH TO LIFE, AND FROM EARTH TO HEAVEN
HAS CHRIST OUR GOD LED US,
AS WE SING THE SONG OF VICTORY!

We are already proclaiming the resurrection.   The Cross is a festal sign, it celebrates the victory of Christ over sin, death, demons and Satan.  The theme of the Sunday is not “Lent is long and hard and we have a lot more fasting yet to go.”  Rather the theme is resurrection and we already know the destination because it is the basis for our daily life in Christ!   The following are all hymns from the Canon for the Lenten Sunday of the Cross to give us some of the themes emphasized for this mid-Lent Sunday:

Today there is joy in earth and heaven,

for the sign of the Cross is made manifest to all the world!

The thrice‑blessed Cross is set before us;

a fountain of ever‑flowing grace to all who show it honor!

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You arose on the third day from the tomb,

as one waking from sleep, O Lord.

By Your divine power, You struck down the keepers of hell,

raising up all our ancestors from the beginning of time,

for You alone are blessed and greatly glorified:

the God of our Fathers!

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On this day, the Cross of Christ, the Wood anointed with life,

fills all things with the fragrance of divine grace.

As we smell its God‑given scent,

let us venerate it with faith forever!

Your tomb, O Christ, has brought life to me,

for You, the Lord of Life,

came and cried to those dwelling in the grave:

Be free, all who are in bonds,

for I am come, the Ransom of the world!

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The Lenten Sunday of the Cross is not focused on the passion of Christ and His suffering on the Cross.  Rather, it focuses on the Resurrection of Christ, the Holy Pascha which we will celebrate in another month.  And by anticipation it looks forward to eschaton, when Christ will fill all things with Himself and death will be no more.  The Cross is the sign of Christ’s victory, and from the beginning of Christianity it was celebrated as such.   

The Wages of Sin is Death. What are the Wages for Taking Up the Cross?

…for the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23)

“In Matthew divine recompense is given in response to the work demanded of those who would follow Jesus; it is a wage, not a reward. For instance, in 16:24-28 Jesus explains the necessity of cross-bearing in terms of the eschatological repayment:
Then [after rebuking Peter] he said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow behind 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 on my account will find it…

Like the Markan parallel (8:34-9:1), this pericope explains that following Jesus entails giving one’s life to gain it back – that is, to follow Jesus who will be killed and then raised from the dead (see 16:21). Matthew, however, explicitly frames this “losing in order to regain” in terms of eschatological repayment; those who lose their life following Jesus will regain it because the Son of Man is about to repay to each according to his deeds. The crucial point here is that Jesus is not calling the disciples to perform some supererogatory deed that will earn them a “reward.” Rather, all who follow Jesus are expected to take up their cross, lose their lives, and be repaid in the resurrection…The recompense described here is not a mere token of God’s gratitude for those who go the extra mile. It is, rather, the recompense for obligatory behavior….But these workers receive a generous wage, not a reward. ”  (Nathan Eubank, Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin, 68-69)

Baptized into Christ

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And baptism into Christ means incorporated into the diverse community of fellow baptized, co-crucified, co-resurrected, justified inhabitants of Christ”  (Gal 3:28).

. . . justification is an experience of both death and resurrection, and both must be stressed. But the resurrection to new life it incorporates is a resurrection to an ongoing state of crucifixion: I “have been” crucified means I “still am” crucified. Therefore, justification by faith must be understood first and foremost as a participatory crucifixion that is, paradoxically, life-giving (cf. 2 Cor 4:7-15). The one who exercises faith, and is there by crucified with Christ, is systauroo in Gal 2:19 – as in Rom 6:6), because he or she is animated by the resurrected Christ, who always remains for Paul (and the New Testament more generally) the crucified Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 2:2; cf. John 20:20, 27; Rev. 5:6). As Miroslav Volf says in commenting on this text, the self “is both ‘de-centered’ and ‘re-centered’ by one and the same process, by participating in the death and resurrection of Christ through faith and baptism…” Volf continutes:

By being ‘crucified with Christ,’ the self has received a new center – the Christ who lives in it and with whom it lives…The center of the self – a center that is both inside and outside – is the story of Jesus Christ, who has become the story of the self. More precisely, the center is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self.

This understanding of faith as crucifixion is reinforced by Paul’s insistence that the believer’s experience (narrated representatively by Paul in first-person texts) is not only a death with Christ but also a death to the Law (Gal 2:19), to the world (Gal 6:14), and of the flesh (Gal 5:24). The mention of death of the flesh and to the world also demonstrates that Gal 2:15-21 should not be read only as a Jewish experience of liberation from the Law. Rather, every believer begins and continues his or her existence in Christ by co-crucifixion. Gal 2:19-21 suggests that co-crucifixion is both the way in and the way to stay in the convent.

Once again, we must stress that it is the resurrected crucified Christ with whom believers are initially and continually crucified. This is important, both christologically and soteriologically, in two ways. First, as an experience of the risen or resurrected Christ, co-crucifixion is not merely a metaphor but an apt description of an encounter with a living person whose presence transforms and animates believers: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me by giving himself for me.” As Douglas Campbell says, this is no mere imitatio Christi! For “God is not asking [believers]…to imitate Christ – perhaps an impossible task – so much as to inhabit or to indwell him,” such that “the Spirit of God is actively reshaping the Christian into the likeness of Christ.”

(Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, pp. 70-71)