29 - The Triumph of the Cross, Mar 22, 2020

The Divine Liturgy on this day was served by nine appointed worshipers because of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For the sake of those who were not 'permitted' to 'come' to the 'visible Church' because of these restrictions, the recording this morning is of the entire Divine Liturgy to facilitate the 'coming' into the 'invisible Church of the heart'. There are two audio links: the first is of the Great Litany. I stopped the recording at the end of the Great Litany and then changed my mind and decided to record the whole Divine Liturgy. The second link, then, begins with the First Antiphon. The sermon itself begins at around 24:40 (24 minutes, 40 seconds).

For audio of Great Litany, click here

For audio of Divine Liturgy beginning at First Antiphon, click here  (Sermon begins at 24:40)

I believe it was on Thursday that the morning headlines for Minneapolis declared that we would be under siege by the coronavirus for 18 months. That same day, our assigned reading from Genesis was about the LORD shutting Noah and his family up in the ark for the duration of the flood. Over the last several days, governors state by state have begun issuing “shelter in place” orders. I can’t help but note that these orders are taking place in this third week, the middle of Great Lent when our assigned scripture readings are of Noah and his family being shut up in the ark. But, more than that, the coronavirus is raining all around us as we come to this middle Sunday, the third Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, what we call the Third Triumph of Orthodoxy.

This Third Triumph of Orthodoxy, the Triumph of the Cross, is the source of all the triumphs of the Church. It is the triumph of all triumphs for it is the triumph of God destroying death by His death.

How do we make sense of this? What is death, anyway, that it can be destroyed by the death of God? But, how can God die? This may be the profoundest riddle of the mystery of God hidden from the ages, the mystery of Christ in you (Col 1.26-27).

We are given to understand death as separation from God. If God is love, then, to be separated from God, to be dead, is to be cut off from love. This, perhaps, gives force to what we heard last night at the Vespers service, that ‘the Savior saves us from the torments of hell.’ What would be those torments of hell in terms we can understand? Would they not be the torment of absolute loneliness, of being cut off from all love and the Source of love, God the Holy Trinity? When God, then, becomes flesh and dwells among us, He ‘finishes’ His union with us by descending into death, the ‘place’ where we are separated from Him and tormented by our loneliness.

I am inclined to believe that when He is ‘forsaken’ by the Father is the moment He died on the Cross. For, at the moment we generally take to be the LORD’s death, none of the Evangelists say that the LORD ‘died’. They all say in one way or another that He ‘sent forth’ or ‘breathed out’ His Spirit—like Noah sending forth the dove from the ark. And so, when He is forsaken by the Father and dies, now He is absolutely one with us. We are not lonely anymore, because precisely in our loneliness, God is with us.

But, here is where the ‘riddle’ of this epiphany of the Cross breaks, or rather shatters the mind. The LORD Jesus Christ is of one essence with the Father, Light from Light, true God from true God. How can God be forsaken by God? How can God die?

Might we find the answer to the riddle in 1 Jn (4.8&16)? Every one of you, I wager, can apprehend it immediately even as you cannot comprehend it: ‘God is love.’ To our heart it is self-evident that love is not of a ‘what’ but of a ‘who’. Not a single one of you can tell me who someone is without reducing the ‘who’ you’re trying to tell me about to ‘what’ he or she is. ‘He’s got blonde hair; she’s short, she’s tall and thin; he has a nice sense of humor, and so forth.’ You can’t tell me ‘who’ someone is. You succeed only in telling me ‘what’ they are or ‘what’ they are like. Whenever we try to speak of anyone, we lose him or her to ‘what’ he or she is. If this is true with created persons, is it not even more true with the uncreated God? We cannot speak of God without losing Him as soon as we open our mouth, for we know God not in His essence, His what, but in His Who’s as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We cannot know God until we grow still and get beneath the masks of ‘what’ we are, and present ourselves to God in our heart, in ‘who’ we are; for, the heart,” says the prophet, “is the man!” (Jer 17.9 LXX)

When the LORD cries out, quoting from the Psalmist: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me!” Ps 23.1) we may be hearing the ultimate mystery of the Savior’s self-emptying (Phil 2.5). For, why did God the Father forsake His own only-begotten Son? Was it not out of His love for us? The LORD ‘lost’ His Father that He might gain us by becoming absolutely one with us ‘inside’ of us, all the way down to where we are in the darkness of hell, separated from God, in the pit of our absolute loneliness. He was forsaken by His Father out of love, which ‘by nature’ is not separation but communion. When He was forsaken by God on the Cross, He did not stop loving Him, nor did the Father stop loving Him. And so, by His separation from God in love, a separation He received in His love for us, He healed our separation. He destroyed our death and so He illumined our darkness, our separation from God, our loneliness, because He filled it with Himself, the God-Man.

