03 The Martyrdom of the Church - Sept 16, 2007

Galatians 2:16-20 (Sunday After)

2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Mark 8:34-9:1 (Sunday After)

Matthew 25:14-30

The Church proclaims that the one who died on the Cross, who suffered and was buried and rose again was not a man joined to God, but God the Word himself. This proclamation reveals that our particular life has meaning that is of eternal significance, that there is a nobility and eternal value inherent to each person, and that there is a destiny being prepared by God himself for those who love him that is of such glory that no eye has seen it, no ear has heard it, no tongue can describe it. To take up the Cross of Christ is to become a disciple of Christ in order to learn how to become such a lover of God, and to live in that discipleship with one’s eyes trained on the hope set before us in the wonder of God the Word dying on the Cross in the flesh for the life of the world.

This particular feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Cross celebrates the finding of the original Cross by St Helen around the year 340. St Helen discovered three crosses beneath the mound of Golgotha, the site of the Savior’s crucifixion. The Cross of Christ was identified not only because it was the one in the middle and bore the inscription recorded in the Gospels, but also because of miracles that began to happen in connection with it.

Such miracles make manifest the truth of the Incarnation; that through Christ, heaven and earth have been united so that divine things happen through earthly things such as icons and relics of the saints. These miracles, we should understand, however, are but the outer face of the invisible miracles that occur regularly in the Church. You, for example, having partaken of the Bread of Life, have been joined to the leaven of the Holy Spirit that leavens the whole lump. You have become yourself a holy seed born from above that is being scattered by the Divine Sower in the field of the world, the world of your everyday life. You come to the church yourself as a miracle of the Lord. When you leave the church, having been made a communicant of Life Eternal, you leave under the call to become an apostle of the Lord, one who is sent out to be like salt that gives flavor, the flavor of the Holy Spirit, to the world. But we can’t become apostles until we have been disciples, students of the Lord.

Therefore, I would like us to reflect more closely, in the light of the Cross, on how we go about completing our course of study as disciples of the Lord in order to become his apostles. It seems to me that discipleship and apostleship are two modalities which together constitute the martyrdom of the Church. Martyria means to bear witness. In the martyrdom of the Church, the faithful bear witness to the divine nobility of human nature and destiny revealed in the Cross of Christ. Perhaps we can say that, on some level, these two modalities of the Church’s martyrdom are revealed by the Lord when from the Cross he sees his beloved disciple, St John the Theologian, standing next to his blessed Mother; and he says to John, “Behold, your Mother,” and to his Mother, he says: “Behold, your son.” In St John and the Blessed Virgin, we see that the two modalities of the Church’s martyrdom are personal; they correspond to the Church’s human nature as male and female, which together constitute the image of God in which man was made. The correspondence suggests that the image of God in which we were made is itself perfected in the martyrdom of the Church: the witness of the Church to the love of God for the world.

In this regard, I must say in the name of the Church that the theology of the Cross is opposed radically to modern day political ideologies that hope to heal the injustices of history by denying the difference between men and women, and hoping to convince us that male and female are nothing more substantial than accidental instances of an amorphous blob of an impersonal human essence. These modern day ideologies are nothing but the modern dress of age-old pagan philosophical varieties of monism that have no interest in the individual man or woman as such – the “one lost sheep” in the parable of Christ – but only in the generic or the universal essence that each man and woman is in the principle of his or her being. The Church, in absolute opposition to these modern day emasculations of the innate capacity of the “one lost sheep”, whether male or female, to become a person in the image and likeness of God, affirms the eternal value of men and women precisely as men and women. Together, man and woman constitute human nature in its wholeness and integrity as the image of God, made to be and to exist not in the fusion of an amorphous blob of an impersonal essence but in the sacramental joy of male and female in personal communion that lives through participation in the Personal Communion of the Holy Trinity.

The feminine modality of the Church is exemplified, of course, in the Theotokos, and also in the Cross. It is the natural function of the feminine to receive the seed of the male and to conceive life, to give shape to that life, and finally to bring that life forth when it has attained maturity. There is a stillness, a quietude that surrounds this function of the feminine that feels intuitively sacred; and the theology of the Cross gives expression to that sacred intuition. Now, in the Scriptures, the Theotokos is distinguished by her quiet submission to God. To the Archangel Gabriel she says: “Be it done to me according to your word.” At the Meeting of Christ in the temple, she notes everything that is said and done with regard to her Son, and the Scriptures say that she “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Through her quiet receptivity to God, God the Word is conceived in her womb. He becomes flesh; he becomes one with us. It is through the feminine modality of the Theotokos that we are now brothers and sisters of God the Word not just in some spiritual way, but concretely, in the flesh.

