Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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The φρόνημα of the Cross


One of seventeen crosses representing the seventeen who were shot and killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla., are arranged in the Pine Trails Park during a candlelight vigil, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The cross is the stumbling block for most people who turn away from Christianity or refuse to accept its vision of God. How could God be so cruel as to demand such a thing? How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death? Of course to even ask a question such as, How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death, does put our own questions in perspective: How could God allow the shooting at the Parkland high school, or at Sandy Hook? How can God allow thousands of refugees to drown every year in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to flee war and starvation?

Well, before we get to the God question, let’s answer these questions with one single word: Evil. Evil men shot to death those students at Parkland and Sandy Hook. Evil governments and human traffickers are responsible for those refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. And of course it was evil men who put Jesus to death on the cross.

But where is God in all this? To invoke free will, as we Orthodox usually do, is a cop-out. We Orthodox like to get to resurrection, to Easter, so we try to get through talk of cross as quickly as possible. We even boast that we are the resurrection church – while the western churches talk too much about the cross and the blood of Jesus. The blood of the western churches does get to be rather much; but too much resurrection and theosis talk in the Orthodox Church also falls short of any answers we can offer to the God question.

Attendees pass a wooden cross as they arrive at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

We can’t rush to the resurrection. We have to go through the cross first. Jesus tells us today that if we want to follow him we must pick up our cross and follow him. What is this cross? Is it some catastrophe that falls to us in our home? Is it a deadly illness we have to go through? Some struggle that overwhelms us? “This is my cross… This is your cross…” we casually speak about our problems and each other. Maybe something might be “my cross” or “your cross,” but not necessarily the cross Jesus has in mind.


Paul said it very clearly in a great passage in his letter to the Philippians:

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (Philippians 2:5)

φρονέω – an amazing, multifaceted verb in the ancient Greek, together with several derivatives, like φρόνησις, φρόνημα, φρόνιμος, etc. – all ultimately deriving from φρήν, usually in the plural φρένες “diaphragm.” Originally this was regarded as the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity. The diaphragm determined the nature and strength of the breath and hence also the human spirit and its emotions. In Homer φρένες means “inner part,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “understanding” etc. and like the other terms for inner organs it is the agent of spiritual and intellectual experiences. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 9, page 220)

But in ancient Greek these words all had to do with attitude, mindset, attitude to life

Romans 8:6 – “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The word translated as “to set the mind on…” is φρόνημα, phronema. For Paul and for the ancient Greeks, φρόνημα was not simply about thinking – just thinking never killed anyone, or almost never. To set the mind on something, meant for Paul and the ancient Greeks the action that goes with the mind’s thinking – more broadly, the life that goes with the mind’s thinking. And later in this chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says something even bolder. Verse 27: And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. τὸ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος is the key phrase.

That simple word, φρόνημα, phronema, is used by Paul in his letters in such a way as to unite our approach to thought and life with God’s own Spirit. So when Paul says in Philippians, Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, he is basically saying be united with the Spirit of God so that you can live as Christ lived. “Have the same mind” (or, attitude) is the usual translation, and it falls very short.

The cross is not some particular problem or sickness we have to bear; or something God sends to test us – another very popular idea – and in my opinion thoroughly pagan. The cross is not a problem or an instrument of death. The cross is a way of life. That’s what Paul is saying when he wrote to the Philippians to have the same mind, the same mindset, the same approach to life, that was also in Christ Jesus.

This is what the two disciples walking to Emmaus could not wrap their heads around. They didn’t have the φρόνημα of the Holy Spirit in them until Jesus opened their minds on the road and then their hearts when he broke bread with them at the dinner table. And there, their minds and their hearts were united and they understood; they saw Jesus. They understood what was at the very heart of the universe. Stephen Hawking and his fellow physicists will hopefully some day discover a theory of everything. But for us and for all eternity, from the very beginning of time, the Cross is at the heart of the universe. It reveals God without the need for religion.

Jesus did not take the shortcut – Hey, guys, it’s me, I’m risen, forget about the cross and everything else that happened in Jerusalem these past few days. No, he had to take them through the whole history of God’s ways; he had to educate them in the φρόνημα of the Spirit before they could understand the resurrection, before they could see him as the resurrected one.

So, to return to the God question, we cannot even begin to ask the question unless we have the φρόνημα of the Spirit. But we can answer some questions. Where was God at Parkland or Sandy Hook or the Mediterranean crossings? How could he allow such horrible deaths and killings? Where was God at Auschwitz? He died in the gas chambers, some Jewish writers have asserted. Where is Jesus when those refugees are drowning? He is drowning with them. Where was he when those students were gunned down? He was killed with them. That is the φρόνημα of the Spirit – to see life through the lens of the cross; which is the lens of reality, rather than some make-believe fantasy. We are to see life – all life – as completely wrapped up ἐν Χριστῷ, “in Christ”. He tells us in today’s Gospel reading to pick up our cross and follow him; but in fact it is he who is still bearing the cross.

The cross IS the core truth of Christianity. Other religions have resurrection. The Moslems believe in a resurrection and a judgment. But they don’t have the cross. And I don’t mean as an ornament, a symbol, a slogan.

The cross is a way of life – the way of life that unites us with Christ. How that life unfolds will be unique for every one of us. Carry your cross and follow Christ – means accept the calling, accept the φρόνημα of the Spirit.


