31 Veneration of the Cross - March 30, 2008

Hebrews 4:14 – 15:6

Mark 8:34 – 9:1

This last Wednesday during the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, I was struck by these words of the first antiphon, taken from Psalm 132: “If your sons will keep my covenant and my testimony which I shall teach them, their sons also shall sit upon your throne forevermore.” Perhaps there are some like me who grew up with the idea that we must obey the commandments of God for no other reason than that God commands them. But I think that failure to understand why obedience to God’s commandments is vital leaves an empty space in our understanding of the Christian Faith in which the evil one can sow the seed of resentment, making us easier prey for the evil one’s suggestion that God gives commandments arbitrarily just so he can punish us.

On this Sunday in the middle of Great Lent when we bow down before Christ’s Cross and worship him and glorify his holy resurrection, let’s contemplate the meaning of Christ’s commandments in the light of the Cross. Perhaps we can fill our mind with a deeper understanding of the Christian Faith that will render us immune to the whisperings of the evil one.

When God created us in the beginning, he created us in his image. His image is not a thing; it is the Person of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This means that we were made to exist in the love of God. Our very nature is love, for God is love and to exist in God, in his Image, which is Christ, is to exist in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the force of this still hasn’t settled on you. God alone truly is. God alone possesses substantive being.[1] We do not exist in ourselves. We possess no being in ourselves. We exist only in God. Outside of God, we are dead in our trespasses, as St Paul writes.[2] We fall back into the dark emptiness of the abyss.

Now, the holy Scriptures say that God is love. If God alone truly exists, and if God is love, then love alone truly is. If we truly exist only in God, and if God is love, then we truly exist only in love. To love is truly to be; to be truly is to love. Not to love is to fall away from existence and into the dark abyss of nothingness.

God is love because he is Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God in three Persons. “The whole Father is completely in the whole Son and Spirit,” writes St Maximus the Confessor, “and the whole Son is completely in the whole Father and Spirit; and the whole Holy Spirit is completely in the whole Father and Son.”[3] This reveals love as personal communion, a union of lover and beloved. If God were one only and not many he would not be love for there would be no lover or beloved in God. Nor would reality be love if Father, Son and Holy Spirit were not at the same time one in essence, which is love. Then God, the ultimate reality, would be a misery of absolute aloneness, an impersonal collection of atomized individuals eternally isolated and alienated from each other.

Man is created in the image of God. That means that man in his one human nature is a communion of many human persons who truly exist not in themselves but only as they are in communion with the Holy Trinity, partaking of the divine nature as communicants of life eternal. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you,” the Lord says. That means that we are truly ourselves only when are in God, and we are in God only when we love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. This is the Law of God that all of his commandments express, it is the very principle of our nature and as such, it is that by which we are made to exist and to live.

The root of sin is self-love, says St Maximus. It is the origin and mother of evil.[4] The Scriptures say that all things were made by God’s Word, and apart from him nothing exists.[5] But what God creates is good; it is not evil. And what God creates is not empty or vain; it has being, not in itself but only as it exists in God. Self-love, then, as the root of evil, is the root of what does not truly exist. Through self-love, we have perverted the principle of our nature by turning away from the true being of God and towards non-existence. And if we have turned away from the true being of God, we have turned away from personal communion in love toward the empty aloneness of self-love. We have cut our single human nature into many pieces, says St Maximus, as many pieces as there are individuals. We are divided in will and purpose, constantly fighting against each other.[6] If we have turned away from God and his Law of love, we are no longer in God; and if we are not in God, we have fallen into the dark abyss of non-existence, the empty nothingness from which we were called out into being in the beginning.

God says to Adam and Eve after they had turned away from him by disobeying his commandment: you were taken from the dust. To the dust you shall return. Our return to dust shows that falling away from God leads to total disintegration. At the Fall, our soul died when it fell away from God’s Holy Spirit by which it had been made to live. And even as we live now in this worldly life, our bodies begin to fail until at death our soul is separated from our body and we are separated even from ourselves. Then even our body becomes separated from itself as it disintegrates into the dust.