The Cross shows its feminine character when Christ is nailed to it. In this, it receives Christ as did the Theotokos; and, like the Theotokos, it carries Christ as a cluster of grapes full of life. Through the receptive stillness of the Cross’s feminine character, Christ becomes one with us, even to the point of sharing with us in our death and our forsakenness.

Here in the Theotokos and the Cross we see the feminine modality of the Church: quiet, receptive and submissive or obedient. Through the receptive stillness of the feminine – the Theotokos and the Cross – God becomes one with us; he becomes flesh, as we are. He destroys death and grants life to those in the tombs. It is through the feminine modality of the Church’s humanity that we receive God to become rooted in God. We realize the feminine modality of our humanity when we become quiet and submissive like our Mother, the Theotokos, in the stillness of prayer to become receptive to God, grounded in God, even one with God, to become, like the Theotokos and the Cross, those who carry Christ in their body like a cluster of grapes full of life. Moreover, it is in the quiet submissiveness of human nature’s feminine modality that we, like the Theotokos and the Cross, give birth to the risen Christ as a male child from the womb of our heart.

It is the character of the male to go forth and perform great acts of word and deed, to slay the dragons of the world, to rescue the oppressed, to avenge injustice, and to sow the seed of his heroic accomplishments in the field of the world. But the man does this by going forth from the woman and, through the sowing of his seed, returning to the woman. In the woman, the seed of the man’s mighty deeds are received, shaped and given life and brought forth into the world when they have attained their maturity. From the woman, the man is nourished so that he can achieve his destiny in the world. If the man is not grounded and nourished in the woman, he is powerless, lifeless and sterile; and if the woman does not give birth to such a man, she is barren and, in the biblical view, as good as dead.

These archetypal dynamics of man and woman, of course, have been perverted and abused in many ways in the course of human history, but that is because these archetypal principles have been applied in the darkness and ignorance of a human society bereft of the knowledge of the true God, and so also in ignorance of the true nature of man as male and female created in the image of God. In the Church, human nature is healed and restored to its primordial wholeness through the sacramental mysteries of Christ; and in the Church, male and female recover their original integrity in the accomplishment of the highest and most noble achievements possible to human nature: through humanity’s feminine modality giving birth to God in the heart, and in humanity’s masculine modality going forth from the Mother, the baptismal font of the Church, to give one’s life to the Father in union with God the Word who dies on the Cross for the life of the world.

Consider how the very principle of humanity’s masculine and feminine modalities shows forth, as an image or as an icon, the mysteries of God. From the Father who begets him eternally as his Only-Begotten Son, Christ goes forth as Son of God to the Panagia, the ever-Virgin Mary who becomes his Mother. From his Mother, the Theotokos, who begets him in time as her only-begotten Son, Christ goes forth into the world as Son of Man. Voluntarily ascending the Cross as his invincible weapon of peace, Christ slays the dragon of death, the last enemy. Like a mighty warrior wielding his sword, he plunges his Cross into the belly of hell and fills its darkness with the luminous splendor of his divinity. He breaks the bars of hell, he shatters its locks, he utterly casts down the Evil One with all his hosts, all his angels, and all his pride; and we, sinners though we are, are raised from earth to heaven. He redeems us from the curse; he ransoms us from bondage to the enemy; he vindicates the righteous, he gives justice to the oppressed; he slays hell with the splendor of his divinity. Seeing all of this one wonders if, in the words that he said to his Mother from the Cross, “Woman, behold your son,” he is also telling her that he is now returning to the woman as he gives up his Spirit and descends into the tomb as into the womb of the Mother. But, of course, by his victory on the Cross, he has transfigured the tomb into a bridal chamber, and there he consummates his union with his bride, the Church, human nature as male and female created in the image and likeness of God. In the tomb, or rather, in the bridal chamber of the baptismal font, he impregnates his bride with the Seed of his Holy Resurrection. He is himself the Resurrection and the Life; he is the Seed of God, and so in the baptismal font he impregnates his bride, humanity, male and female, with Himself in the womb of the soul, the bridal chamber of the heart. And, the tomb, as an icon of the human heart in its feminine modality, by the power of the Holy Spirit, gives birth to him again as the first born of the dead, the Risen Lord, who goes forth from the tomb as a Bridegroom in procession, leading his Mother and all the children now born of her from the depths of hell onto the better and changeless path that ascends through the Cross to the heights of heaven.

