Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


Leave a comment

The Answer to How is Yes

Three weeks ago a New York Times article reported on renewed speculations and debate that the bones of Jesus may have been discovered in Jerusalem.

I doubt that anyone will ever be able to prove that these bones are those of Jesus. But it does raise the question: What is most important about Jesus? Theology or discipleship? That’s the question the Gospel of Mark raises. And I believe that’s the reason why Mark finished his Gospel the way he did, at verse 8 of chapter 16. As I have often explained, it is my conviction that the way we read the Gospel today and also at Pascha midnight, ending at verse 8, is exactly how Mark finished his Gospel.

My friend in Scotland, Mike Mair, has an excellent blog site. Yesterday he speculated that the young man who met the women at the tomb was the same young man who ran away when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:51). He ran away in fear. But now he becomes the messenger of resurrection, and it was now the turn of the women to flee in fear – εφογούντο γαρ! Although all Orthodox icons show an angel greeting the women, I like Mike’s suggestion. It makes for a more interesting encounter.
tumblr_m38kz2NWuS1qkynm4

The women and the young man are examples of discipleship, and so are the male disciples who have disappeared from Mark’s conclusion. Mark’s Gospel ends on a conjunction, trailing off into the new creation. We read it like that at the beginning of our Easter midnight service, where it trails off into the night air right before CHRIST IS RISEN is sung. Powerful symbolism.

We are like those disciples. How do we follow Jesus in today’s complicated and dangerous world? The world has always been dangerous for disciples of Christ. Complicated too! Each generation has to come to the same place as those women. They walked to the tomb, not knowing how they would move the stone. But they went, and their discipleship was answered in a totally unexpected way. They expected to find a dead body and instead heard news that filled them with joy and terror.

51vEYsQLs-LIf you want to find bones in Jerusalem, there are plenty – and not just ancient bones! If you want obstacles and excuses, there are plenty of those. About a dozen years ago, at Borders Bookstore, I bought a book called, The Answer to How is Yes. It’s not a religion book. I loved to browse the many aisles of that wonderful, much lamented bookstore, and this book caught my eye in the Business section.

The title and message of that book capture the situation of the women on their way to the tomb. The answer to How is Yes! It is also the answer to all our fears and questions about our church. How do we ensure the continuing existence and vitality of our church? Better yet, how do we make our church more vital and alive? The answer to every How question is always Yes.

My fuller thoughts in today’s sermon:

Icon of Myrrhbearers


3 Comments

Two Anniversaries

April 24th marks two very different anniversaries: the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Holocaust and Genocide and the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Telescope. The first anniversary represents the darkest side of human nature, while the second represents humanity at its most inspiring.

Armenian intellectuals who were arrested and later executed en masse by Young Turk government authorities on the night of 24 April 1915.

Armenian intellectuals who were arrested and later executed en masse by Young Turk government authorities on the night of 24 April 1915.

The killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks began on April 24th, 1915, and took over 1 million lives by the time it came to an end. Armenians call it Medz Yeghern (“the Great Crime”) and it is acknowledged by most historians and governments of the world, but it continues to be denied by Turkey.

An article by the New York Times dated 15 December 1915 states that one million Armenians had been either deported or executed by the Ottoman government.

An article by the New York Times dated 15 December 1915 states that one million Armenians had been either deported or executed by the Ottoman government. (click to enlarge)

Fundraising poster for the American Committee for Relief in the Near East. The United States contributed a significant amount of aid to help Armenians during the Armenian Genocide.

Fundraising poster for the American Committee for Relief in the Near East. The United States contributed a significant amount of aid to help Armenians during the Armenian Genocide. (click to enlarge)

As their empire faded into the dust, the Ottoman Turks also attacked other minorities, especially the Greeks and Assyrians. But the greatest tragedy was the one that befell the Armenian population. As the map further down graphically illustrates, the extermination of Armenians was conducted on a scale surpassed only by the Germans a couple decades later. Wholesale deportations, destruction of entire villages and communities, and concentration camps dotted the Turkish landscape. These killings were not a result of wartime, as the Turks continue to insist. This was a methodical attempt to exterminate an entire group of people. It was genocide by any definition! Armenian communities throughout the world – including our own state of Maine – are commemorating this great tragedy with many special events and memorial services.

An Armenian woman kneeling beside a dead child in field within sight of help and safety at Aleppo, an Ottoman city.

