Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
For a cluster of three consecutive Sundays now, the Church has brought the Cross into our consciousness and into our midst tangibly for veneration. On the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross, we heard the ringing words from the Gospel According to St. John: "For God so loved the world that he gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (JN. 3:16) This placed the Cross within the widest possible context - in fact within the immeasurable context of the love of God for the world/cosmos. As the Church Fathers always teach us, God loved the world into existence, and now He will act decisively in order to save the world. And the "giving" of His only-begotten Son will be as the Son of Man lifted up on the Cross "that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (JN. 3:15) The God who created the world, is the God who redeemed the world in Christ.
On the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross itself (Sept. 14), we heard again from the Gospel According to St. John, and this time it was the actual narrative account of the Crucifixion. The pathos of the Cross is illuminated by a series of theological revelations that express the meaning of the Cross. One particularly profound instance of this comes immediately upon the death of the Savior: "But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water." (JN. 19:34) Many of the Church Fathers were insightful and eloquent in uncovering the meaning of this seemingly mundane act of further violence:
For "blood and water came out." Not simply without a purpose, or by chance, did those founts come forth, but because by means of these two together the Church consists. And the initiated in the Mysteries know it, being by water indeed regenerated, and nourished by the blood and the flesh. Hence the Mysteries take their beginning; that when you approach that awesome Cup, you may so approach, as drinking from the very side. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 85 on the Gospel of St. John).
He caused the fountain of remission to well forth for us out of His holy and immaculate side, water for our regeneration, and the washing away of sin and corruption; and blood to drink as the hostage of life eternal. (St. John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. IV, Ch. IX).
As His earthly course began with water, so it ended with it. His side is pierced by the spear, and blood and water flow forth, twin emblems of baptism and martyrdom. (St. Jerome, Letter LXIX, to Oceanus).
Although the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion are narrated with sobriety and very little emphasis on the pain, anguish, and blood of the cross, they nevertheless firmly witness to the true sufferings of the Lord, so that the Cross does not disappear into a kind of docetic symbolism. This was a real event and the Lord really suffered and died on the Cross. We can never lose sight of this fact in an abstract "theology of the Cross." Truly, "one of the Holy Trinity" tasted of death on our behalf because He "became flesh."
On the Sunday After the Elevation of the Cross - that is, this past Sunday - we then heard the words of Christ that relate His Cross to our lives and the need for self-denial:
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. (MK. 8:34-35)
The emphasis is now on our self-denial. Or rather, self-denial is the taking up of one's cross in fulfillment of the Lord's words. The challenge is found in the obvious fact that most people - including Christians - are not particularly keen about self-denial. It does not come to us "naturally." The cost seems far too high. But although that sounds like a very "natural" reaction, perhaps there are better questions to ask ourselves: what is the cost of not practicing self-denial? What does the conscious or unconscious refusal to deny ourselves mean in terms of our relationship with God and neighbor? Is true discipleship even possible without self-denial? Can a marriage, a family, or a friendship prosper without self-denial? What, ultimately, is this "self" that cannot be denied anything?
The successfully marketed slogans of self-realization and self-fulfilment are more-or-less thinly veiled pseudo-philosophies or pop psychologies that actually promote self-absorption and self-interest. If indulged in for a seriously dangerous amount of time and with a good deal of energy, such efforts eventually collapse into the worst excesses of self-worship. The self is set up as an interior golden calf to be worshiped at all costs, and seeking constant propitiation. On the altar of this very well-known god, we burn up our relationships with God and neighbor and are left with dust and ashes - the destiny of the godless. (Perhaps this strong inclination toward self-idolatry is behind the Buddhist rejection of the very concept of the self. If the self is an illusion, then it can be ignored as irrelevant to the process of enlightenment). In our Orthodox theology and anthropology, the person (the "true self" we could say) is not absorbed or annihilated in the process of deification. Rather, the person as a unique mode of existence is brought to perfection and "stabilized" in not only well-being, but even eternal being, through union with God - the ultimate gift of the Holy Spirit working in us.
Jesus knew the liberating effect of fighting against self-love and self-will. Only in this struggle can we begin to see God and the neighbor as other centers of life and love. Only then can the passions - nurtured and fed by self-indulgence - be conquered in a battle described by Archbishop Kallistos Ware as one waged against the "fallen self ... for the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and it is the men of violence who take it by force" (MATT. 11:12). With a bit of courage and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love, we can "deny ourselves" for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and be liberated from the prison of the self in the process.
In his article "The Tree of the Cross," Fr. Thomas Hopko offers a fine summation of the Church's emphasis on the Cross in either festal commemoration or personal devotion:
Genuine Orthodox spirituality is always a spirituality of the cross. When the tree of the cross is removed from the center of our lives we find ourselves cast out of paradise and deprived of the joy of communion with God. But when the cross remains planted in our hearts and exalted in our lives, we partake of the tree of life and delight in the fruits of the Spirit, by which we live forever with the Lord. Rejoice, O Lifegiving Cross!