25 - Third Sunday of Great Lent. The Cross, March 15, 2015

Hebrews 4:14-5:6

Mark 8:34-9:1

Having come to the Sunday of the Cross we have come to the heart of the Gospel, and we hear Christ say to us: “Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.” Such good news is in this command! We ask the LORD to help us crucify our own understandings of it and bring us in our contemplation this morning to catch a glimpse of it.

Christ became flesh and assumed our human nature corrupted by sin and so He was subject to death, like we are. But, though He assumed our human nature, He was not conceived in sins, like we are. For, He became flesh not by the seed of man but of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. So, the LORD did not know sin and He was subject to death because He freely chose to be subject to death by His own choice out of His love for mankind. He “who knew no sin became sin for us.” (II Cor 5:21)

Therefore, the evil one, as Christ says, “has no power over Me.” (Jn 14:30) His death was wholly voluntary. He says to Pilate: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” (Jn 19:11) And, He says to His disciples: “I lay down my life for the sheep…that I may take it again.” (Jn 10:15&17)

He says to the Jews: “I seek not my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me,” (Jn 5:30) And so, He emptied Himself and humbled Himself and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8)

This brings us to a very fine theological point: the LORD Jesus partakes of the same human nature that is ours.” (Heb 2:14) But, it has a different character than ours for He is not conceived in sins as we are. He knows no sin and so the devil has no power over Him. So also, then, His death has a different character than our death. His death is voluntary; ours is involuntary. Our death is the consequence of our disobedience. His death is the ultimate act of His obedience to the Father.

Our death destroys us. Christ’s death on the Cross destroys the death that destroys us and gives life to those in the tombs! So, ours is a life-destroying death; His is a life-creating death. Our death is the end. Christ’s death on the Cross is the Beginning in which all things were made! God giving Himself up on the Cross is the Theophany that all other Theophanies point to. It reveals the height, the depth, the breadth and the width of the inexpressible love (Rom 8:39) of God.

I think this brings us to another very fine theological point: for it is His body that is raised from the dead, not ours, and so the world is re-created in His Body, not ours.

 “’It is finished,’” He cries, “and He inclined His head and delivered (paradidomi) up His Spirit.” (Jn 19:30) …To whom did He deliver His Spirit? To the Father (“Into Thy hands, O LORD, Father of Truth, I commend My Spirit,” Ps 30:6 LXX). But listen to St Paul: “For I received from the LORD Jesus what I delivered paradidomi) to you, that on the night He was betrayed (or delivered, same word), He took bread…” (I Cor 11:23) What did St Paul receive from the LORD? He received the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ.

The LORD said to His disciples: “When I go away, I will send the Comforter (the Spirit) to you.” (Jn 16:7)

When we receive Holy Eucharist, we receive the Body and Blood of the LORD that was conceived of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and that was raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit. And, this is the Spirit that we receive when we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ: “We have seen the True Light! We have received the Heavenly Spirit!” This is the Spirit whom the LORD Jesus delivered over to the Father on the Cross, that He sent to His disciples after He had “gone away”, or ascended, and that St Paul delivered to those who believe when he gave them what he had received from the LORD, “That on the night He was betrayed…He took bread.. .and said, ‘This is my Body.’”

Having received from the Chalice of Christ’s Holy Church, we have this treasure in earthen vessels; it is the precious and most pure Body and Blood of Christ that was conceived of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, that knew no sin, that was raised from the dead, that ascended in glory and is even now seated at the Right Hand of the Father. Or, as St Paul says, the treasure is the “death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies.” (II Cor 4:10)

And, when we deny ourselves and take up our cross – i.e. the ascetic disciplines of the Church, “the flower of abstinence that grows for all the world from the tree of the Cross” (Lenten Triodion, p. 230) (i.e., all who want to may take up their cross and follow the LORD) – a most wonderful transfiguration takes place in us! Christ’s Holy Spirit, the power of the Cross, becomes active in us. “While we live,” says St Paul, “we are always being given up to death.” (II Cor 4:11) That is, we are subject to death involuntarily. But, when we deny ourselves and take up our cross for the sake of Christ, our involuntary dying becomes voluntary; for, we are freely choosing to put to death what is earthly in us: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, wrath, malice, slander, foul talk (Col 3:5-8). Then, as “our outer man wastes away,” or, as this body of death and the law of sin that dwells in its members (Rom 7:23-24) disintegrates (diaftheiro) back to the dust, as St Paul says, “our inner man is being renewed daily.” (II Cor 4:16) While we are being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, the life of Jesus is being manifested in our mortal flesh (II Cor 4;11) because, I would say, our dying, the manifestation of our disobedience, becomes the manifestation of our obedience to the commandments of Christ; and, by the power and operation of the Holy Spirit that we have received, the Body of Christ that we receive in Holy Eucharist grows in us even as we return to the dust of the ground, and increases in us in wisdom and stature, even as we decrease (Jn 3:30), and in favor with God and man. (Lk 2:52)

Beloved faithful, the Cross is the “Door of Heaven,” as we learn from the prayers of the Church’s liturgical texts. But, so is the Theotokos; and, so is Christ! (Jn 10:9) And we see all three on Golgotha. I believe we are not at all unfaithful to the Gospel to suggest that the “door” is the inexpressible tenderness of the Theotokos’ love for her Son and of the LORD for His Holy Mother as He “delivers” His Spirit to the Loving Father in His love for mankind. 

Beloved faithful! We give up nothing when we take up the Cross of the Great Fast! Or rather, we give up the nothing of a life without meaning, a life of involuntary dying that dissolves love and renders it pointless. For, when we deny ourselves and take up our cross for the sake of Christ and His Holy Gospel, we receive the death of the LORD Jesus, which is the death of death and the beginning of life in Christ in the love of God that abides forever. We gain our soul in the love of God in which she came to be and that she yearns for. This is the Beginning in which all things were made revealed perfectly and completely in God dying on the Cross that we might live. This love of God was incarnate, it became flesh in the tender love of Christ and His Holy Mother and it is incarnate, it becomes flesh in us as we deny ourselves and take up our cross for the sake of Christ, putting to death what is earthly in us every day as the Body of Christ, this treasure that we have received in our earthen vessels, becomes more and more manifest in our mortal flesh and the inner man, our real self, is renewed day by day as we ascend the better and changeless path to the Holy Resurrection of Christ our God. Amen!