|02 - Forefeast of the Cross, Sept 13, 2009|
II Corinthians 1:21-2:4
This morning’s Gospel lessons in conjunction with the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross that we celebrate tomorrow set before us biblical images that convey us to the heart of the Christian Faith’s biblical vision of God, His purpose in creating man, and the content of our salvation in Christ. To bring out this vision, let me take you first to Genesis and to the creation of man.
God forms man out of the dust of the ground in His own image and likeness. The Image of God in whom man is created is Jesus Christ Himself so that man is made to exist in Christ. The foundation and principle of man’s being, the “cornerstone” of his existence is communion with God. This means that to be in God is the only manner of existence that is natural to man.
Remember what you have learned by hearing the doctrines of the Church sung on the Feasts of Christ’s Nativity and His Ascension into Heaven. Christ, the Son of God, empties Himself and clothes Himself in our humanity taken from the dust of the ground in the womb of the blessed Virgin. He unites our humanity to His own His divine Person and becomes man without change. That is to say, when He becomes man, He does not cease to be God, nor does He become Someone else. Christ is Himself in His inner identity God the Son, who clothes Himself in our human nature and becomes fully man. As man, God the Son destroys death by His death on the Cross. In His humanity, He is raised from the dead. In His humanity He ascends in glory where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father in His humanity; i.e. in our humanity.
You see how the doctrine of the Church is proclaiming to us the great mystery of our being. We were created in the image of God, i.e. in the Person of Christ – not outside of Christ but in Christ. In His Holy Pascha and Ascension Christ does “no more” than to restore our humanity to what is most natural to us: to exist, to move and have our being not outside of God but in God, i.e. in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the love of God the Father and in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
From this, we learn that our present existence in which we are separated from God is unnatural to us. Indeed, the fathers of the Church say that we exist in a manner that is against our nature. It is manifestly obvious that we exist apart from God even beyond the fact that we are subject to death and corruption. We do not know God. We are wholly ignorant of Him. If someone didn’t teach us about the biblical God we would have no idea He existed. We do not exist in the grace, the love and the communion of the Holy Trinity. We live in the brutality of nature, which we must subdue by the power of our tools and machines so that we can survive. We live at enmity with each other. Even intimate family members can become our enemies at the turn of a dime. We live in ghettoes of ethnic divisions, class distinctions, political ideologies, religious belief systems. And out of these ghettoes proceed wars and rumors of war. We dream of a peaceful world but all of our solutions both religious and political seem only to produce more divisions and more disenfranchised.
The Church tells us that this is not normal; and we like to hear that part. But the Church keeps talking (she seems not to know when to shut up). She also tells us that the only way to healing is to take up our cross, to elevate the Cross of Christ and die in Christ. That means dying to our own ideas, our self-centeredness, the wisdom of our own opinions. We have to stop listening to ourselves, stop being obedient to ourselves. We have to listen to the God revealed to us in the Church and do Christ tells us to do in His Holy Church. But dying to ourselves is very hard, and so we go back to doing our own thing. We construct our own belief systems, our own philosophies of life that are more palatable to us, and follow those believing we’re following God; and then we wonder and complain why our life and our world are still a mess.
Genesis tells us that God made man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into Him the breath of life, and man became a living soul. We have to go to the Hebrew to catch the full force of this. The Hebrew word for soul connotes something quite different from the Greek word psyche, which in our western civilization has come to mean an eternal life force that flows through us somehow as our really real identity, that survives the body quite nicely, thank you, when we die. The word for soul in the Hebrew means quite literally throat, the area of the mouth, the larynx and the nostrils. So, when it says in the Scriptures that man became a living soul, it’s saying that man became a living throat. This gives a radically different view of man than what we get from the philosophical foundations of our western society. It tells us that man is not an inherently eternal life-force. Rather, we are throats; we are mouths that need to eat and drink in order to “live.” We are nostrils that need air to breathe in order to “live”. In other words, we don’t live by our own psychic essence. We live as we partake of food that comes from outside of us.
You can see from this that in the biblical view, it is very important what we eat and drink and breathe, because whatever we eat and drink and breathe becomes our life. This is why the commandment to Adam and Eve not to eat from the serpent’s tree, but to eat from the Tree of Life was so very critical. Set before them was the choice of which life they would live: either the life of their own psyche which, as we see around us everyday cannot support the individuals who live in it because they all die sooner or later, or, they could choose to live the life offered by the fruit of the Tree of Life. If you listen to the Church on this Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, you will learn that the Tree of Life growing in the Garden prefigures the Cross that carries the Most High – Christ our God – like a cluster of grapes full of life. From the teaching of the Church, our eyes are open to see in the command given to Adam and Eve to eat not from the serpent’s tree but from the Tree of Life, the same command the Lord Jesus Christ gives to those who would be His disciples: “Unless you eat my body and drink my flesh, you have no life in you.” That is to say, you do not have the Life of God, the Holy Spirit in you and you are no more than a soul; you are not a living soul, a soul that lives, exists and moves and has its being in God.
The banquet to which we are called in this morning’s Gospel parable is this heavenly banquet of Holy Eucharist. The call comes from the altar of the Church, the altar on which our Great High Priest, Christ the Son of God, has offered Himself to God the Father in His great love for us so that all who come to Him in the fear of God, with faith and in love might receive His Holy Spirit, the very Life of God, to become once again living souls existing in the Image and Likeness of God, which is Jesus Christ Himself, and so be restored to what alone is natural to us: partaking of the divine nature as communicants of life eternal in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit.
In the mystery of the Incarnation from the Holy Virgin, the earth is lifted like a veil to uncover the mystery of Eden rising from the depths. The depths: this would be the depths of the human heart, where Eden and the Tree of Life have been buried until the birth of the Theotokos. This great mystery of the revelation of Eden and the coming of Christ God into the world to restore mankind to his true nature and destiny of living and moving and having his whole being in God is the mystery of the Church. We are blind. We cannot see it, because we are dead in our trespasses; we are dead in our sins against God and one another that have separated us from God and from one another. But when we take up our Cross as Christ commands, when we repent, when we confess our sins from the heart, when we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church as the concrete expression of our sincere desire to love Christ as He commands, to die to ourselves and to keep His holy commandments for the sake of Christ and to follow Him, then we can expect that our eyes will be opened and we will begin to see Christ God, at first as through a mirror darkly, but enough to see the path that leads to the Tree of Life and to the Living Bread and the Living Cup that grow from the Tree as the life-giving Fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, as we prepare ourselves now to draw near in the fear of God, with faith and love, we need to examine ourselves in sincere repentance and confess what food and drink we have been eating and drinking, what air we have been breathing. We need to acknowledge what “tree” we have elevated and what god we have followed in our daily lives: the tree of good and evil and its serpent or the Tree of Life and the Wisdom of God it carries like a cluster of grapes full of life.
In that confession, we need to repent. We need to turn away from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life; we need to turn away from the wisdom of human philosophy and political ideologies, the wisdom of our own opinions, and we need to turn our inner senses eastward, bending our ear to listen only to the Call of Christ that comes to us from the altar of His Holy Church: in the fear of God, with faith and in love, draw near. In repentance, in humility, in the desire to love Christ as the Image of God in whom we were made to dwell that He might dwell in us, let us be diligent in our resolve to keep Christ’s commandments and to draw near every day, every hour every moment to the mystery of our being, Christ our God that we might participate in the Marriage Banquet of His Holy Church and become partakers of the divine nature, communicants of life eternal in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.