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Cruciform Love

A few weeks ago I had told of a woman we met in October at the island of Hydra in Greece. She had just returned from Latin America and vowed never to return. She was turned off by the proliferation of crucifixes. Everywhere she went in Latin America there were crucifixes, and she wanted no further experience of those depressing sights. She much preferred the images of Buddha in East Asian countries.

The crucified Christ is scandalous to many people. Saint Paul indeed calls the cross a scandal (σκάνδαλον) to Jews and foolishness (μωρίαν) to Gentiles. Skandalon and foolishness, but despite all that, “we proclaim Christ crucified … Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The theologian Hans Kung, in his bestselling book of over forty years ago, On Being a Christian, stated the foundational truth of Christianity:

Paul succeeded more clearly than anyone in expressing what is the ultimately distinguishing feature of Christianity….as opposed to the ancient world religions and the modern humanisms …[It] is quite literally according to Paul “this Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ crucified.”… It is not indeed as risen, exalted, living, divine, but as crucified, that this Jesus Christ is distinguished unmistakably from the many risen, exalted, living gods and deified founders of religion, from the Caesars, geniuses, and heroes of world history.

But this foundational, distinctive truth of Christianity is not about bleeding crucifixes in Catholic or Orthodox churches, nor is it about superficial sermons about “the blood of Christ” that saves the comfortable evangelicals who crowd the entertainment centers that pretend to be churches. Paul went on, in his great letter to the Corinthian Christians: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

Nothing, except Jesus Christ crucified! That’s all that Paul wanted the Corinthians to hear from him. Yes, he gave them all sorts of teachings about personal behavior, about order in the church. He even wrote a whole section of his letter about the resurrection of Christ and its meaning for all Christians (chapter 15). Nevertheless, he wanted to preach nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This was the heart of his teaching. But it was not about crucifixes or about sermons to comfortable, suburban Christians.

Have the same mind that was also in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be grasped (ἁρπαγμὸν),
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

“Have the same mind,” Paul tells the Christians in the northern Greek city of Philippi. In other words, exhibit the same cruciform love that Jesus showed by taking on our nature and accepting death on the cross. For whom, did Jesus die? For us, his brothers and sisters, since he became as one of us. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” Paul wrote to the Philippians immediately before the remarkable passage quoted above. This is an invitation to cruciform living. It’s not about hanging crucifixes in churches or around our necks. But neither is it about sermons to “me”-Christians. Jesus did not die on the cross to create a me-centered people. His death on the cross is about creating a new humanity, a new human community – exemplified by the church, but only if and when that “church” lives in accordance with the cruciform love of God in Christ.

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν, he wrote to the Philippians (2:5). It’s all in the plural: [You – plural] have this mind in, or among, you (plural). ἐν ὑμῖν can be translated as “in you” or “among you” – both in the plural – but more likely as “among you”, as this fits better with the communal advice that Paul is giving to the Christians in Philippi. His concern was to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12), the church – but not just the church with the name “church”, but the church that lives by and reflects the power of the cross of Jesus Christ: εἰ γὰρ σύμφυτοι γεγόναμεν τῷ ὁμοιώματι τοῦ θανάτου αὐτοῦ, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῆς ἀναστάσεως ἐσόμεθα· “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). The Greek adjective σύμφυτοι goes all the way back to Aeschylus in Greek literature and can be translated in many ways, including the one quoted here, “united” – but also, “planted together”, “joined”, “grown into union”, “identified”, “incorporate”….. ὁμοίωμα [in the dative, ὁμοιώματι, here] is translated “like his”, but more literally, “in the likeness”. So a more literal translation of Romans 6:5 would go like this: “For if we have become joined in the likeness of his death, so also we shall be to his resurrection.” This passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is read at every baptism, but people are more interested to watch the baby than to listen to words of such profound, transformational meaning.

The church is here to be for others – not for our own selfish spiritual needs. Jesus never attended to “spiritual needs”! He never knew the term, nor did the New Testament writers. Jesus told us to live for others, just as he lived for us; we are the “others” that he had in mind when he ascended the cross, when he brought into the world and poured out the cruciform love of God in Christ. May we become a church of cruciform love. May we become the church for others. Because we also are “others” who have been brought into the embrace of Christ. Paul reminds us that we also were “without Christ, aliens … and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13). We are in this together, σύμφυτοι in the cruciform love of Christ.

Addendum: I should point out that the initial incentive for this post came from the book by Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, published by Eerdmans in 2001. I have only now started to read this book, but the term “cruciform love” is used by the author.

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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 (

The Epitaphios Icon of Holy and Great Friday (

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 (

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

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Theology of the Cross, Part 1

7-34 Byzantine Greece CrucifixionThe third in a short series of Bible Study classes exploring the themes of the Sundays of Lent focused on the Cross of Jesus Christ, which is venerated on the Third Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church (last Sunday, March 15th).

An audio file of the class is attached, together with the PowerPoint presentation and a PDF version of the PowerPoint file. These files are made available here primarily for the benefit of class participants. But others are welcome to listen to the audio and view the PowerPoint slides that accompany the audio recording of the class.


To access the PowerPoint presentation or the PDF version, click on one of the links below. It should be viewed in conjunction with the audio file.

Themes of the Cross, Part 1 (PowerPoint)

Themes of the Cross, Part 1 (PDF)