An Armenian woman kneeling beside a dead child in field within sight of help and safety at Aleppo, an Ottoman city.

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit, as seen from the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit, as seen from the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The launch of the Hubble Telescope on April 24th, 1990, opened up the eyes of humanity to the ends of the universe. For 25 years the telescope has orbited above the earth’s atmosphere and has returned photograph after remarkable photograph of the immense glory and stupendous wonder of our universe. How can we look at the immensity of the universe and yet act in such small, selfish and monstrous ways to our fellow human beings? Do we not know that we are made of stardust and to stardust we return? This is the point where one can say to the religions of the world – including most versions of the Christian faith – “your god is too small.”

A god who condones violence – whether directly or by interpretation – is not a god worthy of the universe. On this anniversary of Hubble I’m tempted to say this about the Christian Church throughout the past 2,000 4th_day_4Ayears. Would Jesus Christ identify himself with the hatred and selfishness that continue to be exhibited in his name? Or would Jesus tell us to gaze in wonder at every picture of space that Hubble sends down to the small-minded inhabitants of this earth? Yes, I can just hear the theologians object: But Jesus is the Word of God, he created this immense universe and all its wonders; he doesn’t need Hubble! You mean like he didn’t need this earth or a human mother? How easily we resolve everything by retiring to the divinity of Jesus! This is the monophysitic heresy of the church! Alive and well in every other sentence we speak or sing.

No, I prefer to stop sometimes and think of Jesus alone on a mountaintop or in the desert, gazing at the starlit sky and wondering how deep is this ocean of light and darkness above us. How many wonders will be discovered in the centuries to come as human beings learn to look upward instead of downward and inward to our own selfish motives?

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 image includes galaxies existing shortly after the Big Bang.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 image includes galaxies existing shortly after the Big Bang.

Human beings have continued in their inhumanity ever since Jesus looked up at the sky. And yet, scattered throughout our centuries of violence and hateful acts, great spirits have dared to look beyond our darkened hearts and look to the skies for glimmers of light and hope. Today, our machines and ingenuity have enabled us to look into the very depths and origins of creation – 14 billion years ago – and, at the other extreme, into the tiniest domains of existence, where strange particles and mysterious forms of energy are joining the dance of continuing creation. The Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, Switzerland, is doing for the extremely small scale what Hubble is doing for the extremely large scale of creation. The maps of existence they are creating are enough to blow away every fundamentalist lie and deception.

One of Hubble's most famous images,

One of Hubble’s most famous images, “Pillars of Creation,” shows stars forming in the Eagle Nebula.

There is creation all around us – the antithesis of our destructive urges. This is why the two anniversaries on this day pose such huge questions to us. Do we continue killing each other, often in the name of a god who is too small? Or do we join the galaxies and the subatomic particles in the dance of unity that many great scientists have tried to encapsulate in that ever-elusive “theory of everything”? Perhaps because it is a dance that unites all levels of being is the reason why it is so difficult to reduce it to a single theory or equation. Perhaps by trying to find a “theory of everything” scientists are making the same mistake that religions have made with their gods. Perhaps scientists are trying to make the universe too small, like religions make god too small.

NASA Just Released This Image To Celebrate The Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th Anniversary. The image shows a star cluster with some of the most massive stars ever discovered.

NASA Just Released This Image To Celebrate The Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th Anniversary. The image shows a star cluster with some of the most massive stars ever discovered. (click to enlarge)

Then again, after many years or centuries, perhaps scientists will have their “theory of everything.” But in the meantime we can enjoy the spectacle that unfolds before us thanks to the good use of human ingenuity. Have you ever wondered why religious fundamentalists are against education? Because they don’t want their god to be exposed as too small. But the map of the universe is growing ever larger and more detailed. Science presses on, to replace the maps of human hatred with maps of incredible beauty and mystery. Consider the two maps below. Don’t they look similar? Yet, the first represents the evil of men, while the second gives us a glimpse into our neighborhood in the amazing universe. Psalm 8 sings with these words:

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens… When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of us, that you care for us? (slightly paraphrased)

The universe is the great equalizer. It puts our human acts in proper perspective. As we remember one act of human evil, let us celebrate the goodness of a God who is not too small and who beckons us to look at the heavens above.

Map of massacre locations and deportation and extermination centers

Map of massacre locations and deportation and extermination centers (click to enlarge)

Map of the Nearby Universe, showing our own galaxy, the Milky Way, in relation to other galaxies and galaxy clusters. The motions of galaxies are also illustrated.

