Hello. I’m Sister Vassa, and I’m glad you’re watching our award-winning show live from Vienna in Austria. It is now the fourth week of Lent, which means we have now reached the very middle of Lent, and it is a beautiful spring morning here in Vienna. [Cat Steven sings “Morning Has Broken”]
By the way, some people around here have been saying that I shouldn’t call this an “award-winning” show just because these trophies here were won for table tennis. Yes, my personal trainer, Edeltraut, and David, from the sound department, did indeed win these beautiful trophies for table tennis at the local table tennis club. Now, some people can’t see how that makes this an award-winning show, but I don’t know what to say to that. One of us wins a trophy: we all win a trophy. But what can you do?
Anyway, speaking of trophies, this week of Lent, the fourth week, begins with the Sunday of the Cross, that you see behind me today, and in Byzantine hymnography, the Cross is often called the trophy or the invincible trophy, aēttēton tropaion. It is a symbol of triumph. But, let’s face it: the cross actually is connected to many popular misconceptions. For non-Christians, it often seems just like a brutal or bizarre story, the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, but even for many Christians, I think, there are misconceptions and misunderstandings.
I think [there are] silent questions about Christ’s death on the cross. For example, when we hear the phrase that Christ died “for our sins,” then perhaps we don’t quite understand how that worked. And then we hear another phrase often, that the cross “opened the gates of paradise,” which were shut to human beings to human beings previously because of their sins, beginning with the sin of Adam and Eve, who were told by God that they would die if they ate from the tree of knowledge, but as you know they did go ahead and eat from the tree of knowledge and were banished for this sin from paradise and died.
We are told that Christ’s death on the cross somehow remedied this tragedy. This might also be a puzzling concept for several reasons. Today, we will talk about two unpleasant topics that I think lie at the heart of the confusion about the cross. One is the topic of death and what it means, and two—sin. Let’s see how the cross sheds light on both these unpleasant areas of our existence. [Transition music]
First of all, let’s talk about death. What is death? There are actually various forms and degrees of death. Basically, death is a separation of the soul and body. It is a collapse of the unity that makes us whole human beings, because being human means being as we were created, as body and soul. Adam and Eve, and all of us, were given the potential to always have the whole of human existence, the complete unity of soul and body, which is what human life is.
The source of this life was the One who breathed it into them: God. His breath, his Spirit, is who gives us life and sustains the wholesome unity of our being. It is the unique vocation or calling of human beings to foster and maintain a vibrant connection with God in the Holy Spirit who not only keeps us whole and maintains the full harmony of our being, of soul and body, but this connection makes us channels of the Spirit for all creation.
Now, when we separate ourselves from this source of life, from God who makes us whole, we bring our own selves into disharmony; body and soul begin to be in discord, and this is the beginning of death. We thus neglect our original vocation, our original calling, to remain in the Holy Spirit in connection with God. We thus misuse our potential to be channels of the Holy Spirit because, like Adam and Eve, we turn away from our actual source of life and turn to self-affirmation. In other words, we want to do our own thing. We want to be our own gods in isolation from our Creator. So we miss the whole point of our existence, because God did not create us to be isolated but to live in communion with him and in harmony with all creation.
When we thus miss the point of our existence, this is called “sin,” which in Greek is “amartia,” which literally means “missing the mark.” Now, sin leads to death because it separates us from the Source of life, from the One who maintains the wholesome unity of our existence. This is why we are in need of salvation, which in Greek is “sōtēria,” which literally means “recovery” or “a safe return.”
[Chime: “Thought for Today”]
Now let’s talk about Christ’s voluntary death on the cross—and it was voluntary; he didn’t have to do it. He does it out of compassionate love for us and perfect obedience to and love for the Father. And the Father doesn’t send his only-begotten Son to die out of some desire to satisfy his own wrath against us. No, he sends his only-begotten Son, for he so loved the world and could not bear to have this continuous suffering through the cycle of sin and death continuing in humankind.
Christ’s voluntary death on the cross fundamentally changed this cycle of sin and death. Why did it change it? Not because someone who was innocent died, but because the God-man died. He is perfect man and perfect God. So on the one hand he entirely shared our human nature and our human death, having become one of us, but on the other hand, Christ is perfect God; he is the source of eternal life. “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” he says to Martha. And according to his divinity, which is inseparable from his humanity even in death, it was not possible for death to hold him, as the Apostle Peter mentions in the Book of Acts.
Christ willfully subjected himself to the separation of soul and body in death, but his psychosomatic unity, the unity of body and soul in him, was ultimately indestructible, and it couldn’t collapse, because of his divine purity and perfect obedience. In the mystery or sacrament, of Christ’s death—and you see, it is a sacrament or a mystery; that’s why you can’t explain the Cross in purely ethical terms—in his death, he himself acts as High Priest and voluntary offerer of himself, and he begins this giving of himself, the process of death, even before human jealousy and rage led him to the Cross. This is why, even before the Cross, on Holy Thursday, he sacramentally already gives us his Body and Blood as bread and wine.
So as it happened, Jesus Christ trampled death by death, as we sing in the joyous Easter troparion, or hymn, that we sing on Easter. [Georgian choir sings the Paschal troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”]
Through his unique, voluntary death, the death of the one God-man, Christ inserted into our one shared humanity—and you see what happens to one happens to all—he entered into our nature a new strength, a new capacity of resurrection. Before Christ, we all followed one path, the path of the first Adam, a cycle of sin and death, but Christ transfigured the meaning of death, because in him it leads to the resurrection of life. As it says in the epistle to the Romans, “for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
As Christians, we do not imitate Christ’s voluntary death and resurrection. We participate in it, beginning with our baptism. His death was his baptism in blood, as he said himself, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished.” And he says to all of us, “You will indeed drink my cup and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with.”
During Lent, we rediscover and renew our baptism, taking part voluntarily also out of compassionate love in the voluntary Cross of our Savior, in joyous anticipation of his and our resurrection. [Georgian choir sings the Paschal troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”]
That’s it for today, ladies and gentlemen. Happy fourth week of Lent. [Applause and cheering]