Today on this Afterfeast of the Exaltation of the Holy and Life-giving Cross I am offering a reflection on the teaching of St. Theodore the Studite concerning the death and resurrection of Christ our God. In a week in which we have witnessed the brutality of a crucifix being used as an instrument of torture in Syria we can venerate the sacrifice of these new martyrs by gaining a deeper understanding of this mystery of our faith – the cross. St. Theodore begins:
“How precious is the gift of the Cross!
See, how beautiful it is to behold!
It shows no sign of evil mixed with good, like the tree of old in Eden;
it is all beautiful and good to see and to taste.”
For St. Theodore, a means of torture, execution and death, the bitter cross of Christ’s crucifixion has become beautiful, precious, even good. We may recall that in the West the traditional description of great and holy Friday is GOOD Friday. How can it be that something so brutal can become something so sweet? This change of perspective is to be found in the meaning of Christ’s death through which joy has come to the whole world. This St. Theodore now makes clear as he continues:
“For it is a tree which brings forth life, not death.
It is the source of light, not darkness. It offers you a home in Eden. It does not cast you out.”
The tree of the cross reminds us of that tree in Eden which falsely choosing against God’s will our first parents turned into a tree of death and exclusion from Paradise. In forsaking communion with God they condemned themselves to death, darkness and exile. It was fitting that Christ, by voluntarily choosing to die upon the tree of Calvary for all people, should undo that curse as only God could, that we might have new life for death, light for darkness and a homecoming instead of disinheritance. This we believe and know; and yet on further consideration it is not always easy to understand why it should be so—why the cross is able to save. St. Theodore gives us yet further insight when he reflects:
“It is the tree [from] which Christ mounted as a king his chariot, and so destroyed the devil,
the lord of death, and rescued the human race from slavery to the tyrant.
There are two explanations and confessions here—the first concerning death, the second concerning sin.
Concerning death, the Lord did battle with death as a mighty warrior by submitting to it voluntarily. The devil thought that he had won by ensnaring even God himself, but alas for him in taking on the Creator of the universe he ensured his own total defeat for as the Liturgy of St Basil declares:
“for it was not possible that the Author of life should be bound by corruption - that He might be the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first-born from the dead, that He might be all, being first in all.”
There we have it! The Author of life took on the architect of death and despoiled him, that is destroyed Satan and all his goods, his goods being of course humanity in the servitude of sin. As John the Theologian declared:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
So Theodore goes on to deal with sin:
It is the tree on which the Lord, like a great warrior with his hands and feet and his divine side pierced in battle, healed the wounds of our sins, healed our nature that had been wounded by the evil serpent.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ on his holy cross healed not only the wounds of our sin which continue to inflect death and suffering in our lives but also our very human nature itself. The first healing concerns our actual sins for which we need forgiveness and the complete removal of their power to harm us through guilt and shame. We owe nothing to the devil for these sins but everything to God who offered the perfect sacrifice in the flesh of his own Word for their redemption. The healing of our human nature, however, concerns our propensity to sin which lingers even after forgiveness because of the wound to our nature that we carry by being sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. By taking to himself our human nature, cleansed from sin in the purification of his blessed mother, the ever Virgin Mary, our Lord Jesus Christ, by being united to that nature, perfected it wholly and glorified it. In so doing he conferred immortality upon those who followed him in the Way of sacrificial love, leading them to the resurrection from the dead and the final victory of God. This is where he leads us now if we will but let him take our hand and raise us up from the despondency and destruction of death into the newness of life which is in his Kingdom.
Our final section from St Theodore’s sermon speaks of a great exchange in these words:
“Of old we were poisoned by a tree; now we have found immortality through a tree.
Of old we were led astray by a tree; now we have repelled the treacherous snake by means of a tree.
Indeed an unheard of exchange! We are given life instead of death, incorruptibility instead of corruption, glory instead of dishonour.”
This exchange of life for death, of incorruption for corruption, of glory for dishonour emphasises that salvation is in the first place the gift of grace, the unmerited mercy of God lavished upon sinners of whom as the liturgy again insists, we are the first. That salvation it is true will confer no benefit upon our souls unless we match the generosity of God’s love by some conversion of heart and seriousness of intent to live henceforth not only as God’s children but also as his loving servants. However, if we fail to remember that none of us can live this life without this unmerited grace of God going before us we shall spend the rest of our Christian lives in fruitless activity and spoiled good intentions. As Christ himself insisted “without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) The cross reminds us that in the matter of our salvation, He has done all. Being saved ourselves for each and every one of us depends on having a “crossed life” – a life marked forever by works of self-giving love, “cruci-formed” by our imitation of the Lord on the cross in his self-offering for the world. Each of our lives encounter the cross. In an important sense then, we do live a “crossed life”—a life formed by the crucifixion. Our lives can indeed be formed by the crucifixion that makes possible for us the experience of the resurrection. Paradoxically, through the crucifixion we discover the resurrection, and exchange death on earth for eternal life. Let us rejoice then that Christ has set out for us a pattern of how to move beyond sin to find self-giving love through our imitation of Him. The unity—the oneness—of the crucifixion and the resurrection is a great mystery which brings us great joy.
The children’s’ homily follows …