Map of the Nearby Universe, showing our own galaxy, the Milky Way, in relation to other galaxies and galaxy clusters. The motions of galaxies are also illustrated by directional cones. (click to enlarge)

A diagram of Earth’s location in the Universe in a series of eight maps that show from left to right, starting with the Earth, moving to the Solar System, onto the Solar Interstellar Neighborhood, onto the Milky Way, onto the Local Galactic Group, onto the Virgo Supercluster, onto our local superclusters, and finishing at the observable Universe.

A diagram of Earth’s location in the Universe in a series of eight maps that show from left to right, starting with the Earth, moving to the Solar System, onto the Solar Interstellar Neighborhood, onto the Milky Way, onto the Local Galactic Group, onto the Virgo Supercluster, onto our local superclusters, and finishing at the observable Universe. (Click to enlarge!)


2 Comments

Arise Earth, Arise with Christ!

The whole world has risen in Christ … if God is “all in all,” then everything is in fact paradise, because it is filled with the glory and presence of God, and nothing is any more separated from God. THOMAS MERTON

earth-day

Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) was one of the most important Christians of the twentieth century. A Reformed theologian in Scotland, he also practiced a deeply ecumenical understanding of the Christian faith and wrote extensively on the early Church Fathers, but with an honesty and critical insight unmatched by any contemporary Orthodox theologian. I made extensive use of Torrance in writing my dissertation on the Christology of St. Cyril of Alexandria, but I hadn’t touched any of Torrance’s books for thirty years – until recently, when I dug out my old Torrance books and began dipping into them again.

In his collection of essays, Theology in Reconstruction, published in 1965, I chanced upon this passage today:

Now I believe that the real problems which the Church has to face today are not those created by science and the changes in cosmological theory, but in the recrudescence of the old pagan disjunction between God and the world, in which redemption is divorced from creation and the mighty acts of God are removed from actual history… Once this radical dichotomy is posited… the basic affirmation of the Christian Faith, namely that in Jesus Christ we have none other than the Being of God himself in our human existence in space and time, is called in question… What is at stake is in a modern form the same problem that the Church faced when it battled with Gnostics and Arians in the early centuries. The great dividing line is once again the doctrine of the Incarnation, or if you will, the homoousion, i.e. the doctrine that… in Jesus Christ in our flesh and history we have in person the eternal Word of God… (p. 263)

It’s no easy task reading Torrance, and I have edited a whole page here to quote only the parts that are most easily understandable. But his point is very easy to understand. He is saying that when we separate creation from our salvation in Christ, we are reviving the old heresies of Arius and the Gnostics; indeed, we fall into paganism. Arius rejected the idea of Christ being the homoousios Son of God. Gnostics rejected the goodness of creation, and therefore they ended up denying the Incarnation. Orthodox theology affirms that the Son of God became truly and fully human, and in doing so tore down the separation between God and creation. In reconciling us with God, Jesus Christ reconciled all creation.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is within it.” This phrase from Psalm 24 is spoken at the conclusion of every funeral service in the Orthodox Church. “We are from the earth and to earth we return,” the priest intones as he places some earth on the body before closing the casket. The earth is our home – during our waking life and after we depart from this life. The earth is also our eternal home, if the words of Revelation are to be taken literally. Romans 8:21 states very clearly: “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

happy-earth-day-quotes

If all this is true, should we Christians not be at the forefront of caring for the earth and celebrating its beauty? I see Earth Day as a day on which I can affirm my belief in the incarnation of the Word of God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” the Gospel of John declares in its majestic opening chapter. καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, the Greek text says: “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent with us.” It’s earthy language, the language of the desert and the sand – not the language of a nice home in the suburbs. Everything about Jesus is earthy, because we are of earth and to earth we return.

Let us take care of our earthy home. Let’s pitch our own tents and walk barefoot and lightly on our beautiful planet. Let us do our own part in protecting this precious gift from God. It is the only home we will ever have. Happy Earth Day! May every day be earth day!

CHRIST IS RISEN! The whole creation is risen with him!!

Planet_Earth_by_sanmonku


1 Comment

The Gospel of Touch

The place of the Gospel of John relative to the other three Gospels.

Its use in the Orthodox Church in the cycle of readings.

