Monday, September 13, 2010

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

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

Tomorrow night at 7pm we will celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is one of the twelve Major Feasts of our Orthodox liturgical year. This Feast recalls two historical events connected with the Cross of our Lord. The first is the Finding of the Cross from where it lay buried on Golgotha by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in the year 326. The second is the gloriously celebrated Return of the Cross to the Christian faithful in the year 628 after it had been stolen and carried away by the Persians in an earlier raid on Jerusalem. Stained with the Precious Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ, the Cross became the most important and revered relic of Christendom and a source of healing and consolation to all who venerated it.

Tomorrow’s feast is not about history only, however. If it were a strictly human celebration, then perhaps that’s all it could be. But the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, like all of our Orthodox feasts, is a divine celebration and is thus primarily mystical in nature, being infused with the life-giving grace of God that is not bound by time or place. The simple gilded cross that the priest will carry aloft on a tray of basil during the procession tomorrow will become for us the very Cross upon which our Lord voluntarily yielded up his life for our salvation.

In the Orthodox experience, divine symbols become bearers of the grace inherent in the objects they portray. The bread and wine of communion--physical symbols of Christ’s broken Body and shed Blood--become for us the actual immaculate Body and precious Blood of our Lord, imparting to us His very life. In the same way, the cross of blessing that we venerate, or for that matter, the cross you may wear about your neck, or the sign of the cross you trace over your body, contains by God’s grace the supernatural power of the actual Cross of Christ upon which the powers of the devil were broken and all of mankind was set free from death and slavery.

Many years ago Fr. Jon Braun addressed a small group of Evangelicals who were slowly moving toward a more historic understanding of the Christian faith, during which held up a little wooden cross. “This is the Cross upon which Jesus died for our salvation,” he announced. Giving us a moment to let that statement sink in, he then went on to describe a concept entirely foreign to Western thinking but which nevertheless is found at the very heart of Orthodox teaching. In modern Western thought, symbol and reality are two entirely different things which can never be one and the same. A thing can either be symbolic or it can be actual, but it can never be both according to Western ideas. Thus many Western Christians will contend that if the bread and wine of communion are symbols of Christ’s Body and Blood, they can never be Christ’s actual Body and Blood. Fr. Jon challenged us to accept that Western thinking has gone very wrong on this matter. In the older Christian understanding, he told us, divine symbols were seen as very much containing the power and grace of the realities they portray.

If we think it through we might realize that this has always been the case in God’s dealings with His people. The Passover Lamb that was slain in Egypt, whose blood was then traced on the doorways of the homes of the Israelites in the points of a cross, were symbols of the Lamb of God who would shed His Blood to deliver us from death. These were symbols yes, but symbols which also saved the Israelites from the angel of death that took the lives of the Egyptians’ first-born. The altar in the Temple in Jerusalem was a symbol of the Cross of Christ; the sacrifices offered upon it, symbols of Christ Himself. According to the book of Hebrews, these symbols were still effective to secure at least the temporary forgiveness of sins for those who used them, pointing at the same time toward the more perfect forgiveness that would come with the appearing of Jesus Christ.

If Old Testament symbols could contain a measure of the power of things yet revealed, how much more should New Testament symbols contain the power of things now fully revealed? Old Testament shadows have given way to New Testament realities, but a major part of that new reality is that the Son of God has taken our human flesh, thereby forever joining His divinity to our material world. Thus sanctified material symbols become infused with divine life and power to become vehicles of the same grace by which God will one day redeem and transform all matter in creation. Holy oil, holy water, holy bread and wine, are all symbols containing within themselves by God’s action the power of that which they reveal to us. So it is with the symbol of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Demons still tremble even at the symbol of the Cross of our Lord. When you wear a cross around your neck--not thoughtlessly as a mere piece of jewelry, but purposefully as a symbol of divine power--you wear a protection against the forces of darkness. When you trace the Sign of the Cross over yourself with pious regard, you put evil thoughts and temptations to flight and gain a moment of victory in the spiritual war. When you venerate the Cross of Blessing at church or bow down before the Cross carried in procession, you are worshipping the One who was crucified upon it and glorifying His holy resurrection by which we are granted life.

Some people may regard this as superstition. Such folks are ignorant of the power of the Cross that nearly 2000 years of Christian experience bears witness to. Nevertheless they may be right about one thing: for the Cross to wield its greatest power in our lives, we must never regard it as some sort of magic talisman. The Cross must be more than a mystical object to us; it must come to define the very way that we live our lives in Christ.

St. Paul once wrote, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, the the glory of God the Father”. [Philippians 2:5-11]

Here the noble Paul reminds us of the incredible sacrifice the Son of God willingly made in setting aside the form of God to be found forever in the form of man, the creature of His own making. The heavenly hosts were struck with fear and wonder at the sight! But this was not the end of His humility. He went so far as to become the lowliest servant of man, and even farther, to die upon the Cross in the most painful and humiliating manner in order to take away the death and humiliation that we had brought upon ourselves by forsaking God to obey the devil.

The apostle beseeches us to follow the example of Jesus that we might also have a share in His glory, but we rarely do. Jesus submitted to His Father’s will in all things; we wrestle with the Father continually to assert our own will. Jesus became the servant of all; we look out for ourselves and expect others to care for their own needs. Jesus was gentle and meek; we are strong-willed and quarrelsome. We are filled with such self-importance and pride, it would seem that God is nearly asking a greater thing of us to humble ourselves than He asked of His own divine Son.

During tomorrow night’s feast, the Cross, the symbol of God’s immeasurable love and unimaginable humility will be presented to us, and we proud creatures will be asked to bow down reverently before it. Let us not allow this to be an action of hypocrisy, feigning a humility of our own when perhaps we are still resisting God in our hearts. Let us decide right then and there to better our way of life by submitting to God and truly humbling ourselves to turn from sin and to love and serve one another as Jesus taught us to. The Cross can bring us great spiritual healing and eternal life if we will take it up as the symbol of our own chosen way of life. This is the greatest power of all that the Cross can manifest in us, and it is ours if we will allow it to be so.

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