|27 Third Sunday of Great Lent: Veneration of the Cross - March 11, 2007|
Hebrews 4:14 – 5:6
Mark 8:34 – 9:1
We have come to the third Sunday of Great Lent. In terms of the passing of time, we are in the heart of Great Lent; for we are at the middle Sunday of Great Lent. We celebrate this morning the Cross of our Savior because the Cross is at the heart of our Orthodox Christian faith. The effort of our sermonic meditation this morning is to listen to all that the Church is saying to us, to observe all the indications that surround us in her sacred precincts, in order to learn something about what she is teaching us about the Cross of her Bridegroom, Christ our God.
In the beginning, God created the world and everything in it by his Word. The world that God created was good, very good. But when man disobeyed the Lord’s command, and ate from the tree of good and evil that was in the midst of the Garden, he was cast out of Paradise into a world, we could say, of his own making: a world that is good and evil, a world governed by sickness and sorrow, anxiety and suffering, separation and death – and, most of all, governed by deceit and murder. For, the devil, who deceived Adam and Eve to eat from the fruit of his tree “is a murderer from the beginning, the father of lies.” So the Lord Jesus says of him. And the first children born into this world, Cain and Abel, became the first murderer, Cain, and the first murder victim, Abel.
The history of the world reaches its climax when the creature murders his creator, God the Word incarnate, on the grounds of the false testimony of liars. And yet, the church reveals to the eyes of faith something unspeakably wondrous beneath the veil of this tragic history: the death of Jesus on the Cross is the death of God the Word by whom all things were made; and his death was voluntary. Through it, the Savior gives himself up for the life of the world. The Savior transfigures the Cross, a horrible instrument of torture and death, into the “unconquerable trophy of the true faith, door to Paradise, support of the faithful, rampart set around the Church, invincible weapon, adversary of demons.” In the worship of the Church, the faithful address the Cross in the same way they address the Theotokos: “Through thee the curse is utterly destroyed, the power of death is swallowed up, and we are raised from earth to heaven.”
“Adversary of demons”: so we address the Cross. Think of what this means. We have all suffered from the malice of the demons in some way. And yet, through the Cross of Christ, we need not continue to be beaten down and overwhelmed by the evils that we suffer and that we have suffered in our lives. It is the Church’s experience of the Cross and its power that leads her to sing on this day in the heart of Great Lent: “Through thee, O Cross, our tears of sorrow have been wiped away; we have been delivered from the snares of death and have passed over to unending joy.” How does one enter into the victory and the joy of Christ’s Cross in the midst of the sufferings of this life? Here is where we need to pay close attention to all the Church is saying to us, that we may learn how to do this.
The voice that seems to be setting the theme for all we hear this morning comes from what we have been reading this week in the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah proclaims the word of the Lord against Israel, his chosen. It is against Israel because she has given herself to false teachings and to idols. As a nation, Israel enacts evil statutes, she records unjust decisions, she deprives the needy of justice, she robs the poor of their rights, she spoils widows and plunders orphans. Can you see that in the nation of Israel, Cain is still murdering Abel? And it will not go unpunished. “Therefore,” warns Isaiah, “the Lord is spurring Israel’s enemies on, the Syrians on the east and the Philistines on the west, to devour Israel with gaping jaws. In spite of all this,” Isaiah goes on, “the Lord’s anger does not turn away, and his hand is still stretched out.” Even so, “the people of Israel do not turn back to him who struck them, nor do they seek the Lord of hosts. So the Lord cuts off the head and tail from Israel. The head is the elder and honorable man, and the prophet who teaches falsehood is the tail.”
At this point, one may wonder: why would anyone in their right mind want to give themselves into the hands of an angry God and submit to his judgment? A few months ago, some brothers and I were wrestling with this question: how are we to understand the anger of God in relation to the anger of the devil? Once the question was posed, the answer came rather quickly: God desires not the death of a sinner but that he turn from his wickedness and live. The devil envies man and desires his ruin. God is the Creator; he is true being, the author of truth and there is no falsehood in him; the devil is a liar and a murderer from the beginning. The anger of God serves the desire of God, which is the salvation of the sinner. The anger of the devil serves the desire of the devil, which is the destruction of the sinner. Submit to the anger of God and you will live. Give yourself to the anger of the devil and you will die.
According to Isaiah’s vision, the Lord uses as the rod of his anger against Israel the power of Assyria. But then, because of Assyria’s idolatry and arrogance of heart, the wrath of the Lord turns on Assyria as well. From what we said just a moment ago, we can see that God punishes Assyria for the same reason he punishes Israel: he desires that the Gentiles be saved as much as he desires Israel to be saved. In his anger, he punishes the nations, not to destroy them but that they might turn from their wickedness and live; that they might see the error of their ways, how the values they have chosen to live by are the values of the devil and that living by those values leads to the way of death.
