On the Altar of the Cross

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The Hill of Crosses, Šiauliai, Lithuania
Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In today’s reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, we read his further elaboration of the dominant theme of the work, namely, the priesthood of Christ. The book, being written to the Hebrew people, that is, to the Jews, is at pains to express to them that the ancient priesthood of the Jewish faith, which offered up sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, was now being fulfilled in Christ.

Jesus, in His coming to Earth, had instituted a new order of priests, not one descended from Moses’ brother Aaron and the Jewish Tribe of Levi, as the old priesthood had been, but rather a priesthood that is not defined by fleshly descent, but by spiritual participation in Christ. And this meditation on the priesthood is what is brought before us in Orthodox tradition as appropriate to hear on this, the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross.

It is no secret that the central dynamic of true Christian life is one that is bizarre and unattractive to this world—crucifixion. Not only is the Christian Church the only religion in the world whose defining moment is the martyrdom of God, but we also make the unpopular appeal to those who would follow after Christ to come and be crucified with Him. If we are going to be identified with Christ, then we must be martyred with Christ, whether literally through physical death on account of our faith or in a more metaphorical sense through life-long death to the passions and foolishness of this world.

The Lord Himself says this in today’s Gospel: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” That’s the Christian life: Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. Follow His life. Follow His actions. Do what He did. Deny yourself. Be crucified. Do that, and you are a Christian.

Well, to be honest, that doesn’t sound so nice. We’re not interested in denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. We’d prefer to indulge ourselves and take up, well, just about anything but a cross. Take up golfing. Take up fancy restaurants. Take up collecting stamps. Take up expensive cars and houses. Take up video games. No cross, please, thanks.

So that leaves us the question as to why anyone would actually choose to be a Christian. A life of self-denial? Of crucifixion? Really?

In the face of these very clear words from Christ, to understand why anyone would actually want to live as a true Christian, and not merely as a Christian in name only, we have to understand what motivates people. There are many things in human life for which people will practice self-denial and even choose a very difficult way of living. Someone may strive arduously to be an excellent athlete, with all the training, sacrifice, change in diet, and rearrangement of schedule that requires. Someone may consistently and carefully woo someone for marriage, caring and serving, embarrassing themselves with romantic gestures, changing jobs, friends or place of residence. Someone may also go through the rigors of boot camp or basic training and enter into the separation from family, danger and risk that are required in order to be in the military. Or they may do whatever it takes to have and to raise children.

There are many difficult things that we as human beings will do in order to gain something more important, in order to serve an ideal or to achieve a goal that we regard as being higher and better than what we could have gained from the things we give up, from the self-denial and even pain we endure. In all of these things, we have to have a clear sense of what the goal actually is, that it is actually worth the struggle and pain. In the context of meditating today on the Cross of Christ, in the words we hear from Paul he explains to us what this is.

Christ’s offering on the cross is not as a victim. He was not involuntarily crucified. He was not overcome by His creatures and put to death, as though He never had any say in the matter. The whole thing was voluntary. No, it was not His own hand that killed Him—He did not commit suicide. But He could have stopped it at any point. So it was by His will that the crucifixion happened. Therefore, this act is an act of deliberate sacrifice. And if it is a sacrifice, then there must be a sacrificer. And what is a sacrificer? That is a priest.

Remember, the Epistle to the Hebrews is about the priesthood of Christ. And today’s reading is precisely about Christ as our great High Priest, the One Who offers up sacrifices on behalf of the people. Paul says here that He is “taken from among the people, is appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God, that He may offer up both gifts and sacrifices for sins; Who can have compassion on the ignorant and on those who are erring, since He Himself also is encompassed with infirmity.”

Jesus Christ is one of us, “taken from among the people.” But we could say that He is also “taken” from God, since He is God. He is the only being in existence Who can identify with both God and man, because He is both God and man. It is this God-man, this High Priest, Who offers up the ultimate and final sacrifice on the cross. That is the altar on which His sacrifice is given, and it is there that we join with Him, if we also take up our crosses and live in self-denial. It is there that we, too, become priests, participating in the one priesthood of Christ.

So why would we want to do that? What’s the point in also becoming sacrificers and, indeed, becoming the sacrificed? Why would we want to deny ourselves and take up our crosses? Jesus explains this to us in the Gospel: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

On its face, the words of the God-man, the High Priest, clearly indicate that our eternal salvation depends on being crucified ourselves. If we are ashamed of Christ and will not truly follow Him, then He will be ashamed of us when He comes in His glory at the end of time. In stark terms, we risk eternity in Hell if we do not take up the cross.

But there is also something else going on here: We lose our lives in order to save them. What does this mean? It is part of the nature of sacrifice. When something is truly sacrificed to God, it is not traded to Him. It is not merely “given up.” That is not what sacrifice is. Sacrifice is rather to offer something to God, upon which He takes it and transforms it by His touch, and then He offers it back, now changed, made holy and transformed.