I don’t know that a ‘what’ could accomplish something so illogical! By the standards of ‘what,’ this is contrary to nature. But, by the standards of ‘who,’ it is absolutely according to nature. How do you even understand what I’m trying to say if you are hearing me with your mind and not with your heart?

So, when we say that the Cross is the triumph of the Church, let us understand that we’re not talking of the Church as a religious organization or institution governed by a commonly held ‘belief-system,’ for the Church is not a what. The Church as it, is the Body of Christ; the Church as she, is the Bride of Christ. Whether we speak of the Church as the Body or as the Bride of Christ, she is one with the uncreated WORD and Son of God. For, even as Christ’s Body, which we think of as a ‘what,’ she is of Christ who is not ‘what’ but Who. As the Body of Christ, the Church is the communion of the divine uncreated persons, the uncreated Who’s of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with us, created persons, created who’s, in the tomb of our heart that He transfigured into the bridal chamber.

And so, we have come on this third Sunday of Great Lent to the supreme Theophany—the supreme manifestation or revelation of God. It is the Theophany of the Cross. We come to this supreme Theophany of the Cross at the same time that the flood of this pandemic is beginning to cover the earth. Like Noah and his family shut up in the ark, we are being ‘shut up’ in our homes to ride out the flood.

So, what I want to say is that if the Church is not a ‘what’ but the communion of the ‘Who’ of God with the ‘who’ of us, if the Church is the love of God manifested supremely on the Cross, then the worldly circumstance that prevents us from coming to the visible Church in no way prevents us from coming into the invisible Church of our heart. We can ‘redeem’ this time if we use it to find the Cross, the love of God in our heart, to discover ‘who’ we are as children of God. Let us now understand that the Cross is the material emblem of the immaterial love of God that fills the earth. That’s why we venerate the Cross, why we kiss it. We are venerating, kissing the ‘body’ of God’s love. It’s not at all unlike me kissing my wife. Her body is the visible form of ‘who’ she is. My body is the material form of who I am. When I hug her body, I’m hugging her. Our bodies are revealing their true nature, perhaps we can say; they are the material images of the Cross or of the love of our heart for each other.

“Be diligent to enter the chamber within you (your heart, Mt 6.6),” says St Isaac of Nineveh, “and you will see the Chamber of Heaven; for these are one and the same, and with one entry you will behold them both. The ladder of the Kingdom (this is the Cross; the love of God for you and your soul’s innate love for God) is within you, hidden in your soul. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend.”

Plunge deeply within yourself, let’s say, away from selfishness, away from greed, away from envy, the essence of sin; and, if you are single, find your love for beauty and goodness, or rather, for God, the Source of all beauty and goodness your soul loves and is looking for. If you are married, find your heart’s love for your spouse, your children, your mom and dad in whom the love of God can become incarnate. The holy ascetics counsel us to remember our death. It occurs to me that it might be good for us to remember the death of our spouse, our children, our mom and dad, our grandpa and grandma. For, when they die, will we not feel viscerally how profoundly we love them? Indeed, will we not discover that our love for them is who we are?

Do not forsake the reading, even the study, of Scripture, of the holy fathers and mothers of the Church, the lighting of your candles before your icons and saying the prayers of the Church; for, these are suffused with the Spirit of God, the love of God, that Christ sent forth from His Cross; and with divine instruction in the love of God.

In this, even though we cannot come to the visible Church, we can still come into the being of God Himself by ‘plunging deeply’ into the invisible Church of our heart by living in the ark of our home in the love of God. Live in the love of the world and I think we’ll go stir-crazy rather quickly. Live in the love of God, and we will be preparing ourselves for when Noah lifts the cover of the ark, and we are now allowed to come out again to enjoy God’s creation in thanksgiving, in Holy Eucharist. Amen!