When we take up our cross and follow Christ all the way into the baptismal font, i.e. all the way to union with Christ on the Cross in the likeness of his death and resurrection, we are led in the Holy Spirit into this nuptial mystery of Christ and the Church, the Second Adam and the Second Eve, the Male and the Female who, coming together in what the Orthodox Tradition calls the “spiritual marriage” of Christ and his Church, have restored our human nature to its primordial wholeness. When through our baptism we are united to the Cross of Christ, and we are received into the feminine modality of the Church’s humanity in the baptismal font, we are born from above as children of God. We are clothed in the renewed, the risen and the deified humanity of Christ and his Church. We are raised from the cycle of death of this earthly life that is centered in the lower regions of the belly, and up into the heart. The heart is spiritually united with the Tree of Life – that is to say, the Cross – that was in Paradise, and before we fell into the lower regions of our belly by indulging the passions of gluttony and lust, the heart was the original center of our being; for, from it, as the Proverb says, flow the issues of life – not earthly life, but the life of God.[1] Nailing ourselves to the Cross of Christ and descending with him into the tomb that he has transfigured into the bridal chamber of our heart, we are joined to the Tree of Life that we can climb as we would a ladder from out of the life-destroying and impersonal lusts of the belly’s lower regions that passes for love in this world, and into the Banquet Hall of the Kingdom of Heaven to partake of the Marriage Feast that celebrates the life-creating and personal communion of Christ and his Bride, the Church. This is a personal communion of male and female that lives not in the “I”, not in the “self”, but in the “other” as “Thou, my beloved” in the Personal Communion of the Holy Trinity. Granted to partake of the marriage feast, we become partakers of the divine nature and so we realize our natural destiny as communicants of Life Eternal in the love of God the Father, the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Permit me time to say something also about St John, who exemplifies in this scene on Golgotha the masculine modality of the Church’s humanity (although typically, St John the Baptist is held up in the Orthodox Tradition as the archetypal masculine.) Note how St John, from out of the receptive, feminine stillness of prayer, is given life and nourishment to be shaped into St John the Evangelist and Theologian. His words, they are like seeds of the male, are permeated with the grace of the Holy Spirit to bear eloquent witness to the love of God in Christ. (St John’s icon shows him with his finger over his mouth; a poignant pose that shows at once the union of martyrdom’s feminine and masculine modalities. His lips are silent that his heart may open to receive the Spirit of God, martyrdom’s feminine modality, so that the words he speaks, the seeds he sows, are not his own but those of the Word of God incarnate, martyrdom’s masculine modality.) We see in St John the Theologian as we see also in St John the Baptist the highest achievement of the Church’s masculine modality: to decrease that the Lord may increase: in other words, to unite with Christ in the likeness of his death on the Cross. St John was called a son of Thunder; he was proud and assertive. You’ll remember that he wanted to sit in power and recognition at the Lord’s right hand when he came into his Kingdom, thinking the Lord’s Kingdom was an earthly, political kingdom. But somehow, between that moment and the scene in Golgotha, he discovered the feminine modality of the Church and learned meekness and humility; and from out of the receptive stillness of the Church, he came forth as the beloved disciple of the Lord, sowing Christ in the field of the world through the gracious words of his Gospel. In St John the Theologian, we see the true character of the male; it is, in fact, the very character of the female: submissive obedience in love to the Savior. Through submissive obedience, the feminine realizes its perfection and gives birth to the Savior; through submissive obedience, the masculine realizes its perfection and voluntarily unites with Christ on his Cross in the likeness of his death; and, in the masculine modality of apostleship goes forth into the world in the life-creating power of the Cross to slay the dragons of injustice and falsehood, sowing the seeds of divine love and justice and mercy in the social structures of this world’s everyday life through prophetic preaching and teaching of the Word of God. In the great words and deeds of her masculine modality, the Church cries out as St John the Baptist: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand;” and in the words of St John the Evangelist she sows in the field of the world, through her deeds and her words, her witness to God the Father who “so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”

It is in their common obedience and submissiveness to God in their love for the Savior, an obedience and submissiveness practiced in and through the ascetic disciplines of the Church, that male and female are united in Christ and human nature is restored to its primordial wholeness as male and female created in the image and likeness of God. When the feminine modality of discipleship is impregnated by the Seed of the Lord in the teaching and preaching of the Gospel, discipleship gives birth to the masculine modality of apostleship, going forth to sow the Seed of the Gospel in the field of the world by the power of the Cross, the invincible weapon of peace. In the union of discipleship and apostleship, the feminine and the masculine modalities of the Church’s martyrdom, the faithful in Christ achieve their highest accomplishments: giving birth to Christ in their own hearts and dying with him on the Cross in witness, martyrdom, of his great love for mankind by which he has slain the bitter dragon of death, the last enemy, in his holy resurrection.

This is why the Church exalts the Cross. On it, God who is the Lord has revealed himself to us in the flesh, and from the Cross, in the glory of his holy resurrection and in the beauty of his holy Church, he calls to us who would call ourselves Christians to take up our cross, to die for his sake, to decrease that he might increase, and to follow him, to become his devoted disciples that we might become his faithful apostles, and bear witness in the martyrdom of the Church to the high calling that is ours as men and women created in the image of God. It is the destiny to become partakers of the divine nature, communicants of Life Eternal in the love of God the Father, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  Amen 

[1] Prov 4:23