Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Sunday After the Elevation of the Holy Cross

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

Today is the Sunday after the Elevation of the Holy Cross we continue the theme we have examined all week. As we have learned, the cross, that ancient device of shame and torturous death has been changed by Christ into the very Tree of Life by which the wounds we receive in this world are healed, our very lives are refreshed and transformed, and we are brought into everlasting life in the eternal kingdom of God. This morning I would like to expand and elaborate on some of these points to help us see how important the cross is to every Christian.

In today’s gospel lesson, our Lord declared, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”. At first blush, this may not seem like the world’s greatest invitation. In a culture which frantically seeks to avoid even gray hair and wrinkles, why would I voluntarily take upon myself something that actually promotes an image and a form of dying as a good thing? Perhaps it is because death is inevitable. We are all dying already as the result of being born into a fallen world. What the cross offers us is a safe passageway through the experience of death into life everlasting in Christ. This is why our Lord tells us that he who seeks to save his own life now by avoiding the Way of the Cross will lose it. But conversely, he who loses his earthly life through the Way of the Cross, the same shall save it in the end.

Now most of us are at least theologically aware of these things, but how practically aware are we of them? What place to we give to the cross in our daily lives, if any at all? The only way we can answer that question well is if we make the time to contemplate the cross in our lives and decide each day to live by it. Most of us are far too busy to do this. We seldom give thought to how the cross can be applied to our lives daily because we are too occupied with simply trying to get through each day, surviving its many cares, concerns, and injuries. But the cross is the very thing which can set our cares and concerns in order, and redeem and give meaning to our injuries. Thus we truly make a serious mistake if we don’t take the time to meditate upon the cross and find ways to bring it into our busy lives.

Here is an example along the lines of those I gave last Thursday night. Let us say that you have been offended by someone you know or care about. Such injuries are common in life because we are all fallen people and filled with many sins. In fact, we each contain such a toxic mix of sins and passions within us that it rarely takes very much to set us off on someone else. A careless word, a thoughtless action, a whiff of condescension in the attitude of another is often all it takes to set fire to our personal mix of sins and fill us with hurt or rage. Thus we are wounded; what will we do?

If we live in the way typical of the world, our choice will be to blame the other guy. It’s his fault after all; he offended us. To deal with this awful person, we may try to snub or avoid him. We might speak evil of him to any sympathetic audience that we know won’t judge us for our gossip. Or if we actually care about the relationship, then we will likely try to make the other person admit his offense and stop being such a pain in the fanny. And if over the years we find that we cannot change such rotten people, we will slowly find ourselves with fewer and fewer close friends and an ever-growing list of people we simply can’t stand. We might think that such grouchiness comes with old age, but it doesn’t really. It comes from our own unrepentant and steadily-hardened heart.

By always trying to change others and never changing ourselves, we are in effect trying to selfishly preserve our own sinful life and keep it just the way we like it. By doing this, we will suffer endless wounds from other people, become more and more bitter toward them, and eventually perish in our sins. He who seeks to save his life will lose it. What a sad way to discover that the words of Jesus are always true!

But the Way of the Cross is different. First of all, each of us is issued a cross that is only large enough for one. That should tell us something right there. There is simply no room to crucify the sins of others upon your cross; there is only room enough for yours. The message of the cross is simple and straightforward: I must change; I must repent. Until I am involved in this activity each day, I will constantly repeat the error of trying to change others and will forever blame them for my suffering.

When I am focused on changing others, all my wounds go unredeemed. They are just a series of endless and pointless injuries, leading me to weariness and death. But when I begin to see that the wounds inflicted upon me by others have actually been greatly amplified by my own pride, my own self-love, and my own perverse thoughts that I somehow deserve better, then I can begin to die to these atrocious sins and find that the misdeeds of others no longer hurt me quite as badly. This is what I mean when I say that the cross can redeem and give meaning to our injuries. Through the aid of the cross we can see that the wounds we receive from other fallen people land with precision exactly upon those faults that we need to change in ourselves.

This is why the fathers teach that when your brother says something that insults you, he is your best and truest friend. Flee from those who praise you, for they are only adding to your certain condemnation. But the one who has insulted you has, by this simple action, revealed in you what your years of contemplation have failed to uncover, namely your prideful desire to be well-spoken of by men and your utter disregard for the praise of God, which is given only to the humble.

What a great lesson! And yet, so few of us learn it. We remain far too concerned with correcting others, and far too negligent of our own correction. We are on constant guard every minute to protect our pride and other sins, when the wounding of them is the very thing that will save us. We have so many rules governing how people may treat us, and God help the person who violates them! In the end, I suppose we expect to be treated better than even our Lord Jesus Christ.

May God help us to humble ourselves and take on the mind of Christ, rather than the complete opposite. Let us not fear or resent the nails that pierce our flesh, for they bring healing to our souls. Such is the transformational power of the cross of our salvation.

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

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.