Source: St. Herman Orthodox Church
Today, the Elevation of Christ’s Holy Cross, is the climax of the 40 day lenten period that began with the Feast of Holy Transfiguration on Aug 6, in which time we have passed over from death to life in the mystery of the Theotokos’ Dormition and her blessed Nativity as the “child, the daughter of God.”
The Cross that the Church exalts is an image or an icon of our human nature. The fathers of the Church liken the affixing of Christ to the Cross with the nails to the mystery of his Incarnation in which he is personally united to us. Understanding the Cross as an icon of our humanity, however, raises questions, which themselves open onto further insights that deepen our understanding of ourselves and what we are all about.
This morning, let’s look at this question. On the feast of Christmas, the Church marvels at the Virgin giving birth painlessly to God the Word. This means that it is natural for us to receive God and to become one with him. We were created in the image and likeness of God, which means that we have an affinity, even a kinship with God. Kinship and affinity are qualities of love and affection, so that our kinship and affinity with God means that to become one with God in the mystery of love and affection is not only painless but much more than that. It is “good, very good”: overflowing with joy and the ineffable thrill of being with the one you love. Union with God makes us “perfect”, whole, complete in overflowing satisfaction, because union with God fulfills our natural destiny. But the Cross certainly is not painless to the Savior; and if it represents our humanity, it suggests that he endured pain from the first moment he united himself to our humanity: at his conception in the womb of the Virgin. If becoming one with God is painless, natural, for us, how can it be painful, unnatural for God to become one with us? God is love so that for him to unite with us should not have been painful but even the greatest joy for God himself. How, then, did his union with us cause him the agony of the Cross?
The Cross is also set forth in the Church’s liturgical hymnody as the Tree of Life and Christ is the Fruit of the Tree of Life. Now, the Hebrew word to describe man as a living “soul” means more literally: “throat”. It presents man as a creature who must sustain himself by eating. Naturally, therefore, man will become whatever he eats. In the Garden, God commands man to eat from all the trees in the Garden, and this includes the Tree of Life. Only from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is man commanded not to eat, for on that day he will surely die, says the Lord.
Both trees in the Garden represent a certain kind of life. The tree of good and evil represents a life lived according to what we want. That means a life in which we are in effect eating ourselves: sustaining ourselves on our own wisdom and our own strength, and living by our own will.
The Tree of Life is the opposite of that. It represents a life in which we are eating God, partaking of the divine nature as St Peter writes. We are sustaining ourselves on the Wisdom and the Power of God, which is Christ, the Fruit of the Tree of Life. We are living according to God’s will and not our own, so that our will is to do the will of God. Eating from the Fruit of the Tree of Life which is Christ unites us with God and completes our nature that was made in the image of God and likeness of God. Indeed, we become so like God that we become God, not by nature but by grace, by eating God, eating his will, eating his life, eating his Wisdom and his Power, eating his uncreated Light, his uncreated Joy, his ineffable Goodness, so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us.
You can see from this that when we choose to eat from the tree of good and evil; i.e., when we choose every day, every hour, every moment to live according to our will, and to sustain ourselves on our own wisdom and our own strength, we are choosing to turn away from God, and that is unnatural to us; because we were made not in our own image and likeness but in the image and likeness of God. The principle of our nature is not enmity or even indifference to God but kinship and affinity, that is to say, love of God.
This tells us that if it was painful for God to become one with us, it was because he was assuming to himself a human nature that was infected by the poison of the forbidden tree, rendering human nature into a nature of self-love at enmity with God. This is unnatural to God as much as it is to us.
Perhaps now we can begin to understand why the Church exalts the blessed Virgin Theotokos as the “Deliverer from the sharp punishment of old, the restoration of our mother Eve, the cause of the reconciliation of our kind to God, the bridge that leads us to the Maker.” For, when the Theotokos said to the angel, “Be it done to me according to thy will,” she turned our humanity away from the fruit of the tree of good and evil and enmity with God, and back to the Fruit of the Tree of Life and the love of God. She turned it away from what was unnatural to us and to what was natural to us: love for God. This made it possible for God to enter into our diseased humanity without destroying it, for in the Theotokos, humanity lovingly received God and became one with God in love. The Church therefore understands that the healing of our nature, its restoration to the principle of its being in the love of God, began in the birth of the Theotokos and in her complete love for God; and it was completed when Christ died on the Cross in his great love for us.
