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.

The Blessed Remembrance of Death

“The Great Christian writers and saints have spoken of how a deliberate and conscientious remembrance of death enables us to learn to live life in faith and faithfulness – a benefit that we obviously lost when we deny death and expel the dying from our sight. We would do well to ask ourselves how we might best remember our deaths so as to live our lives with faith in God and enduring love for our fellow humanity. The Gospels provide an answer to this question. They teach us that Christ made death the goal of his life. Christ repeatedly reminded disciples that his life was a living toward dying. ‘He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”’ (Mark 10:32-33).

Christ’s discipline of remembering his death clarified the purpose of his life and ensured that his death would be redemptive for others. And while the great ascetical fathers and spiritual writers of Christianity remind us that Christ’s sacrifice is once and for all and need not be repeated by us, since he was the only sinless human being – they do insist that we pay careful attention, nonetheless, to the lessons that Christ teaches about the remembrance of death.” (Life’s Living Towards Dying, Vigen Guorian, p 35)

 

He Stole His Way into Paradise

There were two criminals crucified with Jesus.  One of those men, a thief, found his way to Paradise in the very last moments of his life.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  (Luke 23:39-43)

The one criminal executed with Jesus departed this earth as a traveling companion of Christ, on a journey to Paradise.

“The thief, whose hands were defiled with blood,

You accepted as a fellow-traveler.

With him number us also, O Lord,

For You are good and love humanity.”

This wise thief had not committed himself to obeying God by keeping Torah nor had he sought in his lifetime to become a disciple of Christ.  But in the moment of his death he forsook looking for his own advantage in this world, and placed his life in God’s hands.  He didn’t seek a Messiah who would overthrow Israel’s enemies.  He rather acknowledged the vainness of his own life, lifestyle and pursuits and accepted the reality of God.

“The thief on the cross uttered a small cry,

But he found great faith.

In a moment he was saved and became the first to enter Paradise

When its gates were opened.

O Lord, who accepted his repentance, glory to You!”

It would not be unfair to say after wasting his entire life in crime, he in the end stole his way into Paradise!

 

The reality is Christ opened the gates for the thief to enter Paradise.  Christ’s gift of eternal life and salvation was gracefully and freely given to one who had no hope of entering God’s kingdom.

“Through a tree Adam lost his home in paradise, but through the tree of the cross the thief came there to dwell.  by tasting of the fruit, the first broke the Creator’s commandment, but He who was crucified with You confessed You, the hidden God.  Remember us also, O Savior, in Your Kingdom!”

 

The River From Eden Yields the Four Gospels

“The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.  And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  . . .  Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.  And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;’but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Genesis 2:8-10, 15-17)

When I read Genesis 2, I do find Source Theory to be helpful in understanding the various currents of thoughts that make up the chapter.  Basically this theory in Biblical Scholarship says that some of the books of the Bible or chapters within a book show signs of having been written by different authors and then were placed together by an editor at some point in history.  It still is inspired Scripture and we receive the text as it is even if we can analyze it into its various parts.

So Genesis 2:8-10 begins the narration of the Garden which God planted in Eden (as we see in the opening text of this blog).  This narration flows perfectly from vs. 10, continuing in vs 15-17 as can be seen above.   Between vs. 10 and 15 verses 11-14 seem to completely disrupt the narrative with no direct connection to verses 8-10 or 15-17.     If you remove verses 11-14, you see verse 15 flows seamlessly from verse 10.  This fact is accounted for by Source theory:  vs 11-14 are in fact from a different hand/narrative but have been placed into the text and so now form our Scriptures.   Here are the verses 11-14:

“Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads.  The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which skirts the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.  And the gold of that land is good. Bdellium and the onyx stone are there.  The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one which goes around the whole land of Cush.  The name of the third river is Hiddekel; it is the one which goes toward the east of Assyria. The fourth river is the Euphrates.” (Genesis 2:11-14)

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Perhaps the point of verses 11-14 is to give some geographical connection between Eden and earth occupied by those ancients who composed and edited the text.  In any case they don’t add to the narrative and in some ways defy a spiritual interpretation.  The Orthodox Church however makes very interesting use of those verses in a Holy Friday Matins hymn.

