03 - Sunday After the Elevation of the Cross, September 19, 2010

Galatians 2:16-20

Mark 8:34 – 9:1

In the Church, we have passed over from the old to the New Year as we have passed over from the Dormition of the Theotokos to her Nativity as a “Child of God”, “Daughter of the King”. With her birth, the light of the Kingdom of God has dawned; for, she is the one who was foreordained to be the Mother of God. With the proclamation of her nativity, those who love God perk up their ears and lift their eyes to the hills expectantly, poised to behold the transfiguration of the world in the mystery of the Christ whose coming in the flesh is now very, very near. In this paschal state of expectation the Christian faithful elevate the Cross of the Lord and make ready to take up their own cross in obedience to the Lord’s command, in order to lose their lives for His sake and to follow Him in the desire to love Him with all their hearts and their neighbor as themselves.

To take up our cross and to follow Christ places us on the path of the Spirit, the way that is Christ Himself. It sets us on a journey that will bring us to the glorious feast of Christmas and to the Cave of Bethlehem that opens onto Eden. From there, it passes on to the banks of the Jordan, where the Savior is baptized by John the Baptist and sanctifies the waters of creation. From there, it takes us into the desert and on to the gates of Great Lent, to Jerusalem and to Golgotha where the Savior voluntarily ascends the Cross and destroys death by His death. As He descends into hell with His human soul, His body is laid in the new tomb that was in the Garden. And in His Holy Resurrection on the Third Day, He empties the tomb of His crucified and risen body so that the tomb becomes more glorious than Paradise, brighter than any royal chamber, the font of our resurrection, proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel that is the substance of the preaching and teaching of the Church: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The path of the Cross leads on from there to Christ’s glorious Ascension when He unites earth to heaven, and from there to Holy Pentecost, when He breathes out His Spirit on His holy disciples, infusing them with the immortal Life of God that is not of this world. From Pentecost, the path leads the faithful to their own pascha. In the sublime mystery of the Theotokos’ Dormition,  Christ leads each of the faithful to his or her own tomb in the likeness of Christ’s own death and resurrection. United to Christ through His Holy Spirit, they pass over in the mystery of the Theotokos, the New Eve, from the worldly life of the old man that is sick unto death with all its lusts and its pride, to the divine life of the New Man, Christ Jesus the New Adam. From children of flesh and blood fallen under the curse of death and corruption, they are transfigured into children of God, born of the Spirit, refashioned as partakers of the divine nature in the uncreated light and joy of God’s own immortal life. They are raised up to join the communion of the saints in whom God dwells, and they become part of the bridal procession entering with the Heavenly Bridegroom, Christ, the Lord of Glory into the Kingdom of Heaven with His Holy Mother, the Queen of Heaven and of all creation.

This week, we observe the feast of the conception of St John the Baptist. St John the Baptist is the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Mystically, this is the wilderness of our life in this world through which we must pass if we are to come to the Kingdom of Heaven. In the feast of St JnBapt’s conception, the Church sets before us the word of his preaching to direct us as we set out on the path of the Cross in this New Church Year: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight His paths.”

Christ is the Icon of the invisible God in whom all things subsist.[1] In Christ, therefore, the outer world of space and time is united to the inner world of the soul and the spirit. As we make our way in time to the feasts of the Church year – to the cave of Bethlehem, the Tomb of Pascha, the Upper Room of Holy Pentecost – if we observe these feasts in the ascetic attitude of the Church, the attitude of prayerful mindfulness that is born in us as we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church, prayer and fasting and the practice of charity (for these ascetic disciplines of the Church are the cross Christ commands us to take up), then our journey in time is joined to an inner journey into our heart. Through the grace of the Spirit and in the joy of the feasts, our heart that was dead in our sins and trespasses is opened up to receive the Christ Child as did the Cave of Bethlehem, the crucified Christ as did the tomb of Pascha, and the risen Christ as did the Upper Room of Holy Pentecost. We are united to Him who united Himself to us; and in the mystery of His Holy Pascha, we are raised up into the eternal newness of the Life of the Holy Spirit even here and now in this worldly life, even before we have come to the moment of our death in the body. The inner eyes and ears of our soul are illumined and opened onto the Kingdom of God that is now in our midst in the Spirit of God who is everywhere present, filling all things. In the uncreated Light of God, we see and hear, we handle with our hands the mystery of Christ that was hidden in God from the ages. It is the mystery of God the Word becoming flesh in order to dwell among us, that we might become members of His body, partakers of His divine nature, that He might be all in all, imparting the divine, uncreated and eternal Life of His Spirit to all who love Him, that they might be one with Him in His oneness with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

