Hebrews 4.14 – 5.6
Mark 8.34 – 9.1
What were we doing when we bowed before the image of the Cross a few moments ago? The hymn we sang tells us: “Before Thy Cross, we bow down and worship, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify!” Bowing before the image of the Savior’s Cross, we were bowing before the LORD Jesus Christ who is invisibly present in His Holy Resurrection.
The image of the Savior’s Cross can be seen with the bodily eyes; but it is constituted of a spiritual substance that cannot be seen with the bodily eyes. In its spiritual substance, the Cross we see is one with the Cross on Golgotha on which the LORD God was lifted up from the earth and drew all men to Himself. The Cross we can see is but the outward, visible form of the mystery of the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13.8).
“Christ is in our midst!” we proclaim to each other. “He is and ever shall be!” is the reply. We believe that we are in the presence of the LORD Jesus Christ risen bodily from the dead, and that His invisible presence is made visible to us in the image of the Cross set before us.
The Image or Icon is not an idol. An idol is a false god (and it’s a different word altogether from ‘icon’). An idol can be a physical object, a mental concept, a spiritual love, anything that we give our love to that is not the living God. Jesus Christ Himself is the Image, the Icon, of God (Col 1.15; 2 Cor 4.4). To venerate the Icon of Christ, to bow down before the image of His Cross, is not to worship an idol at all – for none of this is of a false god. The image of Christ’s Cross proclaims what this world is all about: God becoming flesh as the Son of Man in order to ascend the Cross and to destroy death by His death, so that man might become an immortal spirit, the child of God, restored to his original destiny and beauty as an image of God’s own eternity (Wisd 2.23).
On the Cross, God consummated His union with us. He shared in our death and in our being forsaken by the Father. The Christ we see nailed to the Cross in the Church’s images of the Cross is the only-begotten God who knew no sin, but who became sin for us (2 Cor 5.21), so that through His obedience to the Father even to the point of death on the Cross, He could heal our being forsaken by the Father, and destroy the death and corruption (Heb 2.14-15) that are the consequence of our disobedience and our idolatry. Do you see the wonder, the beauty of the mystery of the Cross? The Image of God, Jesus Christ, unites Himself to His image, man, through the Holy Virgin, that He might destroy our idolatry and fill our corruption and death with Himself, He Who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life. Through the Cross, He restores us to our original beauty. He unites us to the Father; and He transfigures our dying and our death into the way by which we can become flesh of His flesh, bone of His bones, partakers of His own divine nature, communicants of Life eternal, children of Light, children of God.
Bowing before the image of the Savior’s Cross, I think we but give visible, physical expression to what we would do if the eyes of our soul were not blinded by our worldliness and we could see the spiritual reality that is the substance of the Cross. I think we would be unable to stand up. Our souls would be so struck with fear and wonder that we would have no words, and we would fall to the ground spontaneously before the LORD Jesus Christ, Our Great God and Savior, whose Glory and Majesty shines with terrible brilliance in His extreme humility revealed on His Cross!
This is the invisible spiritual reality set before us this morning in the visible veneration of the Savior’s Cross. Surely the soul that begins to see it, and to feel it, would begin to feel the love of her heart waking up to a visceral longing to deny herself and to lose her life, this false life that ends in death and is filled with corruption, that she may find herself in the true Life of the Image of God, Jesus Christ. Would she not receive with joy the teaching of her LORD on how to deny herself and to lose her life that she might find herself in Christ and not in the corruption that is in this world through lust, through idolatry? Take up your cross, the LORD says: that is, take up the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting in order to put to death all that is earthly in you; that is, to put to death all of your idolatry, manifested in lust, in greed, in anger, envy, vanity and pride – that you may be restored to your original beauty as an image created in the Image of God, Jesus Christ, made to be a partaker of the divine nature, a communicant of life eternal as a child of God, a child of light. Amen!
