Sunday, September 14, 2014

Met Georges Khodr: Three Reflections on the Cross

Arabic original here.

The Elevation of the Cross

These days rotate around the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. Regardless of the historical occasion for the feast, we turn to the idea of our lifting up the cross, which in general speech is called the Feast of the Cross. In our faith and our prayer, we lift up the cross because we worship the one crucified upon it. In reality, we are magnifying our faith in the Crucified One, in the life that was poured out upon us by the Lord Jesus in the mystery of His death and resurrection.

In the Old Testament it says, "Cursed are all who are hung upon the tree." The blessed Lord took this curse upon Himself when they lifted Him upon the tree in order to lift the curse from us. An instrument of humiliation when criminals are hung upon it becomes an instrument of joy and pride. After the death of the Lord upon it, the cross has become our path to liberation from sin, as it was the Lord's path to His resurrection from the dead.

Thus the curse was voided, fear of death was nullified and the cross has become for us an invitation to our resurrection, just as it was the Lord's starting point toward His resurrection from the dead. We hang it in our churches, in our homes and on our chests in the hope of our liberation from sin, so in the Christian world it has become a symbol of hope and joy.

Christianity introduced a new understanding of the believer's suffering, that it can lead him to the Lord. Our suffering is no longer a sign of God's anger. Rather, it has become an image of his support for us. We are not happy about with suffering and we do not sanctify it. We are content with it in faith so that we may leave it for joy. We do not welcome our suffering but we hope that through it God will turn us toward the light of His face. It is not true that Christianity pursues suffering. It pursues the joy of the suffering believer when he suffers and accepts his situation in the hope of seeing Christ.

There is a widespread erroneous idea that Christianity sanctifies a person's pain. In fact, it accepts the believer's pain as a way-station for him in patience, but always in the hope of the resurrection. We must understand that the depiction of Christianity as a religion of suffering is a depiction that does not give proper weight to Christ's resurrection, which is the goal and the end.

Christian thought's focus on the cross is correct if we understand that it is not a locus for pain but rather a station on the path to freedom from pain. For us the cross is not a place for the Savior's suffering except insofar as it is the starting point for Christ's liberation from death. Our icons depict Christ on the cross with his eyes open in order to show that in death he remained victorious over death. "Death does not overcome Christ," as Paul says. This is the unity between the Lord's death and His resurrection, that death did not overcome him. The Savior passed through it and in this was the end of death.

And so, on Good Friday, during the funeral prayers for the Lord we do not weep. The words of our prayers look forward to Pascha. At the moment when we sing the death of the Savior, we leap forward with many words toward Pascha on account of our faith that death did not put an end to Christ for even a moment, in the sense that it had no effect against Christ, but rather was a leap towards the resurrection.

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Arabic original here.

The Foolishness of the Cross

The cross has many meanings, but I will attempt to summarize the most important among them from what the Apostle Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, part of which we read today. The apostle found himself in Greece before a great civilization. He was confronted with beautiful sculpture and architecture in Athens, as he was likewise confronted with the widespread philosophical school there, in the public square, the Areopagus, under that great hill in the heart of the city. The scholars spoke and the rhetors addressed the apostle and did not accept him. He headed for Corinth, to the laborers in the port, and these poor and neglected people accepted the faith from him, so Paul realized that no one would believe if he completely held to his intellect, if his intellect did not submit to the Gospel of Christ.

Likewise, the Jews expelled him from all their synagogues, as he would frequent their gatherings in Asia Minor and Greece. They expelled him because they despised the Crucified One. The Jews sought  signs from heaven and miracles. Moses had trained them and they thought that God makes Himself manifest and magnifies Himself through natural miracles. The Jews thought that God is a mighty and brutal tyrant and Plato thought that the gods are beautiful. In Jerusalem they were attached to might and in Athens they were attached to reason and beauty.

Along came Paul, the laborer, the tent-maker who had not read all of Greek philosophy and who was weak in the body, prone to illness as we may deduce from his Letter to the Galatians. He comes before the entire world and says, "The word of the cross to those perishing is folly", foolishness, madness because people do not seek a crucified god. Some of them seek a dominant god, and God does not dominate over them. Others seek a brilliant, beautiful god, but God was not beautiful upon the wood of the cross. Some seek a sign and others seek wisdom, and that is a rational mindset, but for we who are saved, Christ is God's power and God's wisdom. God comes and dwells among the poor. He rejects cruelty. He rejects it forever. He challenges the powerful. He constantly challenges them. He challenges those who are proud of their beauty, their knowledge and their gifts. Christ destroys our delusions and kills our vainglory. We have lived in this Middle East for over fourteen centuries and our glories are in the blood of our martyrs, in worship, and in the strong theology by which we speak of God.

