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)

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)

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.

 

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)

Revealing Not Repealing Death

“The death of the Savior revealed that death held no power over him. The Lord was mortal in respect of His complete human nature; for even in the original nature there was a potentia mortis (capacity of death). The Lord died, but death could not keep Him. He was the eternal life, and through His death He destroyed death. His descent into hell, the kingdom of death, is the powerful revelation of life. By descending into hell, He gives life to death itself. And by the resurrection, the powerlessness of death is revealed. The reality of death is not repealed, but its powerlessness is revealed.” (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, p. 150)

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 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)

f

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

Holy Wednesday 2016

The Tree of Life was given as a gift to us by God to be our means to attain eternal life.  What is so incredible is that the Tree of Life is the Cross of Christ.  The Tree of Life means the death of Christ!  But it also means eternal life to us all.  The Cross is not a punishment for sin, but a healing tree (Revelation 22:2).

 

“The last hymn about the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 52—53 is important because it is so controversial. Why is it that the death of Jesus on the Cross saves us? How is it that, through this act, everything is made right and we are allowed, by faith in Christ crucified, to become ourselves the righteousness of God? We will never, perhaps, be able to explain it fully. This text is often interpreted to mean that God Almighty is angry at the human race and that He has to punish them because of their sin, that the Law has been broken and the only way things can be restored and reconciled and redeemed is when a sufficient punishment is made.

Therefore, many people think God is punishing His Son Jesus on the Cross, in our place. I believe this is completely incorrect. There is another way of understanding this that has nothing to do with punishment. The very word punishment is never even found in the writings of the New Testament. I do not find it in the Holy Week services; I do not find it in the writing of the early Church Fathers. It is just not there.”   (Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 2440-2448)

Previous:  Holy Tuesday 2016

Next:  Holy Thursday 2016