So that means that being sacrificed, living a life of self-denial and crucifixion, is not merely the door to eternity in Heaven, though it certainly is that. That’s what Christ said. It’s also the key to becoming something more than we are, to becoming truly holy, truly human—that is, becoming what God created us to be. He made us to be saints. The pursuit of being a saint is the only thing that will last into eternity, but even more than that, it is the only thing truly worth man’s time and struggle. It is the only thing truly worth giving your heart to unreservedly.

Don’t you yearn to be something higher, something nobler? Don’t you long for glory? Doesn’t your heart burn within you not just to know about what is good, what is holy, what is filled with light and perfection, but actually to participate in it? Don’t you want, in the midst of this broken, fallen, darkened world, to see wholeness, beauty and light?

Come, then, deny yourself and be crucified with Christ. Take up this glorious struggle, this holy fight, this noblest and best of all human callings. He has called us all to be a holy people, a nation of priests. If we follow the way of the Cross, we will know true glory and power and joy for all eternity.

To the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Return to God

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"Der verlorene Sohn hütet die Schweine," Sebald Beham, 1538

Sunday of the Prodigal Son, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

One of the principal themes that we meditate upon during these weeks that precede Great Lent and during the Fast itself is forgiveness. And it’s no wonder, because the Christian Church is really the only place in which forgiveness makes any sense, the only place where forgiveness is actually possible.

If you’re standing in front of a judge who is about to sentence you for a crime, try saying, “Please forgive me!” Or imagine Richard Nixon, during the announcement of his resignation from the presidency in 1974, saying, “Please forgive me!” Or what if you get an “F” on an exam in school—can you say to your teacher, “Please forgive me”? Forgiveness is not really how our society operates. And yet we think about it a great deal here in the Church.

So what does it mean? And what can we learn about forgiveness from the Gospel theme for today, the parable of the Prodigal Son?

I think a lot of people think of forgiveness as a sort of deal we do with God. We come to church every so often (perhaps even regularly), give a certain amount toward our pledge, or even just say, “God, forgive me,” and God will of course forgive us—right? Actually—wrong. In fact, that sort of approach to Christian faith indicates that we don’t even understand what forgiveness really is.

So first let’s talk about what it’s not. Forgiveness is not a ticket to Heaven. Forgiveness is not for God to look at our sins and say, “Oh, I guess that’s all right. Just don’t do it again. Here, have some eternal life.” Forgiveness is not having some big mystical debt or punishment just wiped away.

To get inside what forgiveness actually is, consider your own experience. Have you ever had anyone say to you “I’m sorry,” but you just knew that they weren’t really sorry? You knew that there was no real change on their part, that they just wanted whatever had happened to be over with, that what had happened had not really affected them inside. They just wanted to get out of whatever bad experience awaited them, even if it was just the experience of continuing to be confronted with their failing. Or perhaps you were that person—not really sorry for what you did, but just sorry you got caught or sorry that something uncomfortable happened because of what you did.

But have you ever had someone who had failed you, who had betrayed you, who had hurt you, and who then came to you with genuine sorrow, not because they feared bad things happening to them, but because they could not bear to be separated from you? Their sorrow for their sin came out of the brokenness of the relationship with you, not from concern for their own comfort. That’s the basis for real forgiveness, because there is real repentance there, a real desire to be reunited, to be reconciled.

So, now think for a moment about your real relationship with Christ. When you say to Him, “Lord, have mercy,” are you saying it merely out of habit? Are you saying it out of a sense of obligation? Are you saying it just because it sounds nice when the choir sings it? Or are you actually aware that you need, well, mercy?

Are you aware of your separation from your Creator? If not, there are two possibilities: You are a saint and have a constant and unbroken awareness of God’s presence with you or you do not actually care to have a real relationship with your God, and so the separation doesn’t matter to you.

If you come and listen to the hymns of the Sunday Matins service leading up to and during Great Lent, you will hear a hymn sung shortly after the Gospel reading in which the writer says that he “tremble[s] for the terrible day of judgment.” Why would anyone tremble, though? Didn’t the writer of that hymn—probably a saint—have his ticket to Heaven? Even in his holiness, a saint is aware that he still has separation from God, and his thirst for God’s presence is so strong and his awareness of his inability to be perfect is so strong that he cries out to God, “Lord, have mercy!”

I think this is a real problem for many of us—we do not know that we are separated from God, and probably worse yet, we may not even care. But probably all of us do care for how we will spend eternity. But we may be deceived, thinking that all we need to do is to fulfill some religious “obligation,” and that ticket to Heaven will be ours. If we believe that—no matter how we may define our “obligation”—then we have believed a lie, and it is a lie whispered to us by the demons.

The truth behind all this is to be found in today’s Parable of the Prodigal Son. In this story, which we all know well, an ungrateful son takes what belongs to his father and wastes it all in a far-off country, eventually finding himself in total shame, total filthiness, total rejection from society.

We know how the story ends, but let’s imagine an alternate ending for this parable. Instead of the Prodigal “coming to himself” and going back to his father, he sends him a letter:

Dear Dad,

As you may have heard, I am now living in a far-off country and am forced to feed pigs for a living. I’ve even gotten so hungry that the pigs’ food is starting to look pretty good to me. I messed up, and I’m sorry. I was hoping you might send over one of your servants with a bag of gold so I could pay off my debts and maybe buy something to eat. I’d appreciate it.