Midnight service of Pascha: We begin with Mark 16:1-8 and that amazing conclusion that trails off into the night: εφοβούντο γαρ. But at the Liturgy that follows we read John 1:1-17 with the climactic affirmation, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. More properly and literally: The Word became flesh and pitched his tent with us.

stthomasxcIt’s all about touch. The Word became flesh. And now that flesh is the one Thomas is invited to touch – that divine flesh that took upon itself all the pain and suffering of humanity.

When responding to Thomas, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” He didn’t say, “Blessed are those who have not touched and yet believe.” He couldn’t say that, because that’s what the Christian gospel is all about: it’s all about touch.

The rest of my thoughts today are in the audio clip here:

 


1 Comment

The Only Proof God Offers

What proof do you want to believe in God? Do you want a scientific proof or a proof by logic? Do you want a big miracle? Like solving climate change, so we can continue our wasteful and polluting life styles? God did a big climate-change thing long ago (Genesis 7), but people still didn’t believe, so why should it be different now? Perhaps God should drop food from heaven to eliminate hunger? God did that also long ago (Exodus 16), and people still didn’t believe! How about God should bring back from the dead someone you loved who died too young? God did that also (Luke 7:11-15), and people still didn’t believe. Or perhaps you just want some display of power. Like dividing the Red Sea (Exodus 14). But we know how quickly people forgot about that show of power!

thomas_01

God gave up trying to impress people and chose another way. God answered Thomas’ doubts with the wounds of Christ. Here, touch and see – not some spectacular show of power, but the wounds of humanity. And those wounds have now become God’s wounds! That’s the proof that God offers. And it should be all the proof we need. No miracles or displays of power that can be ignored or explained away by inconsequential explanations. The proof that God offers is the miracle of a love that bears the marks of all human pain and suffering. That’s the God I believe in. It’s the only God worth believing in!

 


Leave a comment

A Sabbath for the whole world

The great Moses mystically prefigured this present day when he wrote: “And God blessed the seventh day.” For this is the blessed Sabbath, this is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all his works…

Except he really didn’t rest. Though his body lay in a tomb, in spirit he descended into the realm of Death and liberated all humanity. It is the holiest of all Sabbaths, a Sabbath for the entire world, for all humanity, for all creation! Everything needs liberation from the inevitability of death and decay and the fear that is produced by those realities. Jesus descended into the lowest depths of human non-existence to make everything new! It is the new creation that is announced on this Holy and Great Saturday. God rested on the seventh day after the original creation (Genesis 2:2). Now, on this new seventh day, Jesus creates again: he creates new hearts and minds, new lives, and a new way of relating to God and to each other. Are you in? Are you experiencing the new creation?

Epitaphios-3

We began this Holy Saturday last night (Friday) with Matins and the singing of the Lamentations along with many other glorious and beautiful hymns. We processed outside the church in the darkness, carrying our lit candles, following the embroidered image of Christ in the tomb, the Epitaphios. Then, as the Epitaphios was held high aloft by four able-bodied men, we all went under it and re-entered the church. We all went under it as an act of renewal of our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. His labor is also our labor; his rest is also our rest. The new creation is universal or it is nothing. Saint Paul tells us plainly in his letter to the Romans:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation… itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)

You see, we are one with each other, with all creation; and most wonderful and gloriously, with God through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the one Holy Spirit that adopts us as children of God.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:14-17)

And thus, with all this as the foundation, Paul is able to rise to eloquent heights with powerful affirmation:

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)

This is the message of Holy and Great Saturday, even though we don’t read chapter 8 of Romans; we read chapter 6, verses 3-11, at the Liturgy on Saturday morning:

 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

This is the same Epistle passage that we read at every Baptism. Also at this Liturgy we sing the same hymn we sing at every Baptism: “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia.” All this reminds us that in the early centuries of the Church, this day and this evening, leading up to the announcement of Christ’s Resurrection, was the time for the baptism of new Christians. It is the celebration of new creation. Everyone baptized into Christ has put on Christ and is a new creation, Paul tells us. And as new creation, we share the destiny of all of God’s works. And that destiny is glory! Glory, not postponed to a future eternity, but glory that begins right here, in this life, when we allow ourselves to be transformed by the liberating power of Christ that comes to us through the Holy Spirit.

