Christian: What Does It Mean to Be Successful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Icon of the Crucifixion

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

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

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

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

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

The Way to Joy? Take Up Your Cross

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

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

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

Falling Asleep on the Cross

Christ … for my sake fell asleep on the cross  (Lenten hymn)

The imagery of some Orthodoxy hymns about the crucifixion of Christ, seem all too pleasant …  Jesus falls asleep on the Christ.  No mention of the agony and torture he would have suffered.  Many icons reflect that same calm demeanor.  It was Christian humanism of the Middle Ages which really took an interest in the suffering and agony of Christ and began to describe and portray the agony and torture which crucifixion is.  Read the biblical texts and we see that the bodily suffering of Christ is hardly mentioned.   It was the focus on Christ’s humanity which was seen as realism, that started Christians moving away from a focus on Jesus as the incarnate God.  Instead of seeing God, all that was seen was another human dying a painful death.

The image of Christ falling asleep on the cross is deeply rooted in the theology that God is passionless.  God is not moved by emotions and their visceral affects on us – God doesn’t have a body so does not experience emotions like we do.  God does not love us as a reaction to us for God is love.  God dying on the cross does not change His reaction to humans: He continues to love them.  And so Jesus says while dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  (Luke 23:34)  He came into the world because of divine love and dies on the cross for the same reason (John 3:16-17).  Christ doesn’t forgive in reaction to what his tormentors are doing for He came into the world as love in order to forgive humans.

God is love, and doesn’t wait to see what we will do before reacting to us.  God always acts towards us in love.  God becomes incarnate because God is love.  God dies on the cross because God is love.  The crucifixion does not change God’s relationship to the world.  Sin does not change God’s reaction to humans.  God forever acts in love toward humans no matter how humans behave.   As another Lenten hymn says:

In Your compassion You humbled Yourself, and were lifted on the cross raising up with Yourself the one who had fallen of old through eating from the tree.  Therefore, You are glorified, Lord, alone greatest in love, and we sing Your praises forever!

God loves humanity and accepts that love means God will suffer for us humans.  God suffers for us, with us and in us.   God does this for our salvation.  God is not changed by our sin, by our reaction to God, by our rejection of God, by our crucifying God’s Son.  God is love.  Thus the Passionless God suffers the passion as one of the great mysteries of God’s love.  And because it is God on the cross, the suffering is infinitely deep, yet God is still love and God continues to act toward us in love.  This is why the icon is so correct in portraying the sleeping Christ on the cross – divinity suffers in us and for us and with us in all eternity and yet this does not change God’s love for it is God’s love for us.

“He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”  (1 John 4:8-10)

God even takes on a human body and experiences all the pain, sorrow and torment of being human because this is God’s love for us.  It is a love infinitely and eternally deep – yet it is the love that God offers to us and invites us to share with Him so that our life, and our suffering, becomes our life in God.   God dying on the cross is still love, and still loving us.

Christ lives and dies for Adam, Eve and each of us.  The hymns of Lent often move from images of God dealing with Adam to God dealing with each of us.

I have fallen into the heavy sleep of sin through heedlessness, but, my Christ, Who for my sake fell asleep on the cross, awaken me, that the night of death not come on me.

Christ’s death on the cross is the sign of the blessed Sabbath Day on which the Lord rests for His work for us and for our salvation is complete.  Christ sleeps on the cross in order to awaken us from the sleep of death and to awaken us from our having fallen asleep in the world when we should be awake, alert and vigilant.  In Christ we awake from our sleep whether in this world or the world to come.

In Christ dying on the cross we see God’s love for us undisturbed by the sin of the world, encouraging us to unite ourselves to Him so that whether we live or die we belong to the Lord.

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”  (Romans 14:8-9)

See also my post Arising From Sleep.

 

Offer Yourself to God: Take Up Your Cross

“From this point of view, it would be appropriate to also quote an amazing third-century text by of the author of the most early Philokalia, Origen:

‘You are, all of you, a priestly people. Consequently, you have access to the sanctuary; each one of you has in himself his holocaust and he himself kindles the altar of sacrifice, so that it burns continually. If I renounce all my possessions, if I carry my cross and follow Christ, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God.

If I deliver my body in order to burn with charity, if I acquire the glory of martyrdom, I offer myself as a holocaust on the altar of God. If I love my brothers to the point of giving up my soul for them, if I fight to the death for justice and truth, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God. If I mortify my members of all carnal concupiscence, if the world is crucified to me and I to the world, I offer my holocaust on the altar of God and I become the priest of my own sacrifice.’

(Boris Bobrinksoy, The Compassion of the Father, p. 111).

Clinging to the World or to the Wood?

