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.
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.