This is the day of Christ’s rest, the holiest of all Sabbaths, a Sabbath for all humanity and for all creation! But before we celebrate the new creation in the Liturgy of Holy Saturday, we remember the original creation through 15 readings from the Hebrew Bible (called “Old Testament” by the Church). These 15 readings have unfortunately been reduced to only 3 in modern Greek parish use, because it has been presumed that people don’t want to hear long stretches of the Bible. That has not been my experience. I believe that most Orthodox people are hungry for God’s Word and for serious explanation of God’s Word. Here in the United States, the Orthodox Church in America has preserved all 15 readings, believing in the genuine devotion of God’s people. Perhaps some day the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America will also appreciate the value of all these 15 readings and reinstate them in parish use. There is now no excuse, especially when we read the Bible in English translation that everyone can understand! Without these readings, our liturgical observance of Holy and Great Saturday is incomplete. Two of these readings, the 6th and 15th, conclude with sung portions that add to the joy of this beautiful day. The readings are worth exploring as a personal act of meditation on the meanings of this day:

  1. Genesis 1:1-13
  2. Isaiah 60:1-16
  3. Exodus 12:1-11
  4. Jonah 1:1-4:11
  5. Joshua 5:10-15
  6. Exodus 13:20-15:19
  7. Zephaniah 3:8-15
  8. 3[1] Kings 17:8-24
  9. Isaiah 61:10-62:5
  10. Genesis 22:1-18
  11. Isaiah 61:1-9
  12. 4[2] Kings 4:8-37
  13. Isaiah 63:11-64:5
  14. Jeremiah 31:31-34
  15. Daniel 3:1-23; Song of the Three: 1-66 with verses

By the end of the morning Liturgy we are already in the time of Christ’s Resurrection – which is why in Greece this Liturgy is popularly known as the First Resurrection, Η πρώτη Ανάσταση. Tonight at Midnight we will proclaim the Lord’s Resurrection openly and sing the joyful hymn, “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.” But the Resurrection is already a reality, on this holiest Sabbath. Enter into the creative, renewing rest of your Lord! And then, say with all your heart: CHRIST IS RISEN! TRULY HE IS RISEN!

anastasis


Leave a comment

The Cross of Holy Friday

Giles Fraser is a brilliant religion commentator for the Guardian newspaper of London, and I’ve referred to him in a previous post. He is Anglican, but seems to have an immense understanding of all Christian traditions, including our own Eastern tradition. He is also able to communicate the deepest truths of Christianity in our contemporary historical setting.

On this Holy and Great Friday in the Orthodox Church he wrote a brilliant commentary, which I thoroughly recommend: Arguments over Greek debt echo ancient disputes about Easter.

It is refreshing every year to go through the many, many services of Holy Week and see how little emphasis we Orthodox place on gruesome images of the Cross. Of course we read the Gospel passages that detail all the events of Christ’s passion; and of course we understand the saving power of the Cross. But this saving power of the Cross is seen in cosmic and enduring terms. The Cross of Christ is not a once-and-for-all deal that God made to repay an “infinite debt” that we human owed to God. God is not a banker or tyrannical taskmaster who wants repayment at all cost!

We are sinners, and we needed salvation. But the Cross is more than a payment of debt. If there are any Orthodox references to “debt” they are minor. The Matins of Holy Friday (which is usually observed on Thursday night) shows little awareness of that idea, as Giles Fraser correctly perceives. The emphasis instead is on man’s rebellion – reflected especially in Judas’ betrayal and the actions of the Jewish leaders. The hymns of Holy Friday that we heard Thursday night and will hear this afternoon in the Vespers service do carry a lot of anti-Jewish baggage; and that’s one area we Orthodox need to clean up our act and clean up our language. But all those black-robed and bearded leftovers of a bygone era (like the ones pictured in the Guardian article) will not let the church modify our liturgical and hymnographical wealth – and that’s the tragic reality of today’s Orthodox Church.

Nevertheless, despite the anti-Jewish overtones and occasionally ugly language, the hymns do resound with the truths of Scripture rather than human inventions such as the language of “debt”! The references are always to God’s past history with his people and their continuing rebellion against God’s goodness:

Pharisees and lawgivers of Israel, the company of the Apostles calls out to you: “Behold the temple which you have destroyed; behold the Lamb whom you have crucified. You consigned him to the tomb, but by his own power he arose. Do not deceive yourselves. For it is he who saved you from the sea and fed you in the wilderness. He is life and light and the peace of the world.”