“From Your live-bearing side, O Christ, a fountain flows forth as from Eden, giving drink to Your Church as to a living Paradise.  From there it divided to become the four rivers of the Gospels, watering the world, gladdening creation, and teaching the nations to worship Your Kingdom in Faith.”  

In the above Holy Friday hymn, Genesis 2:11-14 and the river flowing from Paradise is connected to the wound made in Christ’s side when he hung dead upon the cross.  According to John 19:34, blood and water flowed from the side of Christ when He was pierced with the spear.  That Gospel verse is interpreted in the hymn in the light of Genesis 2:11-14.

In Genesis 2, the narrative of Adam in Paradise (vs. 8-10, 15-17) is interrupted by unexpected mention of this flowing river which originates in Eden and becomes the source of 4 other rivers (vs 11-14).  Such river bifurcation is fairly rare in nature but where it exists sometimes waters and forms an entire delta region, a fertile crescent as it were.   The life-giving nature of these deltas – giving birth to a rich abundance of wildlife is used in the imagery of the hymn above.  But now in the hymn, Christ’s pierced side, like the Garden of Paradise, becomes the source of the life-giving river which in turn is the riverhead of the four rivers which are the Gospels watering the world.  The fourfold Gospels flow from the side of Christ bringing Good News to all nations.  The imagery is rich indeed and makes a very creative use of what might otherwise be seen as an odd anomaly interrupting the flow of Scripture.  The flow of the river from the Garden of Eden which is the riverhead of 4 other rivers helps us appreciate  the depth of the Gospel verse mentioning the flow of blood from the side of the crucified Christ.

Holy Friday 2016

On Great and Holy Friday, we encounter Christ our Lord,  as our servant, bearing our abuses, carrying out all the work needed for our salvation.  He humbles Himself to serve us and save us.  On Holy Friday we stand in awe of the God of humility and suffering, whose love knows no bounds.  Poet Scott Cairns expresses our understanding so well:

“Bearing our curse, becoming sin,

You loose us from both the burden

of the law and from our lawlessness.

 

You bruise the serpent’s head,

and snatch us from its grip. You open

the way to resurrection, shattering

the gates of hell, You slay the one

who held death’s power, give comfort

to those who honor You. You give the holy cross

by which our enemy is slain, by which

our life returns to us abundantly.”

(Scott Cairns,  Love’s Immensity, pp 31-32)

We should feel unsettled by the Cross – it is the price God pays to have us be with Him.  It represents a depth of love which is hard to imagine.  It reveals God to us in the most mysterious way.  The cross of Christ reminds us of this truth, expressed by St. Theophan the Recluse :

“There is but one road to the kingdom of God – a cross, voluntary or involuntary.” (in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p 231)

Previous: Holy Thursday 2016

Next:  Holy Saturday 2016

Ancestral Sin and God’s Plan

I should like to present a lengthy citation from the part of the Commentary on Genesis which forms the basis for discord over the continuity of Theodore’s [of Mopsuestia] earlier and later work. Theodore writes:

“I have heard some inquire, if God had foreknowledge of Adam’s disobedience, why did he give him through his commandment occasion to disobey [him]?

For this reason, I answer, that God knew very well, that mortality was of use to human beings. If they remained immortal, they would sin incessantly. In addition, because it is useful for them, that in the annihilation of the body in death the [body] of sin is also annihilated. He did not give the best to humanity immediately, in order that he [his dignity] might not be violated. He first of all gave the commandment, which he knew would not be observed. He wanted to show thereby, that human beings, promised immortality for their obedience, had so little trust in their creator and benefactor, that they hoped, through their disobedience, to obtain not only immortality, but even to attain to the stature of divinity. If their body had possessed immortality, how much easier they would have believed it possible themselves to become gods through their disobedience! [God] first of all showed through issuing of his commandment, and through the disobedience of Adam, that mortality is useful. Therefore, he endowed this mortality [upon humanity]. That he has equipped humanity for mortal existence is shown by their male and female forms, which we can recognize as making possible the production of children from the very beginning. Therefore, the structuring [of the human being] was fitted to suit mortal life.”  – Theodore of Mopsuestia.

