Holy Friday (2018)

Holy Friday

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

It is finished!

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

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

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

Holy Wednesday (2018)

It was common in the early church to personify Death and Hell especially in contemplating the crucifixion of Christ.  Death, Hell and Satan were often portrayed having a conversation trying to understand what the death of Christ meant for them – their victory over God, or, as they belatedly realized, the dead Christ was the seed of their own destruction.  Life burst forth from the tomb of Christ, bringing an end to Death’s power over humanity.

Three crosses Pilate fixed on Golgotha,

two for the thieves and one for the Giver of life,

whom Hell saw and said to those below,

“My ministers and powers

who has fixed a nail in my heart?

A wooden lance has suddenly pierced me and I am being torn apart.

My insides are in pain, my belly in agony,

my sense make my spirit tremble,

and I am compelled to disgorge

Adam and Adam’s race. Given me by a Tree,

a Tree is bringing them back

again to Paradise.

(St. Romanos, On the Life of Christ, pp. 155-156)

The personified Death, Hades and Satan all become mortally wounded by Christ’s own wounds.  They become weakened and sickened by the healing power of Christ’s resurrection.  Simultaneously, for us humans, we are being restored to health by Christ’s wounds.  “Those who repent with all their heart and cleanse themselves of all their aforementioned evils, and add nothing more to their sins, will receive healing from the Lord for their previous sins...”  (Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude 8:77:1-5)  Far beyond forgiveness of our sins, God gives us the gift of healing of soul and body through the suffering of His Son.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.  (1 Peter 2:24)

The Way to Joy? Take Up Your Cross

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

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

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

Being a Member of Christ’s Body

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

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

Christ’s Death on the Cross

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

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

The Exaltation of the Cross (2017)

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

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

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.

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)

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