Melitio of Sardis: Homily on the Pascha

For, himself led as a lamb

and slain as a sheep,

he ransomed us from the world’s service

as from the land of Egypt,

and freed us from the devil’s slavery

as from the hand of Pharaoh;

and he marked our souls with his own Spirit

and the members of our body with his own blood.

It is he that clouded death with shame

and stood the devil in grief

as Moses did Pharoah.

It is he that struck down crime

and made injustice childless

as Moses did Egypt.

It is he that delivered us from slavery to liberty,

from darkness to light,

from death to life,

from tyranny to eternal royalty…

It is he that was enfleshed in a virgin,

that was hanged on a tree,

that was buried in the earth,

that was raised from the dead,

that taken up to the heights of the heavens.

He is the lamb being slain;

he is the lamb speechless;

he is the one born from Mary the lovely ewe-lamb;

he is the one “taken from the flock” (cf. Ex. 12:5; 1 Sam. 17: 34),

and dragged “to slaughter” (cf. Isa. 53:7),

and sacrificed “at evening” (cf. Ex. 12:6),

and buried “at night” (cf. Ex. 12:8, 10),

who on the tree was “not broken” (cf. Ex. 12:10),

in the earth was not dissolved,

arose from the dead,

and raised up man from the grave below.

(Melito of Sardis, Homily on the Pascha, from Paul M. Blowers’s The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pp. 98-99)

Holy Friday (2019)

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“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)

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)

Strengthening Christ

Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”  Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.  (Luke 22:41-44)

The particular scene described by St. Luke in the Garden of Gethsemane presents all kinds of challenges for Trinitarian believers who see Christ as the incarnate God.  Not the least of which is that an angel strengthens Christ!  Of course all kinds of explanations are offered always trying to balance the two natures in Christ – sometimes His divine nature is being portrayed and sometimes His human nature.  I  cannot resolve all those issues, and want only to mention one thought that this event brings to my mind.

In his agony in Gethsemane, we see that Christ knows what it is to be human and knows what it is to have His heart crushed by the weight of life in this world.  He realized in this moment, in his humanity, why humans fail, why they fall in temptation and despair, why life seems more than many of us can bear.  Even His divinity could not spare Him from feeling all that we humans feel.  Perhaps even the angels could see and empathetically feel the crushing effect of the weight of the world on their Lord.  It is too much for them to bear.  But if He as Lord could not bear this weight, what could they do to help Him?  One thinks about Uzzah reaching out to steady the ark when the oxen stumbled (2 Samuel 6:6)!

The image of Christ bearing our sins and realizing the limits of human nature is moving indeed.  “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 8:17) and “he  himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (Isaiah 53:12; 1 Peter 2:24).  His agony is despite being God, He is experiencing our world, our life, our lives.

I recently finished the book RED RISING, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I didn’t read it for any theological reason, but purely because one of my sons gifted it to me.  I read it for fun.  But there was one scene in the book which I thought theologically profound.  [SPOILER ALERT:  I am going to talk about something in the book which if you plan to read the book you may not want to know.  I will be a bit vague about this, and some of what I write here is what I read into the scene and how I reacted to it rather than just what the author said.]

The novel is placed in our dystopian solar system in which humans have managed to inhabit most of the planets.  But there is one class of people which rules the solar system with an iron fist.  It is a vile and violent rule and solar system where might = right, and the end justifies the means.  As one character is trying to earn his right to be in the ruling class, he realizes he has to do something spectacular to get the people to follow him instead of the other strong  and potential rulers.  He chooses a method which I was totally not expecting in the book.  He is faced with having to discipline one of his soldiers for raping another soldier.  The whole system is built on power and abuse.   All those with him are watching to see what he will do and he realizes no matter what he does, some may leave him and some may decide to betray him.   He orders the man to be beaten with 20 strokes, but then comes the amazing part – which I was not expecting at all.  He then says that they must also beat him with 20 lashes because as the leader, the failure of his followers are his failures as leader.  No one will be punished without him receiving an equal punishment.  And in the book he suffers from the punishment he receives, there is no symbolic beating.  They inflict serious pain on him.   His method so astounds everyone that they come to realize he really is special as a leader.

Needless to say, one sees Christ in this.  By His suffering, Christ says all the punishment that should be meted out to every sinner is to be meted out on Him.  Of course, Christ goes even further then the novel’s character as He takes on the punishment instead of us being punished, not in addition to it.  Additionally, this character in the story can be heroic but he also can be arrogant and foolish and wrong.  Nevertheless, in the story, the moment when he orders them to mete out his own punishment is profound.  It really allowed me to understand from a new perspective what it is that Christ has done for us.