CreationAdamEve

As can be seen, the fragment denies that humanity was created immortal, instead positing immortality as a reward for obedience, and insisting that human mortality was considered by God a useful instrument. If humanity had been immortal, then it would not have had any incentive not to sin, because, as sin consists of a desire to be like God, our possession of immortality would have made it far easier to countenance sinning, as our being like God would have been seen as an even more realistically achievable end.” (Richard Paul Cumming, St. Vladmir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol. 56, Number 2, 2012, pp 186-187)

That humanity becoming immortal is contingent on human obedience to God, makes the life and death of Jesus Christ ever more meaningful to us.  We come to understand why we need Christ and are indebted to Him for our salvation – we did not, and could not have achieved salvation on our own.  The Law could not bring about the obedience needed for our salvation.  In fact the Law, though given as a gift for salvation, showed how disobedient we were as a people.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  (Philippians 2:5-11)

In Christ being obedient to the Father in dying for us on the cross, Christ opens the doors to Paradise and to immortality for all of humanity.  In Christ’s obedience, we all are given eternal life.   This is not so much punishment for sin, but true filial obedience out of love.  Christ does what humanity has failed to do.  Adam and Eve were disobedient unto death, Jesus Christ is obedient unto death.  The first Adam’s disobedience brought death to us all, while the new Adam’s obedience means life for us.

“Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”  (Romans 5:18-19)

The Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross of our Lord (2015)

Today in the Orthodox Church we are celebrating the Feast of the Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross of our Savior.   One of the hymns from the post-feast proclaims:

Today Your precious Cross, O Savior Christ,
shone forth radiantly like the sun,


set up and elevated on the all-glorious Place of the Skull:
on Your all-holy mountain,
openly revealing that by it, O all-powerful One,
You have raised our nature to the heavens,
for You are the Lover of mankind.

There is a play on ideas, of course.  Christ is raised up on the cross to glory, but simultaneously it is His crucifixion.  He who triumphs over death is first subject to death for our salvation.   The Cross becomes the Christ’s throne and footstool – the very place where the Lord of Glory “rests” His feet while enthroned.

“Extol the Lord our God and worship at His footstool for He is holy.”  (Ps 98:5)

“The ‘footstool’ serves as a key term in the liturgical services held on September 14, functioning as a bridge between the two sides of the Lord’s profile: king and sufferer.  The footstool refers to both throne (or ark of covenant) and the cross.  The paradoxical juxtaposition of exaltation (throne or ark) and extreme humility (cross) is the very theme of the feast of the ‘Exaltation of the Precious Cross.’  Through scriptural lessons read at the Vespers and Liturgy, and through hymns and antiphons, we are introduced to the mood of Good Friday and to the post-resurrection times — the liturgical life of the Church as advancement toward the eschaton.”  (Eugen Pentiuc, THE OLD TESTAMENT IN EASTERN ORTHODOX TRADITION, p 222)

Save us, O Savior!

What is the Cost of My Sins?

Many feel they don’t need to go to confession to ask God for forgiveness and to receive from the Lord the remission of their sins.

Some claim to confess their sins to God daily in their hearts and say they know they receive His forgiveness.

Is it cheap grace?  Does anyone really need to receive forgiveness through the Church?

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

The forgiveness of sins comes through the death of Christ, the Son of God, on the cross.  Christ showed in His lifetime that he had the power to heal the sick which in turn proved His claim to have power to forgive sins.  And, Christ bestowed through the Holy Spirit the power to forgive sins on His disciples and the Church.   If everyone could simply pronounce forgiveness upon themselves in their hearts, why did Christ bestow such power on the Church?

