|28 - Veneration of the Cross, March 7, 2010|
Hebrews 4:14 – 5:6
Mark 8:34 – 9:1
Great Lent is a season of rigorous fasting, abstaining from meat and dairy, wine and oil. And yet, the Church tells us we should take up the fast in joy. This isn’t so much a commandment as it is a exhortation, telling us that if we don’t experience the discomfort of the fast in joy, then we don’t get it; we are still blind, deaf, dumb, ignorant. We still don’t understand the Gospel and the divine glory the Church is placing in our hands to receive, if we want it.
Through the fast, we take up the cross the Savior commands us to take up. The Fast together with the ascetic disciplines of the Church that accompany it – prayer, fasting, and the observance of Christ’s commandments – are the cross. “From the tree of the Cross,” we hear from the Lenten Triodion at the Wednesday Matins of the first week of Great Lent, “there grows for all the world the flower of abstinence. Let us then accept the Fast with love” – i.e., let us take up our Cross for the sake of Christ and His Gospel – “and let us take pleasure in the fruit of Christ’s divine commandments” – i.e., let us partake in faith of the life-giving tree of the Cross that carries Christ the Most High as a cluster of grapes full of life.” “The Fast shines upon all of us more brightly than the sun,” we read in the Lenten Triodion. “More brightly than the sun” has to mean that the Fast shines on us in the uncreated Light of God, so that in the Fast, we are mystically in the uncreated Light of God. “It brings us the light of grace and proclaims the good news of the Cross, of the precious Passion and the saving day of Resurrection.”
Certainly, this is reason for joy. If the Fast is the Cross, then it is the power of the cross that burns devils and consumes them with fire. It is what unites us to the Cross of Christ by which He has destroyed the death that binds us and freed us from the power of the devil. Uniting us to the Cross of Christ, the Fast shatters the hosts of devils and throws open the gates of Paradise in the heart of hell, raising us with Himself in His Holy Resurrection, renewing us and leading us to the light that knows no evening. Through the Fast, we are united to the Cross of Christ. If the Fast is the flower that grows from the tree of the Cross, then it is the flower of life that the wood of the Cross has put forth in the Church that once was barren, that fills her with strength and steadfastness. It is the flower whose blossom is Christ, the precious “rose” to whom the Blessed Virgin gives birth in the cave, who makes the desert to blossom like a rose, the Church that once was barren to put forth the flower of life filled with the fragrance of the Holy Spirit, budding with the strength and steadfastness of divine grace.
The Fast, that is to say, as the flower that grows from the tree of the Cross, is resurrectional. This is vividly brought home to us in the Matins service for this Sunday morning of the Cross. The irmoi for the Canon of Matins are all taken from the Matins of Pascha. At the Ninth Ode of the Matins Canon, we even dared not just to chant but to sing in full voice the irmos, “Shine, Shine, O New Jerusalem!” The impact of singing the verses of Pascha on this the Sunday of the Cross in the middle of the Fast is simply remarkable.
All of this, as I say, is certainly reason for joy, if we would understand it and appreciate it, and take up the fast in this mind of the Church, understanding that we are taking up our cross and shattering the hosts of demons, cleansing ourselves in Christ and following Him to the light that knows no evening, the light of His Resurrection. But, in fact, I do not think that even yet we have come to the source of the joy of the Fast.
What that source might be struck me with some force a couple of days ago as I was hanging our new icons of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. As you can see, we’ve hung them side by side there on the north wall of the nave. Study the icon of the Crucifixion. Even though it maintains a divine perspective on the crucifixion, subsuming the gory details into the light of divine grace, it is still easy to see that dying on a cross was a gruesome and agonizing way to die. As I was contemplating that icon, the Scripture from Hebrews 12:2 came to mind: “for the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, despising the shame.” What was that joy that was set before Him?
We need to understand the theological teaching of the Orthodox Church that God was not compelled in any way to create the world. He created it in complete freedom. Moreover, He created it knowing full well in His foreknowledge that to secure the man he had made in the Paradise for which He had made him, a second creation would be required of Him, not as easy as the first when He brought all things into being from out of nothing, because the second creation would require that He empty Himself to become man in order to ascend the Cross and descend into hell, enduring its agony, so that He could raise Adam up not just from the dust of the ground as at the first creation, but even from below the dust of the ground, from the abyss of hell. He knew this, yet He created the world anyway. Why? Because He is love. He created the world in love. He created Adam and Eve in love. When Adam and Eve fell, you can feel the agony in the Lord’s voice when He calls out: “Where are you?” Adam and Eve, by their transgression, had separated themselves from God and had sunk into the darkness of the abyss.
Contemplating all of this as I gazed on the icon of the crucifixion, I turned to the icon of the Resurrection; and it came to me at once what was the joy that was set before Him for which Christ voluntarily endured the Cross and despised its shame: it was the joy of finding Adam and being reunited with Him in love in Paradise.
Beloved faithful, here is the joy that is set before us, for the sake of which we endure the discomfort of the Fast, the agony of our cross. It is the joy of finding Christ and of uniting ourselves to Him in love in Paradise. He is our Creator who out of His great mercy brought us into existence from nothing; and then, when we had fallen away, He clothed Himself in our humanity and descended with us into hell that He might raise us up again, renewed, cleansed and established with Him in Paradise. He is our Lord and our God. He is the Greatly Compassionate One, the only Lover of mankind.
Let us take to heart the great love of the merciful God for us even though we are unworthy of His love; and in the humility, the fear and the love that are born of that, let us be renewed in our zeal to complete the course of the Fast, knowing now that we are not just fasting from meat and dairy, wine and oil. We are taking up the Fast in order to crucify our self love in Christ, to put the old man in us to death on the precious Cross of Christ. We are doing this for the sake of Christ and the Gospel; that is to say, for the sake of the Christ who loved us and gave Himself for us, and for the sake of our desire to love Him not simply because He commands it, but because we were made in His image and likeness, and we were made to be one with Him in love. Amen.