A Voice From The Isles:
Have you ever considered how unusual Christianity is amongst all world religions with regard to Jesus Christ? Unlike all other world faiths, our faith is based on the death and then the resurrection of its Founder. Judaism does not celebrate the death of Moses, nor Islam the death of Mohammed, nor Buddhism the death of the Buddha, yet we venerate the cross of our Saviour, upon which He died a most bitter death for the salvation of all. This death is not martyrdom, for then Christianity would have become merely the veneration of a most noble yet unexceptional sacrifice for the greater good. Instead, the faith of the Church is built upon the conviction that the death of Christ is the first in crucial step on our way to salvation. Without the crucifixion we have a God who remains remote to our need. Without the resurrection, we remain in our sins and, to quote St Paul, we are of all people: “the most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The death of our God in the flesh involved the voluntary acceptance in love of the curse of our sins laid upon the sinless One, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, so that we might be delivered both from the ancient curse and the corruption of death, receiving instead the inexhaustible blessing and recreation of the resurrection. This is the divine exchange of love; blessing for curse, life for death. As St Theodore the Studite exclaimed in the eighth century:
“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 comely to see and to taste.
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.
It is the tree 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.
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.
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.
How right Paul is to exclaim: ‘Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world!’
For that supreme wisdom, which flowered on the cross, proved that the proud boasting of worldly wisdom was folly.
The beauty of all the good gifts which grew on the cross cut out the shoots of evil.”
This testimony needs to be borne out in our own personal experience. Nothing we recite or sing in church or hear from the lips of the divine fathers can simply remain in church; it must be taken out with us and within us, heart, mind, soul and strength into our homes, our workplaces and indeed the whole of creation to be proven within our own lives. Here, in these places, but especially in the heart as well as in Church, is the gospel authenticated. The cross that we venerate today must become our own personal cross, the cross with which we follow Christ, the cross that serves to redeem us from our sins and bring us salvation.
We need this perspective in Great Lent in order to remind ourselves of the goal of that journey that we undertake through fasting, repentance, almsgiving and prayer. It is that we might come to the beginning of Great and Holy Week with a Godly intention but we shall desire to know nothing else but “Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) The joyful self-discipline of the Fast is offered to us that we might the spiritually prepared for that great moment when our Lord cries on the cross; “it is finished!” (John 19:30) and then, a little later, as hell itself is vanquished: “Christ is risen!” These acclamations are robbed of their power to save unless each one of us takes to himself or herself the death and resurrection of Christ at deeply personal level. We need to be able to say, with full sincerity of faith, “He did this for me” and not only, “He did this for all” ...although both are important!
A deep personal awareness of and commitment to the saving power of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is what makes us Christians. We give evidence of that faith when our deeds match our words. “Greater love has no man than this,” Christ said “than he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) That must be the measure for all of a life lived for and in Christ; a willingness to sacrifice oneself in love that others might live. It is to offer oneself up in that one perfect offering of our Lord upon the Cross. Moreover that is what we do whenever we come together in the Divine Liturgy. We commend ourselves and our whole lives to Christ our God as we offer up our lives in the service of all. Whenever we go that extra mile, whenever we turn that other cheek, whenever we offer that cup of cold water to the thirsty, whenever we die without complaint knowing that we shall live, Christ is glorified and his gospel is advanced. It is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31) so let us make sure that when we do, we are able to make a good account of our faith and our service.
I started this sermon with a beautiful quotation from St Theodore the Studite. I close with almost its exact echo in the Orthodox English tradition from an ancient English poem entitled: “The Dream of the Rood.” (“Rood” is an old English word for the cross). In this poem the cross itself speaks of the Saviour who, as a young warrior, will mount its beams to save the world. In this faith we should venerate the most Holy Cross; indeed we must become that cross by veneration of the same.
“There I did not dare to break God’s word
and bend down or break, though I felt the tremble
of the Earthen surface. I might have been able
upon those fiends to fall, yet I stood stable.
Then the young hero did disrobe—that was God Almighty,
strong and resolute; on the wretched gallows he did ascend,
bold and courageous as many observed for mankind’s past he would amend.
Tremble did I as the hero embraced me; but yet I dared not bend,
and fall to the Earth’s surface, therefore I stood firm.
A cross I became; lifted up with the mighty King…”