Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Sunday Before the Elevation of the Holy Cross

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

This Thursday evening we will celebrate the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. This feast commemorated the finding of the actual Cross of Christ by St. Helena, and its lifting up and veneration by the Church ever since. We’ll discuss these events more on Thursday, but we should note that because this is such an important feast, the Church leads us to begin our preparations for it on this Sunday preceding it. The special epistle and gospel that were just read preempted the normal readings for today, and have been selected because they underscore the importance of the Cross in the life of the Christian.

From the Gospel of St. John we were reminded that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to bring healing to all who gazed upon it, so the Son of Man is lifted up upon the Cross to bring healing to the world. If you remember the Old Testament story behind this reference, the people of Israel sinned greatly by speaking against the Lord and His servant Moses in their endless complaining over having been brought out of Egypt into the desert where they could find no food or water. To correct them, the Lord sent fiery serpents into their midst to bite them, and many of the people died. Moses, showing the heart of a true pastor, prayed for his people’s salvation even as they were bickering about him and questioning his leadership, and the Lord instructed Moses to fashion a brass serpent and erect it on a pole for the healing of the afflicted. All who looked upon the brass serpent were healed from their bites and made whole. The fiery serpents have been said to represent the sins of mankind which indeed have attacked us and led to spiritual sickness and death. The brass serpent is of course a prefiguring of Jesus Christ upon the Cross who, although He knew no sin, was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.

In the reading from Galatians, St. Paul reminds us that we should glory in nothing but the Cross of our Lord, by which the world has been crucified to us, and we to the world.

Although these two readings cannot describe everything that the Cross means to us, they do a respectable job of illustrating the major points. The Cross of Christ is the very symbol of our healing from sin, as well as the single most vivid reminder of our need to continually die to this world and discover our true life as new creatures in Christ Jesus.

When we speak of the symbol of the Cross, we must remember that a sacred Christian symbol always contains something of the reality it portrays. The bread and wine of communion are premiere examples of this, for while these symbols speak of the Body of Christ broken and His Blood poured forth for us, they also contain the reality of that which they portray. They are bread and wine and the Body and Blood of Christ simultaneously. The same is true of the symbol of the Cross. Whether held in the hand of the priest to be venerated by the faithful, or worn on a chain about your neck, or traced over yourself with your fingers, the symbol of the Cross contains the power of the actual Cross of Christ to bring healing and newness of life to us.

Imagine the conversation of two snake-bitten Israelites discussing Moses’ latest bit of foolishness, the brass serpent. One says to the other, “Dude, come look at the serpent with me. People say they have been healed because of it”. The other fellow, the “pious” one, replies, “That’s nothing but a pagan intrusion into the faith. The bible doesn’t tell us to do that. God alone can heal us, brother; looking at some stupid snake on a stick won’t do that!” Thus the first finds healing and the second perishes, because his puritanical reasoning could not embrace the fact that God often uses physical means and symbols to bring spiritual healing and salvation to His people.

How can sacred symbols possibly accomplish such great things? As in all things Christian, it begins with the Incarnation of Christ, which represents the joining of the immaterial God to the material creation forever in the Person of the Son of God. The ancient pagans and the early Gnostics saw a separation between the pure and holy God and the fallen and evil world, and could not imagine a joining of the two. But Orthodoxy has dared to recognize that God did indeed join Himself to man and to all the material creation from which man was formed, in order to redeem man and creation by the only means possible, namely by the infusing of His own life and energies directly into us and into our world through our union with the Glorified Humanity of Jesus Christ.

Just as we recognize that the fall of man was as much physical as it was spiritual, and affected not just man alone but all of creation, so the redemption of man restores both the physical and spiritual facets of our being and extends outward to the redemption of all creation.

There is much confusion about this in Christendom today, with some believing that God will not redeem creation at all but will destroy it at the end of time to usher in an entirely New Creation. Orthodox Christianity has always recognized that St. Peter’s prophetic description of creation undergoing intense fire and the melting of its elements is not a picture of annihilation but one of purification, like gold being refined in a furnace. If God does not perfect and redeem creation in the end, then this is equal to saying that His power to save is not as great as man’s power to destroy, and thank God this is not the case!

We see this redemption now in part, as God’s energies transform sinners into saints, and water, oil, bread, and wine into holy things for the holy. The Cross stands as the greatest symbol of this transformation, for at the Cross of Christ death was transformed into everlasting life, and defeat into the greatest victory of all. The symbol of the Cross remains as a terror to demons and the consolation of believers. Its great power is the very reason the devil would have Christians today ignore it and leave it behind. But the upcoming Feast of the Elevation of the Cross reminds us that God allowed the recovery of the actual Cross of Christ by the Church so that we would never be without this great and sacred symbol as an aid to us in a world very much in need of transformation.

Let us continue to use this powerful symbol in a holy manner, and prepare ourselves throughout this week to give thanks to God for this great gift.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 9/10/2007 7:39 PM , Blogger Philippa said...

Father Bless!

A joy of being Orthodox is the repetition, year after year, of the Feast days. When each one arrives again, I learn something new.

I did not know about the Orthodox Church's teaching on St. Peter's description of the purification of the world! A new thing to know and remember.

I was received into the Holy Orthodox Church on the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Holy Cross 2004. Understanding the purification makes the day all the more significant to me, if that is at all possible.

Thank you Fr. Michael. (BTW, how is your Mom?)


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