|03 - Afterfeast of the Elevation of the Cross, Sept 20, 2009|
II Corinthians 4:6-15
Biblically, to be made righteous is to be made alive; and the righteous man is one who loves God and his neighbor as himself. Therefore, it is clear that no flesh is justified or made alive by works of the law, in other words, by circumcision. But when the Savior says in this morning’s Gospel from St Matthew: “This is the great commandment of the law: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself,” He only exposes how dead we are in our trespasses, i.e. in our inability to love God and our neighbor as God commands. He shows how unrighteous we are by exposing the state of our heart, as Jeremiah the prophet says: “The heart of man is deceitful beyond all things and desperately corrupt.” “The first man, through eating from the tree, went to dwell in corruption. Condemned to shameful banishment from life, he fell prey to bodily corruption, which he transmitted to all our kind like some pollution from disease.”
We are not saved, made alive, by the works of the Law; but the commandments of God only serve only to expose how dead we are in our inability to love God as He commands. We do not love God. We deceive ourselves to think we do. We need only strive to love God as He commands - with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves – and we discover very quickly that our love is inclined rather toward ourselves, money, and toward the flesh and the pleasures, the lust and the pride of the flesh. If we think we are lovers of God, we succeed only in becoming self-righteous hypocrites like the Publican, the scribes and the Pharisees. And so, if no one will be saved who does not keep the law, who does not love God and his neighbor as God commands, then where is our hope? Who of us then, can be saved if we cannot love God as He commands?
Troubled by this, we turn to this morning’s passage from Galatians. Let me read it directly from the Greek. “We see,” writes St Paul, “that no one is justified from works of the Law (because they only expose our inability to love God as He commands), but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” That is to say, our trust is not in our ability to keep the law. That will be disappointed again and again; our faith, rather, is in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who did keep the works of the Law perfectly. He loved God completely and perfectly and was obedient even to the point of death on the Cross. It is by Christ’s faithfulness to the Law and not ours that we are made righteous. How is that?
Here is where the Good News of the Gospel begins. Through the Blessed Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary, Christ God was received into our human nature; He became flesh and dwelt among us. Christ our God clothed Himself in our flesh and He filled our humanity with Himself, sprinkling it throughout with His precious and life-giving blood, washing out the venom of the serpent that had poisoned it to death. In our humanity, he kept the works of the Law. In our humanity, He loved God and was obedient even to the point of death on the Cross and filled our barrenness with the Divine Life of His Holy Spirit. By His faithfulness, He illumined our nature darkened by our separation from God with the Light of His Divinity. So that St Paul writes to us this morning in II Corinthians: “Out of the darkness, the Light is shining.” Christ is Himself that Light shining from within the heart of man, the heart that in Adam had become deceitful beyond all things, but through the Theotokos was transformed into the Bridal Chamber waiting in the glowing joy of loving expectation for the entrance of the Great High Priest, the Heavenly Bridegroom who comes at Midnight,
The venom of the serpent no longer floods our human nature; for the blood of Christ our God, that is to say, the life of God now radiates from the bridal chamber of the Theotokos’ womb and spreads throughout our human nature, sanctifying it, deifying it and transfiguring it from within and from above with “the radiance of the knowledge of the Glory of God that shines in our hearts in the face of Jesus Christ.” This knowledge of Jesus Christ in the radiant Light of the Glory of God is the treasure beyond all treasures that was buried on Holy Friday in the heart of man through the Savior’s Incarnation, His entrance into our humanity through His conception and birth from the Holy Virgin. The Gospel proclaims: The Kingdom of God is within you, for “the wood of the Cross that clothes men with the garment of life has been set up in the midst of the earth, and the whole world is filled with boundless joy!” “Shining with its pure rays, the holy Cross sheds its divine light upon the peoples darkened by the beguilement of sin, and it reconciles them to Christ who was crucified upon it.” And the Church calls out to all of us: “Come all ye faithful to the divine ladder by which we go up to heaven, exalting Christ the Lord!
In this morning’s Gospel from St Mark we hear how we come to the divine ladder of the Cross so that we can go up to heaven. “If anyone wishes to be my disciple, he must deny himself.” I take this quite literally. We must deny ourselves, not some aspect of ourselves, not just our bad habits, but ourselves. We ourselves are dead in our sins. We have no life in ourselves; we are headed for the grave, and in our deadness we are not able to keep the law. Our only hope is to die to ourselves in Christ that we might rise up in Christ into the very Life of God Himself, the Life of His Holy Spirit.
It is not enough that we were baptized; nor is it enough that we believe in Christ if by that we think it means simply to give intellectual assent to the proclamation of the Church that Christ died for our sins. The sacramental rite of baptism clearly shows us that. We confess our belief in Christ when we recite the Creed and receive the Faith of the Church. But that is not the end of the baptismal service. We proceed to the baptismal font and are baptized; but that is not the end of the service. We rise from the font and we are clothed with the Robe of Light. But, that is not the end of the service. Finally, we are led to the Holy Chalice to become partakers of the divine nature. Then, the service ends and we are sent out as were the apostles into the world to make disciples of all nations. In all of this movement, we are making our way from the west to the east: from the darkness to the light. It is a sacramental movement that signifies the renouncing of ourselves. It is a liturgical symbolism teaching us that we must orient ourselves eastward both within and without every day, every hour, every moment. This eastward orientation toward the Light of Christ shining in the “East Gate” of our hearts is how we renounce ourselves and take up our cross to follow Christ. To believe in Christ, in other words, is an all-encompassing submission in complete obedience to Christ, trusting completely in His faithfulness to God and not in ours. And we put our trust in Him by taking up our Cross and following Him. We simply cannot follow Christ if we are not taking up our cross and making our way toward the east.
So how precisely do we renounce ourselves and take up our cross so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us? Here are some practical, everyday ways we renounce ourselves to follow Christ.
Every time we choose not to act out our desire to dwell in our lust, to give ourselves to gluttony, to indulge ourselves in the sweetness of anger, envy and retaliation, every time we choose to ignore the impulse to vanity and pride, we are in that moment renouncing ourselves, dying in Christ. Every time we choose to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who revile us, to confess the beam in our own eye and not the speck in our brother’s eye; whenever we choose to fight our mind’s lazy impulse to dwell in impure thoughts, every time we choose to look away from impure images, every time we choose to take up the Scriptures and pray the Psalms, celebrate the Feasts of the Church instead of indulging ourselves in a worldly pursuit, every time we choose to show kindness and charity to our brother instead of anger, we are taking up our Cross and following Christ. In fighting ourselves to follow the commandments of Christ instead of the impulse of anger or lust, vanity, greed or pride, we are denying ourselves, we are taking up our cross, and we are following Christ, putting our trust in Him alone.
And when we deny ourselves, when we renounce the impulse of the sin that is in us, we are voluntarily dying in Christ in that moment, bit by bit. And, as we die voluntarily in Christ over the course of our earthly lives, we make our return to the dust of the ground in Christ and to the tomb of our soul that through the Theotokos has been transformed into the Bridal Chamber, where Christ the Heavenly Bridegroom comes at Midnight, at that moment when the old passes over into the new. And at Midnight, at that moment when the old passes away and the new presses in to be born from above, Christ our God, in the Glory of His Resurrection, raises us up as He raised Adam from the dust of the ground. Mingling our mortal clay with the blood and water that flow from His life-giving side, He fashions us anew as children of God, as lovers of God. He breathes into our nostrils the breath of life, His Holy Spirit, and we become once more, through our death in Christ, living souls, so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the love of God the Father and in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.