The Tree at the Heart of Creation

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

According to Genesis 2, God planted the Tree of Life in the very center of the Garden of Delight.   As wonderful as this Tree seems, it is not the Tree that plays the first and great role in the history of humanity.    That Tree is the more infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  However, in Christian history, many poems and hymns were written connecting the Tree of Life to the Cross of Christ.  Christ is nailed to the Tree that gives life to the world.  And so we Orthodox sing:  “Through the Cross joy has come into all the world.”  So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.

One of the daily Matins hymns offers an interesting picture of the cross:

When you freely willed to die on the cross, O Savior, you planted the cross at the heart of the entire creation, and to save us you allowed them to fix you to that tree with nails, so that the sun and the moon were stunned into darkness. 

The thief gazed in disbelief at all that was happening, but his faith won him the blessing of paradise when he cried out to you:  Remember me, Lord, when you come in the glory of your Kingdom.   (Friday, Tone 3)

The reference to the cross planted “at the heart of creation” certainly makes me think about the Tree of Life which also had this central location in God’s planted Garden of Eden.   The cross is at the heart of creation for the God who is love also makes love central to created world which the Holy Trinity brought into existence.

Yet the humans whom God created, do not embrace this love.  They see the Tree of Life, the Cross, at the center of the Garden and are not willing to deny themselves in order to lovingly obey God.  Instead, they turn away from the Tree of Life (which they were not forbidden to eat), the Tree that gives eternal life, and they instead selfishly eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Not willing to die for God, they think they can live without God.   It was a terribly grave deception.

Adam and Eve were not willing to choose the Tree of Life – the Cross.  They were not willing to sacrifice all to remain fully united to God.  They foolishly, selfishly and mortally choose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They could not see how the Cross could bring joy into all the world, they could not see how choosing the cross could lead to life.

Christ, however, showed the way.  The new Adam did not forsake the Cross, but saw it as the way to eternal life for all humans.  In love and obedience, Jesus Christ saw that the life of the world came through that cross, which could only be embraced by love.

For Adam and Eve, knowledge looked like life but turned out to be death. Christ, knowing the way to Life, walked the path to the Tree of Life and thereby gained salvation for all people.

May the cross be graven on our hearts.

(See also The Cross is the Mirror of My Soul)

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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).

Remembering 9/11

Even 16 years after the events, when I see any documentaries on TV about the terrorist attack on the United State on 11 September 2001, I find myself hypnotized by the images on the screen.  A paralysis of disbelief takes over as I watch in horror the events unfolding and experience the terror and sorrow of the victims and their families – images that seem burned into my memory.

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I have not been moved to hatred or thoughts of revenge.  My reaction has been a total sorrow that we in the world are in such condition that hatred takes over our lives and that we humans can do such horrendous acts of murder.  Such dehumanization is hard to fathom – both that we dehumanize those we see as enemies and that we ourselves become dehumanized and come to think that murder and mayhem and evil are somehow godly.  They are inhuman acts, why do we imagine they can be godly?  Unless of course we think God is tyrannical, maniacal and demonic.  From the time Cain murdered his brother Abel, humans have been willing to kill and murder on such a scale that is should trouble every human . . .  but doesn’t, tragically enough.

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So, how are we to understand such inhumanity?  Here are some words from a 4th Century Christian bishop, St. Basil the Great, whose saintly parents had lived through the Roman persecution of Christians:

“An enemy is by definition one who obstructs, ensnares and injures others.  He is therefore a sinner.  We ought to love his soul by correcting him and doing everything possible to bring him to conversion.  We ought to love his body too by coming to his aid with the necessities of life.

That love for our enemies is possible has been shown us by the Lord himself.  He revealed the Father’s love and his own by making himself ‘obedient unto death‘, [Phil 2:8] as the Apostle says, not for his friend’s sake so much as for his enemies.  ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.‘ [Rom 5:8]

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And God exhorts us to do the same. ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.‘ [Eph 5:1-2]

God would not ask this of us as a right and proper thing to do, if it were not possible.