Behold the Bridegroom comes at Midnight!’ Midnight is that ‘instant’ when, ‘in the twinkling of an eye,’ (1 Cor 15.52) the old passes away and the ‘dead are raised incorruptible, and we are changed.’ This change doesn’t just happen. It happens because the Bridegroom comes at Midnight and consummates His union with us, the children of flesh and blood, in the ‘bridal chamber.’ But the Church shows the Bridegroom consummating His union with us in the tomb. For there, having shared in our conception and birth through His Virgin Mother (Gal 4.4), He now shares in our death (Heb 2.14) in the flesh He received from Her, and it is in that instant that ‘we are changed.’
We find the divine mystery of Midnight, then, in the bridal chamber; and we find the bridal chamber in that ‘point’ in our inner man where we are dead. The bridal chamber, that is to say, is found in our heart, ‘for the real death is within, in the heart, and is concealed, and it is the inner man that perishes.’ [Macarius Hom XV.39, 125]
If the bridal chamber is in the heart, then it is in our true ‘self’; for ‘the heart is deep, beyond all things, and it is the man.’ [Jer 17.9] In the bridal chamber, then, we come upon our true self as the image of God. In this image, we yearn to attain to the likeness of God. And this character of the imago Dei which, as Origen wrote, constitutes our very essence, itself reveals that, by nature, we yearn to be one with the Bridegroom in the bridal chamber of our heart; but if Christ is Himself the Image of God in whom we came to be and in whom we move and have our being, then we are given to see that the bridal chamber of our heart comes to be and has its essence and movement from outside itself, in ekstasis, in the Bridal Chamber of the LORD Jesus Christ our God and Savior.
Illumined by the light of this doctrine of the Church, we begin to know ourselves. We see that the essential movement of our heart is the erotic yearning to belong not to ourselves but to the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight.
And so, when the mind that has caught the fragrance of the Bridegroom in its heart learns that the Bridegroom is coming at Midnight, it rouses itself. It hastens to descend into the bridal chamber of the heart to cry out: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God! Through the Theotokos, have mercy on me!’ For the soul, if she only knows about God in her head, she is still dead and her heart is still stone. The soul who longs to live is the soul who longs to know God directly; but ‘there is no direct knowledge of God without an exceedingly great love, and such love does not come from the head. It must come from the heart.’ [Art of Prayer 20] And so the soul hastens to descend with her mind into the bridal chamber of her heart, for she longs to receive Him and to cleave to Him, to become bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh, so that it is no longer she who lives but the Bridegroom who lives in her.
And the Bridegroom comes. He comes to us in our own flesh and blood through the woman [Gal 4.4]. He comes to us in the Bridal Chamber of the All-Holy Virgin’s sacred womb, in the inmost sanctuary of His Living Temple. Knitting Her pure blood into the ‘schema,’ the ‘garment’ of man [Phil 2.8], He clothed Himself in our flesh and blood and was no more ashamed to call us ‘brethren.’ [Heb 2.11]
And when the soul darkened and weighed down by her many sins, learns that He has come into the ‘house’ [Lk 7.37ff.] of her own flesh and blood [Heb 2.14], she comes to Him with an alabaster jar of perfume, and she stands behind Him weeping. She wets His pure feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. She kisses them, she pours perfume on them, and through her tears, she prays to Him softly: ‘Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior; but I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul and save me!’
And the Savior, ‘spellbound as it were by goodness, love and longing, relinquishes His utter transcendence’ [St Maximos Philo 281] to the point of death on the Cross. Partaking of our death, the Bridegroom breathes out His Spirit on the Cross [exepneusen, Lk 23.46] and destroys the death that separated us from His love in the bridal chamber of our heart;’ [Heb 2.14-15, Rom 8.39]. His Body was ‘placed in the tomb,’ the Tomb was ‘changed’ into the Bridal Chamber, ‘and the Sabbath dawned,’ says St Luke [epephosken, Lk 23.54]. And in the Bridal Chamber of the LORD’s Tomb, the soul was enlightened, and the heart that before was a tomb sealed off by a stone was ‘changed’ in that instant into a bridal chamber and into a heart of flesh, a living heart!
