Friday, September 14, 2007

Taking Up the Cross

At last night’s Liturgy for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Bishop Thomas once again exhorted us to take up our cross, reminding us that there can be no resurrection without the cross.

In just three weeks I will literally be taking up my cross. Not a big wooden one, but a small silver one, which my sponsor will place around my neck as part of my Chrismation. Last night I began perusing the collection of crosses at Gallery Byzantium in order to come up with some suggestions for my sponsor. I quickly narrowed it down to twelve and hope to reduce the list to five for my sponsor’s consideration.

The Chrismation itself will also involve the sign of the cross. The priest will anoint me with chrism (holy oil), making the sign of the cross on my brow, eyes, nostrils, lips, both ears, breast, both hands, and both feet (I’ll be barefoot). With each anointing he will recite, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” and the congregation will respond, “Seal!”

I thought today would be an appropriate time to share some thoughts on the Cross. The following passage about the Cross appears without attribution on various Roman Catholic Websites:

The Cross – because of what it represents – is the most potent and universal symbol of the Christian faith. It has inspired both liturgical and private devotions: for example, the Sign of the Cross, which is an invocation of the Holy Trinity; the “little” sign of the cross on head, lips, and heart at the reading of the Gospel; praying the Stations of the Cross; and the Veneration of the Cross by the faithful on Good Friday by kissing the feet of the image of Our Savior crucified. Placing a crucifix in churches and homes, in classrooms of Christian Schools and in other institutions, or wearing this image on our persons, is a constant reminder – and witness – of Christ’s ultimate triumph, his victory over sin and death through his suffering and dying on the Cross.

If you’re Orthodox, chances are you’ve already seen the following meditation on the Cross, written by the Rev’d Marc Boulos of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Mission, Eagan, MN, on the September page of your calendar, next to the icon of the Elevation of the Precious and Life Giving Cross:

Death is the source of absolute human power. Civilization is predicated on the fear of death. Every sin committed by human beings is derived from this fear. When we sin, as our monastic tradition tells us, we are running from our own death, trying to convince ourselves that the inevitable does not apply to us.

In contrast, in obedience to the Law of Moses, Jesus chose to face his death on the Cross. He did not make this choice because of false hope in a happy ending, or because his death was not real or painful. Jesus did so, simply, to show us that real love, biblical love – the love of the Cross – is only possible when we refuse to fear death; when we refuse to give in to it, or to engage in it.

In his letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul writes that “through death” Jesus destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” in order to deliver “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

When the Lord Jesus refused to defend himself on the Cross, he destroyed Satan’s power. He revealed to the world that Satan cannot control or manipulate someone who is willing to freely give his life for the sake of others. This is the freedom of the Gospel, openly shared by those who accept the crucified Lord as their king.

Death, as we hear on Pascha, “took a body, and met God face to face. It took that which was seen, and was overcome by what it could not see.” To underscore this point, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, we elevate as the symbol of Christ’s victory, the very instrument of His murder.

Those of us who claim accountability to the crucified Jesus, and who claim to be members of his church, are accountable to proclaim his death: to proclaim the way he died and to proclaim his victory over the same. The Feast of the Exaltation, celebrated at the beginning of the liturgical year, is a powerful reminder that our entire cycle of worship and everything that we trust as Orthodox Christians, revolves around this proclamation.

In a recent episode of The Illumined Heart Podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, the guest was Dr. Joel B. Green of Asbury Theological Seminary, co-author of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts. While the interview mostly dealt with theologies of the Atonement, Dr. Green also discussed the scandal in the book’s title. It is hard for us, in our modern Western cultural context, to grasp what was so scandalous about the Cross in the context of pre-Christian Mediterranean culture. In that culture, centered on the concepts of honor and shame, the Romans had designed crucifixion not just to kill or torture their enemies, but to humiliate them and discredit them with their own honor-obsessed peoples. The victim of crucifixion is displayed naked, powerless, and defeated for his community to witness.

It is therefore amazing that Christians took the Cross as their symbol. In doing so, they were making a radical counter-cultural statement, mocking the claims of the state to control their lives and their honor with its constant threats of death and humiliation. By bearing the symbol of death, they were defying the culture of death that it represented. Contemplating this, I am eager to take up my cross.

Interfax recently reported that a Christian group in Kenya, which calls itself Friends of Jesus, had petitioned the country’s high court to declare Jesus’ crucifixion illegal. One member said: “We need the court to clarify, for the record, that Jesus was not a criminal. He advocated for the rule of law. Do you mean to worship a convicted criminal?” It would appear that this group rejects the scandal of the Cross and wants to make their religion more respectable by worldly standards.

Today is also, appropriately, the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Cyprian in 258. I took the following passage from this month’s edition of The Tilma (#192), the newsletter of the Ward of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Dallas chapter of the Society of Mary.

When the second edict was issued, condemning Christian clergy to immediate death, Cyprian was returned to Carthage to face [Governor] Paternus’ successor, Galerius Maximus. Because Maximus was ill when Cyprian arrived, he was taken to the home of the chief gaoler where he was treated as a house-guest until the trial. When Cyprian and Maximus met, the meeting was again very congenial. Maximus began by asking if Cyprian was Thascius Cyprianus.

MAXIMUS: Have you allowed yourself to be called “father” of persons holding sacrilegious opinions.
MAXIMUS: The most sacred emperors order you to sacrifice.
CYPRIAN: I will not sacrifice.
MAXIMUS: Consider your own interests.
CYPRIAN: Do what is required.

Galerius Maximus then, regretfully, condemned Cyprian to death by the sword, to which Cyprian replied, “Thanks be to God!”

Accompanied by a large throng of people, Cyprian was led to a field near the home of someone named Sextons. His followers laid clothes and napkins near his feet. Cyprian turned to them and ordered that the executioner should be paid twenty-five pieces of gold. He then attempted to blindfold himself, but had difficulty tying the knot behind his head, so he was aided by a fellow Christian.

Cyprian’s body was laid on the ground in display to satisfy the curiosity of the pagans. But it was retrieved that night and carried in a procession replete with tapers and torches to its final resting place. Galerius Maximus died a short time later.

Cyprian and his flock show us that when one takes up the Cross, one abandons the fear of death. For those who have already died with Christ in baptism, death holds no power.

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