And in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross, Jesus bears the full weight of all this punishment for the sin of the world.  “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

The Cross as the Power of the Church

In the Orthodox Church, one way we show honor to our Lord Jesus Christ, is through veneration of His Cross.  On September 14, we keep the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, displaying a decorated cross for all to see and venerate.  We humble ourselves before the Lord by bowing before His cross.  For the Cross is a sign of God’s own presence in our midst and grace toward the world.

The Cross is a sign to us just like in the Old Testament when God gave the rainbow as a sign of God’s peace with humanity, that God will never again destroy the earth, but instead makes covenant with us.  The Cross is a similar sign to us of God’s peace and protection.

The Old Testament has many other signs  – the Ark of the covenant, the Temple in Jerusalem, the Torah, Aaron staff, the tablets of stone with the 10 commandments – which remind everyone of God’s presence, promise, activity,  and covenant.  These signs were all treated with reverence by God’s people.   King David danced before the ark when it was brought back into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14) because it was a sign of God’s presence and favor.   In Revelation 11:19, we get an idea of the significance of the Ark as a sign:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

For Christians, the Cross is the sign of God’s Power :

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.   (1 Corinthians 1:18)

The Cross is the sign of God’s love:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.   (John 3:16-17)

The Cross is the sign of God’s plan for the salvation of the human race, the restoration of our relationship with God.  The Cross is the sign of God’s grace and presence.

In the Church we sing the words of the Psalm:

“Extol the Lord our God and worship at his footstool for it is holy.”  (Psalm 99:5)

We recognize that where Jesus’ feet were nailed on the Cross, this becomes Christ’s footstool, the place where his feet rested, and thus the cross is holy.   On the Cross God’s love for His world reigns and thus the Cross is God’s throne.   In the book of Revelation (5:6-14) we encounter these words describing the worship of God at His Throne:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain … he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

We recognize that God set up His Throne on earth, on the Cross, and so we give honor to it for it brings us close to God.  We sing at the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross:

Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross!

The invincible weapon of godliness;

The gate of paradise, the protection of the faithful!

The Cross is the might of the church.

Through it corruption is abolished.

Through it the power of death is crushed

And we are raised from earth to heaven!

The invincible weapon of peace!

The Cross is the enemy of demons,

The glory of the martyrs,

The haven of salvation

Which grants the world great mercy!

But we do not just honor the Cross of our salvation, for the Cross is also a way of life for us Christians.  Jesus asks,

For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?     (Mark 8:36)

We spend a great deal of time, energy and money pursuing our dreams.  For example, college education is expensive, yet we are willing to pay the high price for ourselves or our adult children.  We are willing to sacrifice many things to get that education in the hope that it will benefit ourselves or our children in the long run.  We pursue careers and cars and the home of our dreams, investing all we have to achieve these goals.  But, Christ asks us, even if you gain the whole world, and in so doing lose your soul, what good are these things you have gained?  For they all belong to the fleeting world, which is passing away.  Jesus also taught:

 “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21).  

Treasures are those things  – including convictions and values – which are so dear to us that we are willing to forfeit everything to get them.   Do we value the Kingdom of Heaven so much that we are willing to forfeit everything on earth to attain it?

For some, the things they hold so dear that are willing to forsake and forfeit everything else are fleeting pleasures, not treasures.   They pursue with all their heart, mind and strength things of this world, which are so temporary.  We see it all the time in the scandal mongering news – politicians, sports champions and entertainers who shamefully throw away family and friends to pursue sex, drugs and other pleasures.   They end up destroying that which is human in themselves and others.

For what is truly & uniquely human is the ability to commune with God, the ability to see God, to experience, to possess and share God’s almighty love and being.

We who hope in heaven should not exchange our home and life there for the pleasures of this world which can never satisfy, and so quickly disappear.  We ought not give up our life in God for a moment’s pleasure, for those moments pass away, and we are left with nothing.  Only our life in God is forever.

The world tells us to focus on our self and our self-interest.   Christianity says our self-interest is found in:

Self-respect

Self-denial

Self-control

Self-restraint

Self-discipline

Jesus said: If any want to be my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)

Contemplating the Cross

The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the LORD is robed; he has put on strength as his belt.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.

(Psalms 93:1-2)

Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.

(Psalms 104:1-2)

St Isaac of Nineveh writes:

For the Cross is Christ’s garment just as the humanity of Christ is the garment of the divinity. Thus (the Cross today) serves as a type, awaiting the time when the true prototype will be revealed: then those things will not be required (any longer). For the Divinity dwells inseparably in the Humanity, without any end, and forever; in other words, boundlessly. For this reason we look on the Cross as the place belonging to the Shekhina of the Most High, the Lord’s sanctuary, the ocean of the symbols (or, mysteries) of God’s economy.

  . . . Whenever we gaze on the Cross in a composed way, with our emotions steadied, the recollection of our Lord’s entire economy gathers together and he stands before our interior eyes.

(Isaac of Nineveh, The Second Part, p. 60)