Therefore, when we take up our Cross to follow Christ, we are taking up our own humanity that has been restored to its natural principle of love for God. In this, we find that the Cross is painless, full of joy and life-creating because it is our humanity living in the love of God, which is natural to us and which makes us “perfect”, whole and complete.
At the same time, we find that taking up our Cross is painful, as it was for Christ even from the moment of his conception in the womb of the blessed Virgin. For in taking up our Cross, we are confronting what is unnatural to us: the infection that has spread through our nature from the poison of the forbidden tree. This infection is hatred of God and it takes the form of the passions: gluttony, lust, anger, greed, envy, jealousy, vanity, pride and finally despair.
These passions are parasites that have fastened themselves to our nature, sucking the life out of us and making us weak and listless, indifferent to the beauty of the Holy Spirit and even hostile to God and his holy will for us. These passions are rooted out by the Holy Spirit of God as we voluntarily take up our Cross out of love for the Savior; i.e. as we take up our humanity that has been restored by Christ and the Theotokos in the love of God. We take up our cross through the ascetic disciplines of the Church: prayer, fasting, study of Holy Scripture and the doctrines of the Church, self-examination in the regular confession of our sins, and practicing the commandments of Christ. Taking up our cross, then, practicing the ascetic disciplines of the Church, is how we express our love for Christ in deed and not just in word, for as Christ says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If you love me, you will take up your cross and follow me. You will take up your humanity and give it no longer to the passions of the flesh and self-love but to me, doing what I have told you to do – which is to love one another as I have loved you.
When you come to Christ in his Holy Church, you are given your Cross – your own humanity – to take up. It is full of joy and agony: full of joy because it is your humanity restored to what is most natural to it, the love of God in which we are made perfect, whole, complete; full of agony because it is the bitter work of denying yourself, crucifying the passions of the flesh to the Cross and living no longer for yourself but for God. One simply cannot come to the Church without the Cross – without one’s own humanity, oneself. And when we enter into the Church through holy baptism, our salvation is not ended. It is begun. For in our baptism, we joined ourselves to the Theotokos and with her, we said no to the serpent (remember: you spat upon him, you challenged him to a fight – in Christ who is the power of God) and we said yes to God. We united ourselves to Christ in the likeness of his death and resurrection as Christ united himself to us, even to the point of sharing in our flesh and blood so that through his death in our humanity, he might destroy the power of him who held the power of death, the devil. He unites himself to us as he united himself to his Cross; and we are now called to unite ourselves to him by uniting ourselves to his Cross, to our humanity that has been make “perfect”, that has been deified through its union with Christ. We unite ourselves to Christ and to our own perfected humanity that is in him by taking up our Cross in the form of the ascetic disciplines of the Church. These have at their heart the love of Christ, and their end is to crucify our love for the fruit of that forbidden tree and to eat the Fruit of the Tree of Life, sustaining ourselves no longer on our own will, our own wisdom, our own strength, but on the will, the Wisdom and the Power of Christ God.
Salvation according to the way of Christ’s Holy Church is painful work; it is the agony of the Cross – the agony not only of our own suffering but also the agony that comes from seeing others suffer, especially those whose suffering comes from choosing to follow their own way and not the Way of Christ. But the way of Christ’s Cross is filled with light and joy because it is the Way of the love of Christ. In that love, we endure the agony of the Cross as Christ did: on behalf of all and for all and in the joy that is set before us in the love of the Father because of our union in love with Christ. It is the joy of being united to Christ in his holy resurrection, and having been made whole, complete, perfect in the love of God in accordance with our nature. Amen.