We may imagine God easily forgives sins from the safety and quietness of heaven.  Poof!  and the sins are gone.

The New Testament however presents it that the forgiveness of sins happens through the death of Christ on the cross.  No cheap grace.  A priceless death occurs to forgive our sins.

All of our sins, not just the sins of really evil people, is paid for by the death of Christ.

We might imagine our sins are not that bad – not as bad as others (as the Pharisee said of the Publican and we think of say the evil men of ISIS).  Many of us think the sins of others are really bad – whether sexual or involving other morality – but we tend to think our sins aren’t that bad.  Yet the price paid for our sins is also the death of God on the cross.

We experience the forgiveness of our sins by being united to Christ in baptism and in the Eucharist and through the Body of Christ in confession.   Confession is another gift given to us by Christ to maintain our unity with all other believers through asking the Church, His Body, for the forgiveness of our sins.

Holy Friday (2015)

On Holy Friday, God’s plan for the salvation of the world is revealed. The mystery hidden from all eternity comes to light. And we see how God’s ways are not our ways.   St. Paul in his letter to the Romans shows how unlike the Roman Empire is God’s plan and Kingdom in dealing with enemies. The Roman Empire was the model of overwhelming government and military power to whom everyone had to submit.   The Empire was merciless to its enemies.   St. Paul in his letter to the Romans shows how God’s Kingdom is not of this world – for God deal with His enemies by dying on the cross for them.

“[St. Paul’s Letter to the] Romans holds up the promise of reconciliation with those it has cast as unrighteous. In distinction to the Roman ideology of violence where the impious are conquered and vanquished by the divinely established Romans, Paul invokes the image of the Son who gives his life for the ungodly (5.6–9). There is no war to win peace, but a death for all. Jesus, though ‘righteous’, dies for ‘sinners’ (5.8). Salvation from the wrath of God is not through obedience to laws and decrees, nor a pacifying war or threat of violence, but through the reconciling death of Jesus (5.8–9). … in Romans Paul places before his listeners’ eyes the image of self-sacrifice. Jesus gave himself unto death for others ‘while we were enemies’ (Rom. 5.10).   . . .

Paul’s model of reconciliation inserts itself into such notions of the noble death. Christ dies for enemies, and gives himself though without fault to die for sinners, that they might be free from the bondage of sin and death. The strong giving himself for the weak, the righteous for the sinner, invokes again the reversal of normal expectations of the vanquished seeking reconciliation with the triumphant. Paul’s paradoxical motif of reconciliation reverses this honorific code and as such belongs to the other paradoxical notions of a defeat as triumph explored above. The peace that Jesus offers is not then the violent peace of Rome, but a peace based on grace and divine self-giving. Here, again, iconography is important. The force of the reversal Paul invokes gains its force from a clear view Paul can assume his listeners know from the signs of imperial presence all around them: pictures of the violent pacification of Rome’s enemies as a sign of the blessing of the gods.”   (Harry Maier, Picturing Paul in Empire: Imperial Image, Text and Persuasion in Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles, Kindle Location 1979-1988 and1999-2006)

Even today people believe in military power as the only way to establish peace on earth. The Islamic State for example believes peace on earth is only possible when Islam has militarily conquered the rest of the world and established one world government – an Islamic state.  And some Americans as well seem to think our nation’s greatness lies only in its military strength.   Christianity on the other hand can point to the reality of its own history and how it conquered the seemingly all-powerful Roman Empire with the invincible weapon of the Cross.   There is a warfare which is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This is the victory which Christ secures on the cross. Christ testifies against those whose way is evil, which is why they hate Him (John 7:7) despite His love for them.   Christ willingly dies for the sins of those who make God their enemy (Romans 5:10), and He dies to save even these enemies from both sin and death.

Repentance, prayer and fasting were the weapons of the early Church against the military might of the Roman Empire. Will we use them again in the world to defeat present day evil?   The victory we so need in the world is Christ’s, who has the power to overcome worldly powers as well as the powers of darkness.