The Church places before us the Lord's Cross to venerate and to remember. Why do we venerate this instrument of death? Eight questions and answers.
The Cross marks the life of a Christian, from birth to death. Actually, the whole life of the Church – its sacraments, its hymnology, its theology and its ascetic life – are inspired and imbued by the Cross of Christ. The Cross constitutes the glory of Christ and of the Church. That’s why we chant triumphantly,
Troparion: “Save, O Master”
Save, O Master, Your pious people
and bestow Your blessings on Your inheritance,
grant to the faithful Christians against the enemy victories,
and protect Your Nation of the true believers by Your precious Cross.
“Nation of the true believers” is us, the Christians everywhere, who, as the Apostle Peter states in his first letter, are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet. 2:9). In Greek is πολίτευμα, which means the “constitution”, the “government” , that is, a government identified with the Orthodox Christian faith, such as it was under the Christian Orthodox Empire of Constantinople, where politics and religion were one and the same. Past are those days. The Cross has been taken off the top of the flag pole by the modern Greek government, though ironically it remains on the flag itself, which in essence consists of a white cross over a blue background.
This country of ours, America, is also perceived in many ways as Christian. More people go to church, we are told, than to football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey games, including whatever sports I have left out – combined! But it is a curious and splintered Christianity, heavily eroded by secularism and loosing ground in the political, educational and social arenas. In any event, it is a Christianity that does not share the values, beliefs and practices of Orthodoxy. Without relying on the state for support, our Church has to do it alone. The Orthodox must be aware and be constantly on the alert to push back an unfriendly lifestyle, which creeps up insidiously and threatens the core and the very existence of our Christian way of life. That way of life is Christ-centered and Cross-centered. The weapon to resist and fight back the enemy is none other than the Cross of Christ itself, “a weapon of peace and trophy invincible” 1.
What differentiates the Orthodox Christian from the world is precisely the Cross. The life of a true Christian leans on the Cross, is supported by the Cross. How many Christians realize that the foundation of the Orthodox mindset and lifestyle is the Cross? Think of the following: Besides being the wood upon which the Lord triumphed over the hostile forces, the Cross is the very instrument of our salvation. That’s why we sign ourselves with it, we wear it, we hang it on our walls, we cense it, we bow down before it, we kiss it, we venerate it. None of the mysteries (sacraments) of our Church is performed without its energy. From the waters of the baptismal font, to the application of the holy Chrism, to the consecration of the divine Gifts, to the “crowning” in marriage – all are performed with the sign of the Cross. The very life of the Christian is a crucified life. If we don’t view our life within the framework of the Cross, then we have failed to understand it and live it in an Orthodox way.
The entire scripture is full of injunctions for this kind of life: “Put to death what is earthly in you”, emphasizes the Apostle Paul (Col. 3:5). Our call is to render dead everything that leads us away from God. We do this by nailing it to the Cross, until the old sinful self, prone to committing sins, is dead, and thus gives way to the renewed image of Christ formed in us. That’s why we say that the life of a Christian is a crucified life.
Every year the Fr. Seraphim Rose Foundation runs a Student Essay Contest. In the last issue of the Foundation’s Newsletter are excerpted the top essays. I would like to quote from them for your edification. The First Prize essay, entitled quite appropriately “The Way of the Cross”, discusses the ascetic struggle and suffering of Fr. Seraphim as an example for all of us, to take up our own crosses. I quote (and keep in mind, it is a Protestant who writes these lines):
“The Cross is missing… – missing from our hearts and from our lives… If we cannot look at our lives and say with conviction, ‘I am crucified with Christ,’ by what reasoning can we claim, ‘not I, but Christ lives in me’? … The question is, who can point to any element whatsoever in his daily life that bears the marks of Christ’s death?… The way of the Cross has been abandoned by much of the Church today…”
We would like to examine more closely this “abandonment of the Cross” by us, as individuals and as a Church.
It is regrettable to admit that as a church we have distanced ourselves from the way of the Cross, and today we are characterized by a worldly spirit, worldly ideas, worldly interests, worldly involvement, worldly behavior. Interestingly, the student that wrote the second prize essay (also a Protestant) relates how “he was bothered that members of his church were no different from non-church members” and criticizes the fashionable academic attitudes in Protestant seminaries, “obsessed with pleasing the world and running successful businesses”. Doesn’t this sound familiar to you? But listen to what he writes further down:
“What sets Orthodoxy apart is monasticism… Without the ascetic impulse, Orthodoxy becomes just another denomination with some interesting beliefs, beset by human frailty, and perhaps better suited for certain ethnic groups…”
So now I am asking you: How do you perceive our church? As driven by the “ascetic impulse” or as integrated into and absorbed by a spirit of modernism, alien to the spirit of Orthodoxy? Look at how comfortably we sit in our padded pews, “attending” the various services. Where is the vigilance, the attentiveness promoted by the upright position, which is the praying posture of the Orthodox? The spirit of the age has infiltrated almost all of our churches, and we acquiesce to it. We come to church dressed casually, with jeans and athletic footwear, the women wearing pants, shorts, short sleeve blouses, their hair uncovered, with makeup and jewelry, no longer heeding the words of the apostle “because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10). Where are the prostrations of the faithful, especially in the week-days of the penitential period of Great Lent? What of kneeling, what of icon-kissing and venerating? What of our participation with tears and sighs? Where is our respect and reverence for the traditions of the Church? What of our chanting, without the worldly embellishment of organs, prohibited by church canons? Where are our beeswax candles, our iconography, our vigils, our church-centered life, our obedience, humility and other godly virtues?
