Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Holy Cross Day - Sep 15, 2015

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
Holy Cross Day - transferred - Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Isaiah 45:21-25 
Galatians 6:14-18 
John 12:31-36a 

The Oberammergau Cross
“We venerate your cross, O Christ, and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection, for by reason of that cross, joy has come into the world.”

There are two crosses in our monastery church, and this is often remarked upon.  One is the large wooded Oberammergau cross, a classic Western realistic representation of the crucifixion with all its pain and agony... unusual, I think, in that Jesus is still alive, though clearly suffering and dying.  The other is the large icon cross over the altar, which is also a representation of the Crucifixion, though it would seem from the vantage point of the transcendent and resurrected Christ, gazing out serenely beyond suffering, beyond death, beyond time itself.  The title over it says not: Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews, but a text from the Orthodox Palm Sunday service:  To you O Conqueror of death, we sing Hosanna.  

The two figures look at each other and face each other, though from two different standpoints or perspectives. Here we have Jesus facing Jesus!  What are they each thinking?  What do they want to or need to say to each other?  What an internal dialog that must be!  

And we here are between and in the midst of both.  Both crosses are true representations of Jesus the Christ.  And both are true representations of each one of us.  And to some extent, that internal and eternal dialog of Jesus represented by these two crosses is ours as well.  

The Icon Cross
We might say that the two crosses represent sides of the same coin, the same mystery, the same event, though they can often feel so very far apart, even worlds apart in our own experience.  And yet they work in concert, often mysteriously, to bring us to full maturity of heart and mind and soul.  Both are in some sense necessary. The first—that of pain, suffering, loss, even torment—though not perhaps willed or designed by God, perhaps grieving God even more than it grieves us, can nonetheless become, through the power of God, a vehicle of such wholeness as could not have been imagined without it. Which is a very bold claim indeed.

And yet we have all lived this claim and seen witness to it.  I myself saw and heard one just the other day.   It was the televised interview of Vice President Joe Biden by Stephen Colbert on the Tonight show.  It was all about the pain of loss and the will, determination, and power to carry on.  It struck me as more a spiritual direction session or perhaps a chaplain's visitation than a political interview....really like nothing I have ever seen on television.  I urge you to watch it!

In the interview Biden, probed and prompted by Colbert, talks about the recent loss of his beloved son Beau to brain cancer. And that leads to his reflections on the death of his wife and daughter in an automobile accident many years ago and the physical injuries sustained by the two sons who survived and his choice to raise the surviving children as a single parent and to go forward with his work, his career, with life.

The Episcopal Cafe, which contains the videos of the interview, titles their piece: “Two Irish Catholic guys talk faith, politics and life”  For before you know it, Colbert is himself talking about the death, while he was still a child, of his father and two brothers in an airplane crash.

For both of these men, devout Catholics, it was the solace of their faith—their beliefs and rituals—that  kept them going. More than that, their faith gave them the direction and  courage to take the next right  step, even when, as Vice President Biden said, the faith faded away at times.

Neither the Vice President nor Colbert mentioned the cross, at least not explicitly. But it was written all over that interview. Indeed our two crosses were there: the Oberammergau cross of suffering and loss and the struggle with despair and the icon cross of resurrection and possibility and hope.      

To die and to rise again! That is what the cross in its fullness witnesses to.

The cross, to me, conveys at least three truths

The cross is first of all a promise that God will not abandon us, a promise that God knows what it means to be human, fully human, in all its wonderful and dreadful variety and woe, and that God will somehow, some way, work to bring life out of death.  I think we mostly get this, even if we often forget it or are blind to it.

Second, the cross is a pledge, a sacrament if you will, the visible, en-fleshed, historical event that acts out God's promise of solidarity with all God's creation.  I think we get that, too, maybe a little.

But the cross—and this is difficult, maybe impossible to get intellectually or even emotionally—the cross is also the instrument, the very means, by which and through which all this happened and continues to happen to this very day.  The dying of Christ as much as his rising—and the rising of Christ as much as his dying—has changed reality forever.  And that's hard to wrap our 21st century post-modern minds around.

Our attempts to understand it theoretically with metaphors taken from the medieval feudal systems, such as substitutionary theory of the atonement, although well-meaning, leave us empty, if not frankly appalled. Maybe contemporaries like Rene Girard and his followers will be more successful with their theory of mimesis and scapegoating. I don't know.  I'm really not a theologian, even if I sometimes like to fancy myself one.

And perhaps that's why I find myself attracted over and over again to the earthy images associated with the Cross and drawn from the Patristic era and specifically from Eastern Christian liturgical texts, so rich and suggestive and creative and poetic beyond any prosaic rationality.  

How shall we understand the cross?

Crux est Mundi Medicina it says over our front door—the cross is the medicine of the world, the world's healing.

The Cross is the tree of life, reaching from the darkest depths up to heaven and uniting all in one, righting and rewriting that other story of the tree that we meet in the second chapter of Genesis, which Chrysostom calls the story of “a woman, a tree and a death.”  It is the tree that shelters us from the scorching heat and that nourishes us with fruit and clothes us with garments leading to eternal life.

The cross is Noah's ark, our vehicle of safety and deliverance.  It is Moses' rod  changing water into blood, swallowing up Pharaoh's serpents and splitting open the Red Sea  leading to our freedom from bondage. It is Aaron's rod blossoming into a new and eternal priesthood. It is the wood piled by Abraham on  Issac's shoulders as he went to witness to a total surrender to God.  It is Jacob's ladder, on which we climb to our true home.

The cross is the bridge spanning the great abyss, the battering ram that breaks down the gates of death, the chariot on which Christ the warrior King rides out of Hades, taking with him Adam and Eve and all of us, their spiritual children.

The cross is the fishhook that tricks the devil and subdues him and reels him in. It is the poison that he swallows to his own perdition and to our own liberation.

The cross is a spear against wickedness and a charm against evil.  

It is the ensign, the standard, the flag around which gather, in one united flock, the dispersed sheep of Christ, destined, as one ancient author says, for the sheepfolds of heaven.   

The cross...sheer folly to those who are on their way to ruin, but to us...the power of God and the wisdom of God.

As someone once wrote:  “The cross is our all-sufficing treasure and our never-ending reward.”

So today and tomorrow and everyday...

“We venerate your cross, O Christ, and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection, for by reason of that cross, joy has come into the world.”

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