On this third Sunday of Great Lent, we are asked to venerate the cross of Christ, that is, to show our great respect and our deep awe for the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. What does that mean? How do we venerate the cross of Christ?
The reading today from the book of Hebrews, Chapter 4, Verses 15 and 16, explains that Christ sympathises with “our weaknesses”; and it is the reality that Christ first accepts us that can give each of us the courage to then accept Him. It is because of Christ’s acceptance of us with all our weaknesses that we are urged: “Therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” It is that phrase, “in time of need” that St John Chrysostom, the 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople and outstanding preacher clarifies for us. St John Chrysostom explains that if we are to receive help in our very own time of need, whatever our need might be, we must “approach now” in order to “receive both grace and mercy, for your approach [will be] ‘in due season,’ but if you approach [later] at the Day of Judgment, no longer will you receive [grace and mercy]. For then [at the Day of Judgment] the approach is unseasonable. Until that time,” preaches St John Chrysostom in his Seventh Homily on Hebrews, “[Christ] sits granting pardon but when the end has come He rises up to judgment.”
The Christ of whom St John Chrysostom is speaking is the Christ portrayed in the icon, Christ Pantokrator, that is, Christ the Lord of the Universe. Here Christ, with His left hand, is holding a book of Gospels with a cross on the cover; and with His right hand He reaches out of the icon to bless us. As with all icons, the flat two-dimensional image reaches out to a third dimension—each of us, each of our hearts, each of our hopes, each of our problems. One of the remarkable features of this icon is the eyes, one of which looks on us with compassion, and the other in judgment. This icon, also known as The Saviour with the Fearsome Eye, is one of the favourite icons of my wife, Sylvia. I can’t say that I agree with her. I find this icon a little too awesome, but it does have within it much compassion. Furthermore, the eyes gaze beyond space and time into our hearts. We are blessed and yet we are judged. We are reminded that the Gospels contain the story not only of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, but also of the Crucifixion. The original icon rests today in the Monastery of St Catherine, at the foot of Mount Sinai, surrounded by the desert. It’s a beautiful icon, but, as Sylvia and I saw, it is placed there in a museum to preserve it, although it is an icon that very much belongs in a church or a home, to draw us closer to Christ in worship.
The reason I have linked this icon of Christ, the Ruler of the Universe, the Saviour with the Fearsome Eye, to this passage from the book of Hebrews is because in this reading from Hebrews we are being offered an image of Christ who both pardons and judges. When St John Chrysostom was preaching on this passage, he quoted from the opening verses of Chapter 6 of Second Corinthians in which St Paul urges us “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” St Paul quotes from the book of the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 49, Verse 8: “At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.” Then St Paul makes an astounding statement: “Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation.” St John Chrysostom takes this message from the prophet Isaiah and from St Paul and applies their words to us. St John Chrysostom’s conclusion is: “So it is seasonable for us also now to say, ‘Let us draw near’ asking boldly: let us only bring Faith and He gives all things.”
If we make the decision to approach God with faith, then God’s response to us is, as St Paul points out in the opening verse of Chapter 6 of Second Corinthians, as well as in Chapter 3, verse 9, of First Corinthians to treat us as co-workers. To be a co-worker with God does not mean we will receive everything we think we need and for which we often ask God. However, as the prophet Isaiah said, it does mean that God will listen to us and help us. The Roman Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, is expressing a quite Orthodox view of how God works with us when he writes: “Really I am sure that if we are patient something good will come up. You must realise that it is the ordinary way of God’s dealings with us that our ideas do not work out speedily and efficiently as we would like them to. The reason for this is not only the loving wisdom of God, but also the fact that our acts have to fit into a great complex pattern that we cannot possibly understand. I have learned over the years that Providence is always a whole lot wiser than any of us, and that there are always not only good reasons but the very best reasons for the delays and blocks that often seem to us so frustrating and absurd.” Thomas Merton is saying is that we cannot understand how God works within time and space, but one of the attributes of God—one of the characteristics of God—is to be Lord of time and space. He created time and space and life itself. Therefore, for each of us an appropriate response to time is to live in the present moment—to have the boldness, as the author of the book of Hebrews phrases it in our reading today, “to draw near with confidence to the throne of grace” right now, in this church, at this time,
Now, when we “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace” what do we find? Before we reach the throne, we are confronted with the cross. In the Gospel for today from St Mark, Chapter 8, Verse 34 to Chapter 9, Verse 1, the words of Christ are given by the evangelist: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up the cross, and follow Me.” St John Chrysostom points out that Christ is saying: “I do not force, I do not compel, but each one I make lord of his own choice. . . The nature of the thing alone is sufficient to attract you. . . For although it be in My power, as Son of God, to stop you from having any trial at all of those hardships, yet . . . My will for your sake [is] that you may yourself contribute something and be more approved.” Here again St John Chrysostom is reminding us of St Paul’s hope that we can all become co-workers with God, but we do need, as St John Chrysostom phrases it, “to contribute something.”
This idea of becoming co-workers with God is appealing as a goal, but difficult to implement in practice. The sixth century bishop and preacher, St Caesarius of Arles offers us some lovely advice—very gentle, yet very penetrating. St Caesarius reminds us that the request of Christ to “take up your cross and follow me” is “no burden when it is given by one who helps in carrying it out. To what place are we to follow Christ if not where He has already gone? We know that He has risen and ascended into heaven; there, then, we must follow Him. . . . Would you follow Christ?“ asks St Caesarius. “Then be as humble as He was humble. Do not scorn His lowliness if you want to reach his exaltation. Human sin made the road rough. Christ’s resurrection levelled it. By passing over [that rough road] Himself He transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway. Two feet are needed to run along His highway; they are humility and charity. Everyone wants to get to the top—well, the first step to take is humility. Why take strides that are too big for you—do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with the first step, humility, and you will already be climbing.” In preparing this sermon, it is those words from St Caesarius that have spoken to my heart. I hope they speak to yours. “Begin with . . . humility, and you will already be climbing.”
As Orthodox Christians we live with a growing faith in the reality that Christ was resurrected on earth and ascended to heaven. We do not yet know the full meaning of that resurrection and ascension for each of our lives. However, we do know that the path to the resurrection and the ascension comes through the crucifixion. If we believe in the resurrection and ascension of Christ, if we seek unity with Christ, each of us have to go through the crucifixion in some way. In other words, we need to venerate the cross. We need to affirm that at times there will be troubles in our lives, that we will each have our own perhaps very personal crosses. For example, St Paul recognized that he had a cross, so private that no one knows what it was, but St Paul certainly knew he had a cross. In Second Corinthians, Chapter 12, Verse 7, he wrote that “because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations” he had received “there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness. Most gladly, therefore,” wrote St Paul, “I will rather boast about my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” We can all quietly and privately join St Paul in boasting of our weaknesses.
To conclude, it is right that we should venerate the cross. However, it is also right that our veneration of the cross is an affirmation of our desire to be united with the whole of the life of Christ. In our baptismal vows, we were each asked: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” We replied, or our parents and godparents replied on our behalf: “I have united myself to Him.” In that unity with Christ we venerate the cross today and for the rest of our lives and join ourselves to Our Saviour.
Let us close with a prayer drawn from Psalms 14(15) to 16(17): “O Lord, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity and does what is right, and speaks truth from his heart…. Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in You. I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good besides You…. I have called upon You, for You will answer me, O God; incline Your ear to hear my speech. Wondrously show [me] your loving kindness, O Saviour of those who take refuge at Your right hand from those who rise up against them. Keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings….” Amen.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn