|02 Sunday Before the Elevation - Sept 9, 2007|
Today is the Sunday before the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, which we observe this Thursday evening with a Vesperal Liturgy. The Cross is the heart of the Christian Faith. To elevate the Cross, to take it up as Christ commands, is to take up the Christian Faith. Conversely, this means that if one is not taking up the Cross, one is not taking up the Christian Faith.
As the heart of the Christian Faith, the meaning of the Cross is as rich and as profound as the Christian Faith itself. In the simplest terms, the Cross is the “invincible trophy of peace” because it is the instrument by which Christ destroys the last enemy, death, and bestows the life of his holy resurrection upon those in the tombs by the power of his Holy Spirit.
Fr Tom Hopko, Dean Emeritus of SVS, in an essay he wrote some years ago on the Mission of the Orthodox Church in North America, wrote: “To be Orthodox Christians, men and women must behold Christ crucified. Only then can they come to know and believe in him as the risen Lord.” This speaks to the critical importance of understanding the meaning of the Cross and of incorporating our everyday life into its meaning if we are truly to be Orthodox Christians.
Let us therefore turn our attention for the next few moments to the meaning of the Cross to discern how we can incorporate it into our everyday life.
It is significant that the Elevation of the Cross (Sept 14) falls on the 40th day of the Feast of Holy Transfiguration (Aug 6). These forty days from Transfiguration to the Elevation of the Cross constitute a kind of Lent when we ‘pass over’ from the old to the new Church Year. During this Lenten-like season, the Church leads us through the ‘pascha’ of the Theotokos. We pass out of the old Church year with her Dormition (on Aug 15), and we pass over to the new Church year in her birth as a child, the daughter of God (on Sept 8). Prayerfully observing her Dormition and her Nativity, we experience the movement of time as it “passes over” from the old to the new Church year as an icon of our baptism when we descended into the womb of the Church, the baptismal font, of which the Theotokos is an icon, and we were united to a death like Christ’s and to a resurrection like his. Now, having renewed our baptism in a liturgical way by passing over into the New Year in the mysteries of the Theotokos’ Falling Asleep and Nativity, we make ready to exalt, to lift up the Cross of Christ and to step onto the better and changeless path of the Church’s liturgical cycle that will take us to the Christ’s holy Pascha.
Perhaps you can see how the very liturgical structure of the Church year supports Fr Tom’s exhortation: “To be Orthodox Christians, men and women must behold Christ crucified. Only then can they come to know and believe in him as the risen Lord.” We cannot discover the living reality of the Holy Spirit set forth in the liturgical movement of the sacred feasts of the Church year if we do not lift up the Cross of Christ. And so, before we set out on our journey to the wonder of Christmas, the joy of Theophany, the glory of holy Pascha and the hope of Ascension and Pentecost, the Church brings us to the feast of the Elevation of the Cross. When we leave our homes and our daily routine for a little while in order to make our way to the Church and enter prayerfully into the celebration of the feast, we are leaving the world and folding it into the Church’s joyous elevation of the Cross. Entering prayerfully into the Church’s liturgical celebration, we take up our Cross and enter into the joy of the Church’s better and changeless path that ascends to God through the tomb of Golgotha and the holy Pascha of the Lord.
The Cross of the Lord is about death and resurrection to life eternal. In other words, to be an Orthodox Christian, to take up the Cross of the Lord is to live for the life of the world to come and its values, not for the life of this world and its values. This is the life of repentance by which we become Orthodox Christians, disciples of the Lord; students of the world to come and its Way of Truth and Life.
The Cross, so the verses for the Feast of the Elevation tell us, is the Tree of Life that carries Christ like a cluster of grapes full of life. The Cross is in contrast to the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ The Tree of the knowledge of good and evil is clearly the tree of death, so St Maximus the Confessor taught, because it is opposite the Tree of Life. The fruit of the Tree of Life is Christ Jesus, who is the only-begotten Son of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father. If the fruit of the Tree of Life is Christ God, then the fruit of the Tree of Life is the life of God.
The Cross is the Tree of Life that carries the Savior like a cluster of grapes full of life. The image of the “cluster of grapes,” obviously refers to Holy Eucharist. If the Cross is the Tree of Life, and if the Eucharistic elements are the blood and water that flow from the side of Christ when he is pierced by the spear, then the consecrated bread and wine of Holy Eucharist are the life of God. And so the Church tells us. Listen to what the Church sings as she invites the faithful to partake of the living bread and Cup of life of Holy Eucharist: “Receive the body of Christ; taste the fountain of immortality.” And listen to what the faithful sing upon receiving the living bread and Cup of life of Holy Eucharist: “We have seen the true light. We have found the true faith. We have received the Heavenly Spirit.” All of this reveals the sacramental unity of the Eucharist and the Cross, for which reason we could say that we are taking up our Cross when we come to Holy Eucharist according to the way of the Church.