This is the joy of the Cross. When the sorrows and griefs of this life are joined to the Cross of Christ, they can be transfigured into the weapons of our victory in Christ by which we defeat evil and death. And so they become, like the Cross of Christ, witnesses to Christ’s victory over evil and death. The sorrows and griefs of this life are joined to the Cross of Christ as we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church. Our suffering in this life can be transfigured into the weapon of Christ’s victory when we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church not for the sake of self-righteous pride, but for the sake of Christ and the Gospel; i.e., when we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church for the purpose of crucifying the passions in us, both the passions of the flesh and the passions of the heart and mind: greed, vanity and pride, in order that we might learn how to love Christ and our neighbor as ourselves.

Christ was nailed to the Cross; and so He is united to the ascetic disciplines of the Church. The ascetic disciplines of the Church are “wet” with the life-creating waters of Christ’s Holy Spirit. The texts of the Feast show that the wood of the Cross represents mystically our humanity. We take up our cross, then, when we confront ourselves in our own humanity. This is the work of self-examination so that our inner man is made to stand before God always in the spirit of repentance, so that the attitude of contrition with which we approach the sacrament of confession is made to extend into our everyday life. In this attitude of contrition, we work unceasingly, through the help of the Church’s ascetic disciplines by which we unite ourselves to Christ on His Cross, to crucify our addictions, our bad habits, our faults, our personality disorders, our dysfunctions, our fears, our neuroses, our anxieties, our tendency to self-pity, or to anger, or to vanity; our habitual self-justification and self-righteousness.

We might seek out professional help to help us confront ourselves and get over our various neuroses and personal disorders; but we cannot find full healing if we do not join any professional help we might receive to the cross of Christ, i.e. to the practice of the Church’s ascetic disciplines. For, when take up the Church’s ascetic disciplines as the cross of Christ, we are uniting ourselves to Christ’s Passion by which He put to death our passions; and so we are also uniting ourselves to the victory of His Holy Resurrection.

From this, let us understand how it is that the faithful know that the mystery of Christ is real, even more real than the world. They don’t know from having successfully accomplished a blind leap of faith; for there is nothing about Christ that is blind. All is illumined in Christ; all is wisdom and knowledge in Christ. No, the faithful know that the mystery of Christ is real because they experience its healing power as they take up their cross and do the outer and the inner work of the Church’s ascetic life, the work of prayer and fasting and obedience to Christ’s commandments centered on the sacrament of confession. This ascetic work of the Church’s life is the cross we are called to take up. This is the work by which we make real, or rather let’s say by which we make incarnate the love for Christ that we may express with our lips. Not until we actually take up the cross and begin to do the ascetic work of the cross do we begin to plant the love of God in the soil of our hearts. Only then does Christian piety become real and spiritual and not just lip-service.

When we do this ascetic work of the Cross, we are uniting ourselves to Christ. As He voluntarily ascended the Cross, so we voluntarily ascend the Cross and unite ourselves to Christ when we voluntarily take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church. This is how we unite ourselves to Christ; and this is how we enter here and now in our own heart and mind into an experience of the mystery of Christ’s Pascha that is real and spiritual. That experience is how the faithful know that the Gospel is true, and that the mystery of Christ’s Holy Pascha is real.

In the joy of the Feasts, then, let us now take up our Cross, let us take up the ascetic life of the Church, and let us set out on the path of the Church that will take us through the desert of this worldly life to Bethlehem and to the Tomb of Christ’s Holy Pascha in the glory of God’s Kingdom. Amen.

[1] Col 1:17