Our Lord Jesus Christ chose His disciples not from the wise, not from the noble, not from the rich or the famous, but from among fishermen and tentmakers and poor and illiterate men. This was to make clear to all that neither poverty, nor lack of learning, nor lowly origins, nor anything else of that sort is an impediment to acquiring virtue and understanding the divine sayings and mysteries of the Spirit. But even the poorest and lowliest and least educated person, if he gives proof of eagerness and an appropriate inclination towards what is good, can not only come to know the divine teaching but also become a teacher himself through God’s grace.

And the things that hinder us from understanding and grasping the meaning of spiritual teachings are our own indifference and the fact that we cling with all our might to the fleeting concerns of this life. As a result, we do not allow space or time for listening and studying and recalling to mind what we have heard, nor do we care about the things which are to come and things eternal.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, “Homily 47,” p. 366)

The Cross as a Weapon of Peace

“The Cross is the Weapon of Peace, we sing. Yet, despite the militaristic overtones, the Cross is not simply a more mighty or powerful weapon in some kind of divine arms race! No, it is the weapon of peace, it is a weapon which doesn’t resort to greater fire-power to blow apart our enemies in a cycle of violence, but rather brings that cycle of violence to an end, ushering in the peace of God for those who are prepared to live by it.

When someone strikes or offends us, Christ does not direct us to hit back or retaliate, but to turn the other cheek, to bear one another’s weaknesses, not so that we can be beaten some more for the sake of it, but to take upon ourselves the anger that is in the other person, to neutralize it, to put an end to it, as Christ himself did, the blameless lamb led to the slaughter, or rather going willingly, taking upon himself the sin of the world.

This is not simply a matter of being passive, but rather being passive actively, creatively, and being creative in the most divine way possible–for it allows God to work in and through us, rather than just doing whatever it is we ourselves can come up with.

But God can only work through us if we ourselves take up the Cross and live by it, for if we do so–dead to the world–we will already, now, be in the peace of God, untroubled by anything the world throws at us, and the peace that we will know will spread through us to all those around us.

(John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp. 38-39)

The Cross of the Temple

We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” (Mark 14:58)

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.    (John 2:19-22)

Metropolitan Hilarion writes that St. Isaac the Syrian says:

“The cross is a symbol of ‘the Man who completely became a temple’ of God; the cross is made in the name of ‘that Man in whom the Divinity dwells’; the humanity of Christ is the ‘garment of his Divinity’.” (Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, p 54)

Then King David rose to his feet and said: “Hear me, my brethren and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building.  (1 Chronicles 28:2)

“Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool!” (Psalm 132:7)

Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he! (Psalm 99:5)

King David had it in his heart to build a temple as a footstool for God.  It turns out that the temple of God is not made with hands for it is Christ Himself who is the temple of  God and the footstool is the cross of the Lord.

Exulting in the Cross

THE CROSS WHICH CARRIED THE MOST HIGH AS A CLUSTER OF GRAPES FULL OF LIFE

IS SEEN TODAY EXALTED HIGH ABOVE THE EARTH.

THROUGH THE CROSS WE ARE ALL DRAWN TO GOD

AND DEATH HAS BEEN FOREVER SWALLOWED UP.

UNDEFILED WOOD, THROUGH YOU WE ENJOY THE IMMORTAL FRUIT OF EDEN AS WE GLORIFY CHRIST.

The hymns above and below are both taken from matins for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.   The poetic imagery of the festal hymns reminds us that truth and beauty are related and united in the Kingdom of Heaven – and in the Church on earth.  In the  world of the Fall, God uses His creation to restore us humans to our natural state, and to heal the wounds of sin.

Let all the trees of the wood rejoice,

for their nature is sanctified by Christ.

He planted them in the beginning,

and on a tree was outstretched.

At its exaltation on this day, we worship Him and magnify you.

 

 

The Tree of Knowledge and The Tree of the Cross

“Christ defeated the devil using the very same means by which the Evil One had triumphed; he fought him  with his own weapons. How is this possible? A virgin [Eve], the wood and death were all sign of the victory of the devil; the wood was the tree in paradise, while death was the sentence imposed on Adam. But the virgin, the wood and death, which were the signs of our defeat, were also those of our victory. Mary took the place of Eve; the tree of the Cross took the place of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the death of Jesus Christ took the place of that of Adam.

Thus was the devil defeated by the very instruments of his victory. At the foot of the tree in paradise, the devil had overthrown Adam; on the Cross, Christ had trampled down the devil. The wood of old forced humanity into the abyss; that of the Cross led mankind out from it. Through the first wood, man was thrown, bound and naked, into darkness; by the second, the one that had defeated mankind was conquered, stripped of his weapons and offered as a spectacle for the whole universe. The death of Adam came also to his descendants; the death of Christ gave life even to those that were born before him.”  (St. John Chrysostom in The Resurrection and the Icon by Michel Quenot, p 170)