As a symbol of accursedness and death, the Cross is a symbol of total disintegration. Therefore, when the Church brings out the Cross on this the third Sunday of Great Lent, she is setting before our eyes God the Word, fixed by the nails to the Cross, united to our accursedness and to our total disintegration in death. His outstretched arms, as the arms of God the Word, reach from end to end of the universe to embrace all the particles of our being that have disintegrated into dust. The blood and water that flow from his side and fall to the dust of the ground, because they are the blood and water of God the Word, moisten the dust with the living waters of his Holy Spirit, turning the dust that we have become once again into malleable clay; and, just as he did in the beginning on the Sixth Day, so also on Great and Holy Friday, the Sixth Day of the week, he fashions us from the clay with his outstretched arms and he molds us again into his own image and likeness. He makes us whole again and then he unites us by his grace to the love of God the Father through the communion of his Holy Spirit.

The Cross he transfigures into the Tree of Life. He himself becomes the life-living fruit that the Cross carries like a cluster of grapes full of life. Nailed to the Cross, he unites himself to our death and disintegration, and so he unites us to the very principle of our nature: Christ himself, the Image of the invisible God in whom we were made according to the Law of divine love. Our death he transfigures into the death of the old man. Our tomb he transfigures into a bridal chamber that opens onto his holy resurrection and a joy in which we are made able to forgive all things and to call brother even those who hate us – in accordance with the principle of our being. Through the ascetic disciplines of the Church, we take up our cross and we crucify our self-love and its lustful desires to the Cross of Christ. Through our baptism, we are united to Christ in a death like his, and so we are united to his life-creating death and burial. United to Christ, what dies in us is the old man. What disintegrates into dust is the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud. But we are united to the Law of God’s love and so to the principle of our life and being. From the loving union of God with his bride, his holy Church, effected by his Incarnation, we are raised up from the dust of the ground, called out from the darkness of the tomb, and born from above as children of God, clothed in the radiant garment of his holy resurrection, called forth from the tomb like Lazarus to walk with Christ in newness of life in the way of his commandments. Now we see that these are not given arbitrarily at all. They are the steps by which we take up our cross and walk the better and changeless path that ascends to God in whom alone we move and have our being. The commandments of God are the shape of God’s life, the very principle and law of our nature, which is the law of divine love. “For the sake of love,” writes St Maximus, “all the saints resisted sin (self-love), not showing any regard for this present life. And they endured many forms of death, in order to be separated from the world (i.e. to be separated from separation and disintegration). United with themselves and with God, they joined together in themselves the broken fragments of human nature. For this is the true and undefiled theosophy of the faithful. Its consummation is goodness and truth that unites men to God and to one another.”[7]

“On that day,” the Savior says to his disciples in the Upper Room before his life-creating death, “you will know that I am in my Father and you in me, and I in you.” Here, the Savior reveals the principle of our being as the Law of personal communion in love. “He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me.” This is because the commandments of God are the shape of his own life, and by practicing them, we express our love of God. “He who loves me will be loved by my father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”[8] We, the Holy Trinity, will restore such a one to life in accordance with the principle and law of human nature, which exists truly only in the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

United to Christ, the Cross has been transfigured to become the emblem of Christ’s great humility and love by which he has united himself to our death and disintegration in order to raise us up again with himself and to establish us in himself, the Image of God, the Law of divine love, the principle of our nature. It is in this vision of the height and depth and breadth of divine love that has been revealed in Christ’s death on the Cross that we fall down before the Cross of Christ in worship and glorify his holy resurrection. The testimony of the saints tells us that we will see ever more deeply into this mystery of love as the very law, the inner essence, of our nature to the degree that we keep Christ’s commandments. And the more we see into the inner essence of our nature, the more we will find ourselves begging the Savior in our love for him to teach us his holy commandments so that by doing them, we can cleave to God and to our fellow human being in that mutual affection which is in accordance with the Law of God’s love, the very principle by which we were made to exist.[9] Amen.

[1] St Maximus, First Century on Theology 6, Philokalia II, p. 115.

[2] Ephesians 2:1

[3] 2nd Century on Theology 1, in Philokalia II, p. 137.

[4] 1st Century on Various Texts 33; Philo II, 172.

[5] Jn 1:3

[6] First Cent of Various Texts 35, Philo II, p. 172

[7] 1st Century on Various Texts 35, Philo II, p. 172.

[8] Jn 14:20-23

[9] 1st Century on Various Texts 46, Philo II 173-174.