But this brings me back to what I said a moment ago: The Cross of the Lord is about death and resurrection to life eternal, because we cannot come to the Chalice of the Holy Eucharist if we have not died in the likeness of Christ’s death and been raised up in the likeness of his resurrection. The Eucharist is the marriage feast of Christ and his bride, the Church, that takes place in the banquet hall of the Kingdom of Heaven that is on the other side of the grave, in the resurrection of Christ. To get to this banquet hall of Holy Eucharist, you have to go through the baptismal waters of Christ’s death, you have to “pass over” to the other side of his resurrection. There you will find the banquet hall of the Marriage Feast. In other words, you can’t get to the Banquet Hall of the Eucharist except through the Cross of Christ. So now we see the sacramental unity of baptism and Holy Eucharist and Christ’s Cross because it is in the waters of our baptism that we are united to the Cross of Christ in the likeness of his death and raised up in the likeness of his resurrection to partake of his crucified and risen body, the Living Bread and the Cup of Life. And so, you could say that we take up our Cross when we come to the font of Holy Baptism in order to be united with the likeness of Christ’s death and resurrection. And the life that we are raised up to is the life of God, the very divine life we receive in Holy Eucharist, because when we are raised from the baptismal waters, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us – the Christ of whose body and blood we partake in Holy Eucharist.
But, of course, to come to the font of Holy Baptism, we must believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. That doesn’t mean simply to hear the words of Jesus and agree with them. Jesus himself says somewhere: “it is not the hearers of the word but the doers of the word who will be justified.” The fathers teach us that faith rightly expressed is to practice Christ’s commandments. And the first command that the incarnate Lord gives is to repent.
To repent means to turn around, to reorient your life. When Christ commands us to repent, he is commanding us to turn away from the serpent’s tree and to follow the path that leads to the Tree of Life. That means spitting out the fruit of the serpent’s tree, of renouncing Satan and all his hosts and all his pride by confessing our sins and by living our life according to the commandments of God and not according to the ways of the world. For, when we confess our sins, we are expelling from our mind and heart with the words of our confession the impurities of the serpent’s fruit. And, when we live according to the commandments of God, we are stepping off the broad path that leads to destruction and onto the narrow path, the better and changeless path that ascends to God. Now, the commandments of Christ are expressions of his Word; and therefore they are expressions of his very being, for he is the Word of God. They are expressions of the divine life that is in him, for it was through him, the Word of God, that all things came to be. Apart from him nothing came to be. In him was life and this life was the light of men. When we practice the commandments of Christ, then, we are doing much more than simply what God tells us to do; we are practicing the way of divine life; we are walking in the light as he is in the light. In this, we can see that there is a sacramental unity between the Cross of Christ, Holy Eucharist, baptism, and obedience to his commandments. The commandments of Christ that we are given to practice are expressions of the Word of God who speaks to us from his Cross in the Light of his Resurrection, with whose divine life we are clothed in our holy baptism, and of which we partake in Holy Eucharist.
To take up the Cross of Christ, then, is to clothe ourselves with his divine life: the “robe of Light” with which we were clothed in our baptism. We take up our Cross by practicing his commandments. When we practice his commandments, we are walking in the light as he is in the Light. We are folding our everyday life into his divine life and clothing the moments of our everyday life in the luminous robe of his divine life. We take up our Cross through humble, contrite and sincere confession of our sins in the sacrament of confession. In the sacrament of confession, we are spitting the fruit of the serpent’s tree out of our mind and soul. By coming to the sacrament of confession regularly, we are keeping our lives centered in the baptismal waters of Christ; and in that, we are crucifying ourselves with Christ, for each time we come to confession, it is as though we are nailing our everyday lives to his Cross in the likeness of his death and resurrection. And finally, we take up the Cross of Christ when we come to Holy Eucharist to partake of his divine life, to taste the fountain of immortality and to receive his Heavenly Spirit, to incorporate his body into our body, and to fold our body into his body. As we take up our Cross in all of these ways of the Church, and die in Christ so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us, the fathers of the Church tell us, speaking from their own experience, that we may look to find ourselves rising up in the joy of the newness of life that we discover in the divine life that Christ offers to us in his Church. We may begin to experience ever more deeply the movement of the Feasts of the Church from the Nativity of the Theotokos to her Dormition not as mere commemorations but as a mystical participation in the Spiritual reality of Christ that is present in our midst Today. The liturgical cycle of the Church reveals that in Christ, even time has been cleansed and deified. For those who take up their Cross, it is no longer the march to the inevitable end of our grave. Through the Cross of Christ, it has become the movement of our dying in the likeness of Christ’s death and our being raised up in the likeness of his Holy Resurrection.
In the name of God’s love for mankind, and on behalf of his holy Church, the body of Christ, I invite you to take up your Cross and follow Christ; and in the joy of the Feast, I urge you all to “Come to the Feast that we may kiss with joy the Wood of our salvation, on which stretched Christ our Redeemer.” Amen.
 FM, p. 132.