The ascetic practices of the church are meant to bury one’s “old self”, to purify and cleanse soul and body, and offer it to God as a “smell of spiritual fragrance”. The asceticism of the church, ignored, misunderstood, despised, is what can save our communities, as it “stands against the contemporary culture obsessed with self-absorption and banal self-expression”. *** The third essayist in the Contest mentioned above, as the other two, delves into the ascetic character of the Orthodox Church:
“[A]ll must keep within their hearts what Fr. Seraphim called ‘the fragrance of the desert,’ the constant remembrance that God is at work in every circumstance to transform us into His image, and so as to make a new and wondrous creature, if only we will put our passions aside and submit.”
I lament the loss, and if not the loss, the reduction of our ascetic practices, to a level where they lose their vigor and value, and become distant remnants and tokens of a spirituality which is watered down and is no longer capable to transform us and regenerate us. We have reduced fasting to a beautiful practice of the past. How many of us do truly fast? How many of us do truly pray? How many of us are under spiritual direction, accountable for their actions to a spiritual father? We may sit on parish councils, sing in the choir, work hard for the church, attend the services, and, let’s face it, be part of the clergy as priests and bishops of the church (because no one is immune by the spirit of the age) – and still be like what St. Paul calls “fist fighting the air”; accomplishing nothing – because our Christian life is shallow, insipid, and it’s not marked by the sign of the Cross—it’s not a crucified life.
Twice recently I came across upon Protestant literature, besides the one mentioned above, and one radio program, which talked about fasting. For example, this First Edition of the Newsletter by The Belleville Christian Center states: “We’re not fasting and praying like the Word says, like Jesus did!” What a discovery! It is true that only the Orthodox Christians preach fasting today, but how many of us practice it? Someone who receives our Newsletter called me to say, The whole issue is about fasting. You sure emphasize that!” Yes, I said, we talk a lot about fasting precisely because we don’t do it…
Generally the Orthodox life presupposes the deadening of our external senses, so that the internal senses may be revealed: getting rid of love of one’s self for the sake of true love, going beyond one’s self-centeredness towards a love that does not seek one’s own pleasure, gratification, and working for the transfiguration of our spiritual powers, so that from a state not according to nature, we may be led to a state according to the true nature. This life, centered on repentance, humility, meekness, piety, is called crucified life, life of the Cross.
It is unfortunate that in our days there are voices for a “renewal” in our liturgical life and our ascetic practices. Even Orthodox Hierarchs and Priests call openly for a reduction in fasting and prayer. But will lowering our goal to cleanse and purify our senses, outer and inner, lead us to perfect ourselves, to become holy? The call is for a relaxation of ancient rules, perceived as outdated and harsh, rules, it is said, that have become a burden for the Christians. The call is to bring the Church into the 21st century, to better respond to the needs of the contemporary man and the modern lifestyle. There is a danger, we are told, that if we don’t do that, and do it fast, Orthodoxy will be reduced to an antiquarians club, or a preservationists society. We politely, but firmly, opt to differ from such views. We are rather in need of recapturing the spirit of the early Christians, who lived a crucified life, often literally, and, if not, they lived a life of renouncing the devil and his pomp, the world and its works, and a life of abandonment, and surrender to God—totally and unreservedly. We should embrace the faith instead of becoming religious, we must once more express the way of the Cross in our lives instead of just exhibiting it as an empty symbol.
We need to equip ourselves to the teeth. That’s what the Apostle Paul means, when he says:
“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:10).
The weapons listed are truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, prayer, perseverance, in other words the virtues, which are obtained by the grace of God, through askesis, through spiritual struggle. Now I hear you saying: “But Father, why is that important? I believe in God. Why do I need an ascetic life? Isn’t this for the ascetics, for monks and nuns? Aren’t you preaching us the wrong sermon today?” For an answer, and to conclude this sermon, allow me to quote to you what St. Theophan the Recluse says in this regard:
“Without the cross, no one has been saved or can be saved. Just as the Lord entered into glory after having suffered on the Cross, so all those who follow Him will enter into glory together with Him through their own personal cross. Do you wish to partake of this glory? Then first of all, ascend the cross – and from the cross you shall enter Heaven. Amen.” (Kindling the Divine Spark, p. 57).
- Kontakion of the Cross: “You Who were lifted upon the Cross of Your own will, Christ our true God, grant Your mercies on Your new commonwealth that bears Your name; In Your strength, gladden the Orthodox people, True Believers who trust in You, granting to us victories against our adversaries. May Your alliance be for us, O Lord, weapon for peace-time and trophy invincible.”