The Prodigal

That’s ridiculous, of course. But that’s basically the approach a lot of us take. We send God the occasional prayer-letter and want Him to bail us out in exchange. But that’s not what forgiveness is about. It’s not a bail-out from the Big Banker in the Sky.

What really happens in this parable is what forgiveness is all about. The Prodigal “comes to himself,” meaning that he really realizes what he has done, meaning that he really has become aware of his separation from his father, from his home, from his family. And then he goes home. And he makes no request other than “Please take me back.” He doesn’t even expect to be treated as a son. He just asks to be treated as a servant.

Ask yourself today whether you’re aware of the separation that exists between you and God. Really ask yourself that. If you don’t think there is one at all, well as much as it may be hard to hear, there actually is. If you think there isn’t one, ask yourself whether you have yet become perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, because that’s the only way there’s no separation.

If you’re not there yet, then that means you have some work to do. And if you can at least acknowledge that intellectually, but you have no idea where to start, no idea how to actually “come to yourself” and start heading toward the Father, then please, come to confession and let’s talk. It’s true: No one is perfect. But if we’re satisfied with that, then that means we are satisfied with living with the pigs, satisfied with the temporary pleasure and success the world has to offer, satisfied with forgetting about living with God and all our family in Heaven at the end of our lives. But if you’re not satisfied with that, if you want to know what you can do about overcoming that separation, then Christ and His Church stand ready to take you by the hand and lead you, step by step, back to the Father.

As ever, our forgiveness depends on our hearts. We cannot be forgiven if our hearts are not really set on drawing close to Christ. We cannot only set our minds or our sense of religious “obligation” on the forgiveness of God. We have to give our hearts. And you know when you’ve given your heart to something—it’s when you can never answer the question, “How much is enough?” There is no “enough” when it comes to the heart.

So what is forgiveness? It is to be received back by our Father. And how do we get there? We “come to ourselves,” return to Him, and open our hearts. Then we will gain not only the glory and beauty of His presence in this life, but eternity with Him, as well. As the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither” (from The Joyful Christian).

So which way are you aiming?

May the God of peace, forgiveness and restoration, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be therefore glorified always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

“Foundations of the Orthodox Faith” series fully online

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My Foundations of the Orthodox Faith series is now fully online at Ancient Faith Radio. This series represents an attempt at a sort of catechism—approaching the faith from four foundational angles: the revelation of God to man, authority in the spiritual life, worship, and morality.

As with most of my work, I attempted to keep these talks fairly free of religious jargon, approaching the subjects with only a minimum of assumptions shared with the listeners. My hope is that these will be digestible not only to Orthodox Christians, but to other Christians, members of other religions, those who are “spiritual but not religious,” and even unbelievers.

There’s something of a progression here, so skipping ahead is advisable only at your own risk. The progression makes some sense to me: God reveals Himself (1), leading us to ask what we should trust as authoritative (2), propelling us into acts of worship (3) and ethics/morality (4).

Here’s the full series with all the links:

Whatever assumptions you may have, this series is probably not quite what you might be thinking. (But, hey! Maybe it is.)

Scripture and Tradition

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Ancient Faith Radio now has both parts of my talk “Scripture and Tradition” available for download here and here as part of the Roads From Emmaus podcast.

This talk is the second installment in the four-part Foundations of the Orthodox Faith series and was originally delivered on May 23, 2010.

Those interested in a particular aspect of this talk, namely, the formation of the New Testament canon as a question for apologetics, may find the post and comments here (from This Is Life!: Revolutions Around the Cruciform Axis) to be of some interest.

The Voice

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Today’s saintly commemoration is the conception of John the Forerunner, known to most English speakers as John the Baptist, which is narrated for us, along with his birth, in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

A major thematic element for today is the Voice. Zachariah, not believing the archangel, is made bereft of his voice until such time as he participates in the naming of his son. Some might see in this a curiously arbitrary punishment, but for one who is a priest, as Zachariah was, losing one’s voice is no small thing. And this was not merely laryngitis, either. Zachariah could not function as a priest without his voice, and so for nine months, he is made to fast from his priestly office, and his voice is held fast and in check until his wife Elizabeth should give birth.

And then the one to whom Elizabeth gives birth is the Voice par excellence. He is the Voice crying in the wilderness, prophesied by Isaiah so many centuries before. And this Voice speaks only one Word, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the Word of God.

Yes, we may say that Zachariah was “punished” for his lack of faith when the archangel spoke to him, but may we not also look deeper? Was it not appropriate that the priesthood of the Old Covenant, the Aaronic priesthood, should fall silent at the coming of the one who introduces us to the true, fulfilled priesthood of the New Covenant? Before, there was a priesthood of the flesh, a priesthood of Levites, but now there is a priesthood into which all mankind may be initiated, the priesthood of Christ, which lasts forever, after the order of Melchizedek. Zachariah himself was ordained in this new priesthood when he named his son.

And so we too must all lift our voices with the Voice, proclaiming that same Word.