03 - Mystery of the Cross, Sept 18, 2011

The Mystery of the Cross

Where did we come from before we were conceived in the womb of our mother? Where do we go after we die?

This life is like an island surrounded by a dark sea. One day we washed up from the sea onto the shore of this life. One day, the same wave will wash us back into the sea. Standing on the shore of the island, looking out to the sea, we peer out over the unknown depths where lie our origin and our end. Yet, who of us knows, who of us has seen into those depths that we can speak of them with authority?

The sea that surrounds the island of this life, the sea where we came from and to which we return on the day we die and leave this life, this is the mystery. It lies on the other side of our conception and beyond the grave. This is the realm of the sacred opposite the realm of the profane on this side of the grave. Profane eyes cannot see into the mystery. It is absolutely sealed off from our eyes as was the tomb of Christ that was absolutely sealed off by the large, heavy stone.

The many religions of the world are all statements on the sea. They each one are telling us about our origin and our end, the principle of our nature and destiny that are to be found in the depths of the sea. Even non-religion or anti-religion – atheism, e.g. – is a religious statement on what lies in the sea, or on life after death; viz., that there is none. But why should we believe these fools over the wisdom of the world’s religions? Have they seen into the depths of the sea?

Whose religious word are we to believe? Who has seen into the mystery that we could believe their report? Any report on the mystery that is not an eyewitness account is but speculation. Its origin is in the imagination that is on this side of the grave. Foolish is the one who puts his trust in it.

Therefore, consider the testimony of the holy apostle Peter: “We became eyewitnesses (epoptai),” he says, “of His majesty, and we heard the voice that came from heaven [i.e., from the sea, from the other side of the grave] ‘This is my beloved Son’, when we were with Him on the Mountain.”[1] Eyewitnesses: epoptai in Greek: this word in St Peter’s day was given to those who had attained the highest grade in the mysteries of Eleusis, who had seen into the meaning of the myth of Persephone’s return from Hades. Hades, the realm of the dead, in Greek means the unseen. It is the mystery. The epoptai, the eyewitnesses, were those whose eyes had opened to see past the grave and into the sea to behold the mystery of our origin and our end; i.e., they had seen with their own eyes “what it’s all about.”

Given this background of the word for “eyewitness”, there is little doubt that St Peter means to distinguish the mystery of Christ from the mysteries of Eleusis when he writes: “We did not follow clever, sophistical myths when we made known to you the power and coming of the Lord Jesus; but we were eyewitnesses (epoptai) of His great majesty.” In other words, what we saw was with our own eyes, not the eyes of our mind through some kind of “active imagination”, but the eyes of our body. What we saw was not the archetypal structure of some sophisticated myth that originates somewhere in the deeps of the human soul, the human imagination, and therefore on this side of the grave. What we saw was the real thing that originates in God the uncreated and unoriginate Father, who is infinitely deeper even than the sea, who is beyond even being itself. Indeed, what we saw was the Mystery hidden for ages and generations in God who created all things.[2] The Mystery that we saw is Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, who is before all things and in whom are all things. We did not see Him transfigured in our imagination. We saw Him transfigured with our physical eyes. We saw the Mystery of Christ and His Holy Church.[3] Christ and His Holy Church are what it’s all about. In Christ, in His Holy Church, this is where we find our origin and our end, the principle of our nature and destiny. As St Paul writes to St Timothy: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion. He [Christ, the Mystery] was manifested in the flesh.” I.e., He was not manifested to our imagination. The Mystery, which is Christ, is concretely objective even in its “mystical-ness”. We cannot manipulate or massage it to make it conform to our own ideas. We can only receive it and proclaim it as it, as He, truly is.

Let us understand, dear faithful, that in passing over the threshold of the Church doors this morning and stepping into the nave, we stepped into the antechamber of the mystery. The Royal Doors of the sanctuary are like the stone that sealed Christ’s tomb, sealing off the mystery from the eyes of the profane so that they cannot see into it. But when the Name of Christ is invoked, the doors are opened, like the stone was rolled away at the moment of Christ’s Holy Resurrection, and you see into the sanctuary as those whose eyes have been opened see into the Mystery of Christ. 

St Paul writes to St Timothy: “[The great mystery of our religion, Jesus Christ] was vindicated by the Spirit.” In other words, the Christian Faith is not a school of thought originating in the speculations of human reasoning. It is the proclamation of what the holy apostles saw and heard, the Mystery of Jesus Christ who originates in God from beyond the grave, beyond even the sea. As St John the Evangelist writes. “What we have seen with our eyes, what we have heard with our ears, what we have handled with our hands, the Word of Life, this we proclaim to you that you may have communion with us, and our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.”[4] In Holy Eucharist, that is to say, we partake of the divine nature in the Mystery of God, Jesus Christ, who was hidden for generations and ages but now has been revealed to the saints.[5] We have fellowship with Him who comes to us from the other side of the grave, who is seated, if you will, in the sea, in the mystery, at the right hand of God the Father. St John is surely speaking above all of Pascha when the risen Christ appeared to the disciples in the Upper Room behind closed doors. The Upper Room, that is to say, suddenly opened onto and became the realm of the mystery. In the presence of the risen Christ, the disciples were suddenly in the sea even as they were on the island of this life. They were at once on this side of the grave and on the other side.

And so it is this morning here on the corner of 38th and 54th. The Cross of Christ that we take up on this Feast of the Cross is the bridge that unites us on this side of the grave to the other side of the grave, i.e., to Christ who comes to us and is present with us from the other side in His Holy Resurrection, in the sea. When you take up the cross, you take up the Mystery of God that was hidden for ages and generations and has now been manifested to the saints – to you who are made holy when you receive Christ and in repentance, do the work He commands us to do, to take up our cross. We take up our cross through prayer both corporate and private, through fasting both with the stomach and with the sense, and through deeds of charity. The cross of Christ extends concretely throughout every generation in every part of the world in these ascetic disciplines of the Church, so that every soul that wants to, in every age and in every part of the world, can follow Christ and gain his or her soul in the eternal life of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.

     Let us therefore live on the island of this life in the sobriety and reverence that are proper to those who have received the great mystery of the Christian Faith, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In the joy of the Gospel, we take up our cross to do the work of the Church, the ascetic disciplines of the Church, knowing that in them we are laying hold the Pearl of great price that lies in the sea, knowing that by taking up the cross, we are uniting ourselves to Christ who comes to us from the other side of the grave in His Holy Resurrection. In a hidden but real way, we are stepping into the Resurrection of Christ. We are stepping into the sea beyond the grave even as we remain for now on the island. We are clothing ourselves in the Mystery, in the life that is on the other side of the grave. We are establishing ourselves in hope, not imagined but real, for when we partake of Christ in Holy Eucharist, we receive the riches of the glory of the mystery, which is Christ in us, the Hope of Glory.[6] And thus we, too, become eyewitnesses of the Mystery that lies on the other side of the grave because we are living in it. Amen. 

[1] II Pt 1:16-18

[2] Eph 3:9

[3] Eph 5:32

[4] I Jn 1:1-4

[5] Col 1:26-27

[6] Col 1:27