On the other hand, is it not perhaps true that an enemy can be as much of a help to us as a friend can?

Enemies earn for us the beatitude of which the Lord speaks when he says: ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.‘ [Matt 5:11-12]”  (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, pp 232-233)

It is no easy task to be a Christian in the face of terrorism.  It is not impossible as St. Basil says to do what Christ commands us to do.  But it is for us very had and seems like a great burden . . .  like taking up our cross to follow Christ.

Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8:34)

Jesus Must Surprise Us

Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who cares
Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who’s there  

(“Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode)

“Many preachers try to make Christianity in general and the Beatitudes in particular ‘acceptable’ – that key word of modern ethics. Behavior must be ‘acceptable’ or ‘appropriate’ rather than ‘good’ or ‘right’ or (heaven help us!) ‘virtuous’ or (most unthinkable of all) ‘holy’. For if we are acceptable, the world will accept us. And isn’t that the Church’s business, to win the world, to get her message accepted? No, it is not. Jesus commanded us not to succeed, but to obey; not to sell the gospel, but to proclaim it.

Jesus was not found ‘acceptable’; he was nailed to a cross.

And he told his disciples to expect the same kind of reaction, for human nature will not change and the proclamation of the gospel should not change. It is not our job to convert the world or to fill churches; that is God’s job. Ours is to sow the seed, without sugar coating it; God’s is to make it take root and grow. The apparent kindness of the preachers who water down Jesus’ hard saying is really arrogance. They are like mail carriers who arrogate to themselves the role of editors of the mail that is entrusted to them to deliver intact. Some preachers act as if Jesus had said, ‘Blessed are you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets’ (Lk 6:26). If we never offend anyone, we are not giving them Jesus. Jesus must offend us, for he tells us not what we want to hear but what we need to hear, and sin has inserted a great gap between our needs and our wants.

Jesus must surprise us, for he comes from Heaven; how could Heaven not surprise earth?”

(Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue, p 89)

 

Deny Your Self

On the Sunday after the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we read the Gospel Lesson from Mark 8:34-9:1.

And the Lord called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Some historians of the Orthodox liturgical tradition say that in the older tradition of the Church, this Gospel lesson was read as the beginning of the Church’s new year (see for example THE DIVINE LITURGY OF THE GREAT CHURCH by Fr. Paul Harrilchak).  This was because in the early centuries of Christianity in the Roman Empire, September 23, Augustus Caesar’s birthday was treated as the first day of the new year.  He was heralded in the pagan Roman Empires as heralding in a new world.   Over the centuries, the Gospel lesson remained on the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, but it got separated from association with the church’s new year day as that day migrated away from September 23 to September 1.  This was somewhat a move to Christianize new year’s day.  Interestingly, August Caesar’s birthday also eventually became eclipsed in the Christian Roman Empire, being replaced on September 23 with the conception of St. John the Forerunner, who for Christians was the true herald of the coming new age of God.  Augustus represented nothing but the old age which was passing/had passed away.

Matthew Gallatin writes a personal reflection on what it means to deny the self to follow Christ:

“It wasn’t until I began studying the Orthodox faith, however, that I realized how subtly and completely self-love permeates my life. Sometimes it cleverly disguises itself in forms that are not quite so stark and ugly as self-love. When I am self-concerned, when I practice self-justification, when I act on self-desire, when I follow paths that are self-created and self-directed – in fact, any time the word ‘self’ can be used in the description of what I am doing – I am dancing to a dangerous drummer called self-love. Even things that are lauded in our society – like self-motivation, self-assertiveness, and self-development – can present deceptive stumbling blocks to one who in truth longs to ‘deny himself (Matt. 16:24) and allow himself to be caught up within the Life of his God and King.” (Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, pp 95-96)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Save us, O Savior!