The wedding garment? It is Christ Himself, whose Light we put on when we were raised from the Font, having united ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection. Can you see, then, that the Baptismal Font is the bridal chamber? And can you see that the Bridal Chamber is the Church? For the Church is Christ’s Body that He received from the pure blood of the Virgin, and in this Body, we are fashioned anew as children of God in the mystery of His Sabbath Rest, in the Tomb of our death that has received the Body of Him Who Is the Resurrection and the Life. When we pursue the Bridegroom in the baptismal Font, we receive His Seed into our dead, stony heart, and in that instant, our heart is ‘changed’ into a heart of flesh, a living heart; and we are ‘changed’ from children of blood born of the desires of the flesh into children of God born from above in the Love of the Holy Spirit.
From an ancient Christian text, we come upon this ancient biblical rubric of the Church: ‘By striving in the visible Church, we enter the invisible Church of the heart and the invisible Church of Heaven.’ (Liber Graduum XII) In the coming week, on the loom of this biblical rubric, we will weave the sights, sounds, movements, smells, all the elements of creation, both visible and invisible, into a wedding garment that can be seen, heard, smelled, and touched with the bodily senses. Who would not want to be clothed in this wedding garment who has caught the fragrance of the Bridegroom? For ‘He is the Beautiful and the Good whom all things seek at every opportunity, and there is no being who does not participate in Him, and He attracts the [erotic] desire of all who are drawn towards Him, and He thirsts to be thirsted for, He longs to be longed for, and He loves to be loved!’ [Philo II 280-81]
And if we would clothe the hidden man of the heart with the death of Christ made visible for us in the rites of Holy Week, then would we come invisibly into that ‘Midnight’ when the Bridegroom comes, and we are changed. We become like the children with the palms of victory. They are the emblems of the Cross of Christ our King. And on Pascha Night, we follow, mystically, our King who goes forth from the Tomb like a Bridegroom in procession. He is raising us from our graves and bringing us to our own land into the Jerusalem on high as His prophets foretold. [Eze 37.13-14]
For, if we have received into the bridal chamber of our heart, in the sacramental mysteries of the Church, the Seed of the ‘heavenly man,’ then we carry the Bridegroom’s death in our mortal body. [2 Cor 4.10] That is, we carry the Bridegroom’s love in our body—for His death is the supreme manifestation, the final Incarnation of His extreme humility and compassion in which He created the world, and in which He recreated it when we had fallen. And if we tend that Seed and cultivate it through the ascetical disciplines of the Church, the Cross of Christ the Church gives us to take up if we want to follow Him—for they are the ‘flower of abstinence that grows from the wood of His Cross’ [LT 231]—then yearning for the Bridegroom begins to grow in us into a tree of life, and love for the Bridegroom begins to reign in our mortal bodies. We tend that Seed by taking up the ascetical disciplines of the Church, our cross, our ‘palm of victory.’ By the Grace of the Holy Spirit that shines in them, we strive to be obedient to sin and its carnal desires no more. We strive to lose our life for His sake; that is, in our love for the Bridegroom, we now present our bodies to Him as instruments of righteousness and no more to sin as instruments of unrighteousness. [Rm 6.12-13] Now the Bridegroom’s death is swallowing our death; now our mortal and perishable bodies are putting on the immortal and imperishable ‘wedding garment’ of the Bridal Chamber; now the Life of the Bridegroom begins to manifest itself even now in our mortal bodies [2 Cor 4.10]. It manifests itself in the hope that begins to form in us from the Seed of God’s love poured out into our hearts in the Bridal Chamber of His Holy Church. This is a real and living hope; and it is the pledge of our inheritance, which is our own land that is not of this world. It is the kingdom of heaven with all its glorious riches, found through the doors of Midnight in the deep, beyond all things, in our deep heart, in the mystery of the bridal chamber. Amen!