Monday, 24 April 2006

The Cross of Christ

The Cross is a mystery. Any attempt to explain this mystery can encompass only a small part of its meaning, only a small part of its depth. According to the wisdom granted to him by God, St Paul has much in his epistles that approaches this mystery—this foolish act of God as St Paul himself puts it—and it is the epistles of Paul which form the basis of our theology of the Cross.

In the West, in the Reformation, a problem was posed of the nature of justification. This is a problem over the specific nature of the salvific act of Christ on the Cross. Without our wanting to say that the matter is theologically not important, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation arguments are hardened positions of one sort or its opposite—slogans, even, that were used as banners in vicious armed conflict—which really have nothing to do with a balanced Orthodox approach to the Mystery of the Cross. When we participate in the services from Maundy Thursday through Good Friday, but also the services up to and including the ‘Second Resurrection’—Vespers of Easter Sunday—we enter mystagogically into the Mystery of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. The hymns of these services are particularly rich in mystagogical content, particularly rich in an interpretation of the Cross which is fully dimensioned and completely Orthodox. There is no great special emphasis on legalism in the texts of these services, that legalism which is the basis in the West of the argument over justification by faith or justification by works. For the Orthodox, the question of the nature of justification is a tempting thought. Hence, we think that it is the wrong road, except perhaps in professional theology, for us to occupy ourselves with the ‘Orthodox answer to the question of justification’. It is more important to be baptized, so as to enter ontologically into the Mystery of the Cross, than it is to worry about ‘our position’ on justification by faith or justification by works. This is not to deny the necessity of catechism prior to baptism.

In participating in the services from Maundy Thursday through to the Second Resurrection, we live spiritually the betrayal, the trial and the Crucifixion—with the two sinners, the one who said, ‘Remember me in your Kingdom,’ and the one who rejected salvation—but also the Resurrection of Christ. Spiritually, the services are particularly rich: for example, while most people are taken by the midnight Resurrection service of Saturday towards Sunday, we ourselves have always preferred the first Divine Liturgy of Easter, which takes place on Holy Saturday: the Liturgy of St Basil combined with Vespers. Since Vespers of any day pertains liturgically to the next day, Vespers of Holy Saturday is a Resurrection service, along with the Divine Liturgy celebrated with it. It has always seemed to us that spiritually this service is a deeper encounter with the Resurrection than the Orthos and Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom celebrated with the Service of the New Light after midnight on Holy Saturday.

We are incapable of providing at the moment a commentary on the services from Maundy Thursday through to the afternoon of Easter Sunday. However, it strikes us that these services provide a balanced theological encounter with the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. What is continually apparent to us is that the Orthodox hymnographical treatment of all the Mysteries of Salvation, not only at Easter but also during the other Feasts of the liturgical calendar, is far more nuanced and multi-dimensional than the problems posed by Western theology. It is here, in the texts of the Feasts of the Orthodox liturgical calendar, that we find the answer of the Church of God to the human condition. And it is by participating in the Mysteries of the Church that we enter ontologically into those Orthodox answers, beginning in our baptism.

Hence, we find life in the texts of the services of the Orthodox Church—many people believe that the hymnographers were inspired by God—and, having experienced in our own baptism a similitude of Christ’s death on the Cross, in our own baptism we also enter into this Paschal life, when we encounter the Holy Spirit. It is this life of the Holy Spirit which is our hope, our pledge of freedom from the human condition. As the services put it, it is through the Cross of Christ that man is returned to the dignity of Adam and Eve in Eden before the Fall. This is accomplished in our baptism.

May the Light of Christ shine upon all of us!
Orthodox Monk

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