Holy Friday (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Warfare: The Struggle Within

“The greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.(…) In order to succeed in this, you must constantly oppose all evil in yourself and urge yourself towards good. In other words, you must ceaselessly fight against yourself and against everything that panders to your own will, that incites and supports them. So prepare yourself for this struggle and this warfare and know that the crown – attainment of your desired aim – is given to no one except to the valiant among warriors and wrestlers. But if this is the hardest of all wars – since, in fighting against ourselves, it is in ourselves that we meet opposition – victory in it is the most glorious of all; and, what is the main thing, it is most pleasing to God.(…)

Finally, after learning what constitutes Christian perfection and that to achieve it you must wage a constant cruel war with yourself, if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trust worthy and unconquerable of all, namely: a) never rely on yourself in anything; b) always bear in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; c) strive without ceasing; and d) remain constantly in prayer.” (St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain in For the Peace from Above, edited by Fr. Hildo Bos, p 198)

The Mystical Sign of the Cross

“These are the mysteries which the holy form of the Cross bears; it is the cause of the miracles which the Creator performs through it in the entire world. Such is (the form of the Cross) which is joyfully revered and held in honor by us, while the reason for it was eternally marked out in the mind of the Creator, for His intention was to give to all, by means of this form, knowledge of his glory, and the liberation which He was going to take, through its means, for all humanity.

Blessed is God who uses corporeal objects continually to draw us close in a symbolic way to a knowledge of His invisible (nature), sowing and marking out in our minds the recollection of His care for us which has been in operation throughout all generations (thus) binding our minds with love for His hidden Being by means of shapes that are visible.”  (Isaac of Ninevah (Isaac the Syrian), The Second Part: Chap IV-XLI translated by Sebastian Brock, pp 61-62)

The Command to Take Up Your Cross

On the third Sunday of Great Lent we read the Gospel of Mark 8:34-9:1 as we commemorate the  precious life-giving Cross of our Lord:

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “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. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”

Fr. John Garvey (d. 2015) writes: 

“We believe that God has been revealed in Christ crucified, in the person who died a shameful death for us. The God we see in the incarnate Christ is the only God that exists. This is how we understand what it means to be God’s son, what kind of Father God is, who the Spirit is and why the Spirit was sent. This certainly upsets certain prevailing notions of power, and if this is the God who is also creator, sustainer of the universes, king of kings, lord of lords, if this is the revelation of the Father’s love, then things are not as we thought they were or would like them to be. All of us love the control given to us by the idea we have of God and our relationship to God; we love to think that our kinship is one where we retain some hold, where we manage the degree of our commitment. But our being is completely contingent on the love of God revealed in Christ crucified. We do not naturally participate in that life. It is offered to us as a gift by the One who wills us into being, moment by moment. The important thing for us is to understand that it is a gift, and the proper response to a gift is gratitude. Of course the Christ we see on the cross would not be good news if that were the end of it. But before moving too glibly to the resurrection, it is important to see that the cross really is the obvious and crushing truth of too many lives, and the truth finally of all lives.

When Jesus says that we must take up out cross and follow Him, He does not suggest that we will not be crucified if we choose not to be. We will be crucified in any event. How will we respond to it? How will we see, straight on, the fact that all of us will suffer and die, or (if we avoid this by being hit by a fast-moving bus) we will see the suffering and death of people we love? He speaks of ‘taking up your cross’ as if the assumption is that the cross will be there, whether we feel like taking it up or not. And not taking it up – given its inevitability – reminds me of a terrifying line from Tolstoy: After a stupid life there shall come a stupid death. The cross is there. Most interesting philosophical thought has been a result of looking dimly, obliquely, at what the cross presents us with explicitly. The good suffer, as do the evil, as do we all. And still we say that God is good, the world is good, life is good. In speaking about the resurrection, Christians say that the power of death has been overcome. The Orthodox liturgy sings at Easter, ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’ We say this, knowing that we still live in a world where death seems to reign, a world in which suffering continues. But we insist that the reasons for hope lie not only in the future, but are present with us now. We eat and drink now the bread and wine of the kingdom to come – even as we wait for its coming.” (Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox, pp 79-82)