We nailed ourselves to the cross once and for all in order to say that we renounce everything that the world has to give, to say that we are needy for the grace of our Lord and not needy for the wealth of this world. That is, everyone who has adopted the religion of the cross has taken up death. We are alive and provided-for, but we are risking death. That is, at every moment, we are putting our passions to death so that we may live in the Lord Jesus above the sun, according to the words of Paul, "God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom[a] the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).

Crosses are not put up with lights in the streets in order to say that we are here in a neighborhood and others are in another neighborhood. The cross does not divide up the living. The cross is not a division,  but rather a reaching out. It is God's heart, open to the universe. We are triumphant, yes, but we do not go on a crusade for this triumph. We do not fight. We do not slaughter anyone. We are triumphant. There is a victor and there is one vanquished. But the victor is the believer and the vanquished is the believer. How can this be? Vanquished are the believer's passions. You alone are the battlefield. Your Christ is triumphant in you, and your devil is vanquished in you. We are seekers of peace, seekers of joy, seekers of resurrection. Through the cross, we go to the resurrection.

This world is passing away. If you are pleased with this, then you are with the Crucified One. If you want for yourselves to conquer people, then you are with the Jews because the god of the Jews is a conqueror. If you want yourselves to be wise and astute, believing in your minds and your earthly arrangements, with the Greeks, with the pagan gentiles. But if you reject both this and that, if you are mad, if you are able to go mad, if you enjoy the grace of divine foolishness, if they point it you to say that you are fools who do not understand anything, if they belittle you and despise you and cast you aside, then be pleased that you have become like your Teacher, hanging on the tree. However, you must understand that by this tree alone and by this path to death are you triumphant. This is your gospel.

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Arabic original here.

Just as Moses Lifted Up the Serpent in the Desert

The Church established the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross after Saint Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine, found the true cross buried in the ground in the fourth century. In the seventh century, when the Persians occupied Jerusalem, they took the cross and then it was returned by the Byzantine emperor, who raised it up. These two events, the finding of the cross and its return, together constitute the Feast of the Elevation of the Venerable Cross.

In preparation for this commemoration, the Gospel of John told us, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so too must the Son of Man be lifted up so that all who believe in Him may not perish but have eternal life." The event that the Gospel refers to here is when the Hebrews were returning from Egypt, they were bitten by snakes in the desert of Sinai. The people asked Moses to pray to the Lord to remove the danger of the snakes. Moses prayed for the people and the Lord said to him, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live" (Numbers 21:8-9).

For us, the broze serpent is without a doubt a symbol of the Crucified One. Those who look at the Crucified One with faith and take Him as savior will be healed of Satan's sting, from the bite of sin.

After this, John the Beloved continues in his gospel with the words of the Savior, "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life."

Before Christ came, God connected with a people and peoples, with all the peoples. He sent them rain and sun and supported them with philosophy and the good ideas that existed among the pagan peoples. This was a kind of indirect divine support. God sent His prophets to speak to the ancient world of Him, to express His will, to discipline the people and to reform and strengthen them with the word. Then, when the fullness of time set by God in His wisdom came, He sent His Son as one born from a woman, born under the law, incarnate and living among us, tasting the suffering that we taste and loving us. Then he suffered, died for us and rose. Thus, by sending His Son in the body, God became not only close to people as they had known Him of old, not only as one taking pity on humankind, He also came to be among people, one of them, tasting the pain they taste, rejoicing in their joys and giving Himself to them.

In the past, the prophets were given Gods words, but now God Himself has come to humankind and lived as one of us in order to lift us up to God. All of this was in the cross and on the cross. That is, the love with which God loved us found its highest and most perfect expression when He became incarnate and sacrificed Himself as a gift of love. He fell asleep in death, just like people, insofar as all who die finds Christ as their companion. When a person dies, Christ is with him. However, just as Christ raised Himself from the tomb, so too does He raise us all from our tombs. This is not only on the last day; He raises us now from the tomb of sin. Man buries himself in sin, but through repentance, through forgiveness, through the love that guides Him to us, He makes us His peers, His brothers. From now on we are sitting with Christ at the right hand of majesty. Thus when we celebrate the Feast of the Cross next week, let this be a point of pride for us, pride that we are loved, pride in the Lord who gave us Himself in our bodies. We receive the Lord when we take the Eucharist into our spirits and bodies. In this way we enter into God's heart.

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