These words echo the judgments of the Hebrew prophets (Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, etc.) in the centuries before Christ. But they are also addressed to us, who continue to rebel against even greater acts of God’s benevolence. If Israel of old was guilty of ingratitude for the liberation from Egypt, how much greater our own guilt when we ignore the gift of Christ?! Reflecting on our own sins and acts of rebellion should modify any anti-Semitic thoughts we may harbor.

The Cross is God’s final answer to human rebellion. God did not allow his Son to be crucified in order for his wrath to be appeased or for a “debt” to be repaid. God allowed his Son to be crucified in order to show how great is our rebellion! Preaching will only go so far. The prophets preached and preached against the people’s rebelliousness, but achieved nothing. And the Christian tradition has cheapened their message even further by turning Isaiah and the other prophets into forecasters of Christ’s coming – instead of seeing their messages as ever- and always-relevant to every generation.

More seriously, even with the Cross in front of us we continue to sin and rebel against God’s goodness. But there is no other solution. The Cross is the “final solution” to human sinfulness and rebellion. The Cross was God’s victory over evil and sin. One of the most powerful expressions of what the Cross means was written by Paul in his letter to the Colossians (though most scholars believe this letter was not written by Paul himself, but by one of his followers or disciples):

When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. (Colossians 2:12-15)

Though worldly and spiritual powers imagined they defeated Jesus on the Cross, on the contrary the Cross was God’s victory over the worldly and spiritual powers that rebel against God’s goodness. Death was mocked, as we so loudly proclaim at the midnight Liturgy of Easter/Pascha.

The Epitaphios Icon of Holy and Great Friday (betsyporter.com)

The Epitaphios Icon of Holy and Great Friday (betsyporter.com)

But note in this quote from Colossians, that even the Law and the “legal demands” that God gave to Moses and the people of Israel are renounced and put into the same category as the powers and rulers that oppose God! This is one of my own favorite passages in the Bible: it is an amazing, revolutionary thought! And if you really take Paul’s thought seriously, it is a rejection of every religious system!

The Cross was God’s victory over every system that aims to control human life. God nailed all worldly and spiritual powers to the Cross and demonstrated their futility. We subject ourselves to teachers and systems that pretend to improve us, only to discover how pointless they are. Every fad diet, every new age spirituality, every system of self-improvement and self-realization, and indeed most forms of Christian preaching: they are all powerless, unable to achieve anything, because they were proven to be empty and futile on the Cross!

The powers and systems were defeated on the Cross. Death itself, the final enemy, is mocked and defeated at the Resurrection. To reduce the Cross of Christ to a transaction is a crime like the crucifixion itself!

The Cross is a cosmic victory and the hymns of Holy and Great Friday see it in cosmic terms. Consider the hymn sung when the Cross is carried around the church:

Σήμερον κρεμᾶται ἐπὶ ξύλου, ὁ ἐν ὕδασι τὴν γῆν κρεμάσας. Στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν περιτίθεται, ὁ τῶν Ἀγγέλων Βασιλεύς. Ψευδῆ πορφύραν περιβάλλεται, ὁ περιβάλλων τὸν οὐρανὸν ἐν νεφέλαις. Ῥάπισμα κατεδέξατο, ὁ ἐν Ἰορδάνῃ ἐλευθερώσας τὸν Ἀδάμ. Ἥλοις προσηλώθη, ὁ Νυμφίος τῆς Ἐκκλησίας. Λόγχῃ ἐκεντήθη, ὁ Υἱὸς τῆς Παρθένου. Προσκυνοῦμέν σου τὰ Πάθη Χριστέ. Δεῖξον ἡμῖν, καὶ τὴν ἔνδοξόν σου Ἀνάστασιν.

Today is hung on the Wood the one who hung the earth upon the waters. The King of the angels is crowned with thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who freed Adam in the Jordan now receives blows upon his face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The son of the virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate your Passion, O Christ. Show us also your glorious Resurrection.

Note how the Cross is placed in the cosmic symbolism of creation and the sanctification that came through the incarnation! Note the sequence of Orthodox salvation theology, all reflected in this hymn:

Cosmic Creation — Incarnation — Cross — Resurrection

Rebellion against God is universal, cosmic even. So God’s answer is cosmic! The Cross is about more than me and my personal relationship with God. All self-absorption and self-nonsense is defeated on the Cross. The Resurrection is in front of us. Let us look to the answers it provides on this holiest three-day weekend of the year.

Detail of the Epitaphios Icon (betsyporter.com)

Detail of the Epitaphios Icon (betsyporter.com) – Click to further enlarge.