So, how is God planning to punish the nations in such a way that they might turn from their wickedness and live? The question pertains to us: how does God punish us who have sinned that we might turn from our sin and come into the light of God and live?
Listen to the prophecy of Isaiah: “The light of Israel will become a fire and his Holy One a flame, and it will burn and devour his [Assyria’s] thorns and his briars in a single day.” Now, on the plane of history, this event of Israel overpowering Assyria or any other of her surrounding nations has not happened with such decisiveness that one could say that Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled. The Church sees its fulfillment not on the plane of the history of nation states, but in the event of the Savior dying on the Cross.
The meaning of Christ’s Cross is hidden from worldly eyes; but, it can be discerned in Isaiah’s prophecy that continues: “Now it will come about in that day that the remnant of Israel will truly rely on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel.” Here we see a prophetic reference to Christ, of whom St Paul writes: “He was obedient to the Father to the point of death, even death on the Cross.” Isaiah continues: “A remnant will return [on that day], the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people, O Israel, may be like the sand of the sea, only a remnant within them will return.” This stands out as a prophetic reference to the Church of the faithful, those who receive Christ and become, through him, children of God. Isaiah goes on: “a destruction is determined, overflowing with righteousness. For a complete destruction, one that is decreed, the Lord God of hosts will execute in the midst of the whole land.”
In this prophecy of destruction overflowing in righteousness, do we not see the Lord Jesus on the Cross? The Cross is the weapon by which the Lord “executes the destruction that he has decreed in the midst of the whole land.” And as we gaze reverently on the One who is dying on the Cross, as we contemplate all the signs and wonders he performed, as we witness the natural phenomena that occur at the moment of his death – darkness falling on all the land, the obscuring of the sun, the veil of the temple being torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shaking, rocks splitting, the tombs being opened – do we not feel the stirrings of that same fright that came upon the centurion and those who were him keeping guard over Jesus, a fright that turned them to God and to the confession of the true faith: “Truly,” they said, “this was the Son of God!” And in that confession, do not the Scriptures begin to open the eyes of faith onto the unfathomable depths of God’s Holy Spirit as it bears witness to the cosmic wonder God has performed before our eyes here in the midst of the remnant of Israel, in the Church of the faithful?
Standing before the awesome mystery of Christ’s Cross in this confession, turn now and listen to the prophecy of Isaiah: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” Jesus is the shoot springing from the stem of Jesse. “And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength. The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. With righteousness he will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; and he will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.” Jesus is the Word of the Father’s mouth by which God will strike the earth; and the Spirit that rests upon him is the Holy Spirit, the breath that proceeds from the Father’s lips, by which he will slay the wicked. And who are the wicked that are slain? The devil and all his angels, and all his hosts and his pride. And how does the Lord execute the anger of his justice so that his anger serves his desire that the sinner turn from his wickedness and live? He executes it by causing the iniquity of us all to fall on himself; he allows himself to be murdered on the Cross by his own – his own both as Israel, his chosen, and as the Gentiles whom he created. On the Cross, he allows himself to be smitten and afflicted of God, pierced through for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, scourged that we might be healed – we who like sheep have gone astray, we who have each turned to our own way.”
What one sees here in what the Church is revealing to us about the Cross of Our Lord opens onto depths too deep for words. Let me articulate as best I can what I see the Church revealing to us. By his incarnation, God the Word has clothed himself with his creation and with the whole of our humanity. Coming to us in the flesh, he deals with us not as we have sinned, but he voluntarily takes upon himself the iniquity of us all. By his Cross, in which he voluntarily gives himself up for the life of the world, he puts our sin to death and he destroys the power of the devil. When we unite ourselves to Christ in our baptism, we are uniting ourselves to the Holy One of Israel who through his Cross has visited the judgment of his wrath against us because of our sins upon himself. We therefore enter into the victory and joy of Christ’s Cross by confessing our sins. We submit ourselves to the anger of God in the sacrament of confession, and in the sacrament of confession, we are submitting to Christ’s Cross by which he has caused his anger against us because of our iniquity to fall upon himself. It is through the sacrament of confession, and by living a life centered on the act of confessing our sins, that we take up our Cross and follow Christ. In this the Church is telling us that there are untold depths of healing in the sincere confession of our sins that extend all the way into the darkness of the tomb, and beyond into the light of Christ’s holy resurrection in God’s heavenly Kingdom. The joy and healing power of Christ’s Cross, the spiritual essence of the Church, is opened to us in the sacrament of confession. It is my earnest hope that we all would take this to heart and come to the sacrament of confession in repentance and turn toward the light of God not just in word but in deed, and so discover by experience the victory of Christ’s Cross over death in the joy of his holy resurrection.