The Sunday of the Cross: the path of the disciple

“Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship O Master. And Thy holy resurrection we glorify.”

On Ash Wednesday of this year I read the postings of a someone I think in her early twenties. She had attended services in the morning, and from what she said of herself I would take it she is Roman Catholic. Whether she is, is not all that relevant. What is, is her assertion that the penitential aspect of Lent really caused her no pause; what did was “from dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Thinking about death really bothered her. As death is not our appointed end, it should bother us. But at the same time, can we really practice repentance without thinking about death. Well, at least the proper kind of death.

This Sunday marks the midpoint of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Cross, and it sets before us one of the central elements of our Faith, that which we are to glory in, namely the Passion of our God. Lent is a time that we focus primarily, however, not on repentance as contrition and compunction, but on life, and what we need to obtain it. Met. Anthony Bloom noted that every disciple must die, and that at some point if the disciple does not die, he is no disciple. This death may not be the one of St. Stephen, or St. Paul, or St. Peter, but it is a death nonetheless. We turn our soul away from what we think is life, and turn it to the life of our teacher, that is, to Life in Christ. Thus by the cross the world is crucified to us, and we should be thus to the world. Lent is a reorientation away from the life of the disordered passions, which arise from corruption, sin and death, and into the new life granted by Christ. When my students read The Way of the Pilgrim they recoil from the pilgrim’s regimen of saying the Jesus Prayer thousands of times a day. They liken this to the prayers of the heathen who think they will be heard by their frequent repetitions. My wards miss the point. The Pilgrim is not doing this because he thinks God will eventually listen to him, for he knows that were he to say the prayer but once without hesitation, and with purity of heart, it is enough (this is repeatedly stated in the Pilgrim’s textbook, The Philokalia). What the Pilgrim is doing is reorienting his mind, repenting his mind, toward Christ. How often we awaken with songs in our head that we cannot get out (this morning it is the Lorica of St. Patrick, for some reason); this is what the Pilgrim is hoping for on a grand scale. The Epistle reading for this past Saturday out of Hebrews calls attention to how the letter’s recipients identified with St. Paul in his chains, and that they gave up their own worldly possessions so that his ministry (Christ’s ministry) would be sustained. The Orthodox Church urges at all times that Christians give to the poor and needy, and especially so at Lent. This is part of turning our gaze, or reorienting our soul (of refocusing our nous, as Fr. Andrew Damick reminded me last week) toward new life. This life is present now, and not just in the world to come, not just after our present physical body has returned to the dust.

Thinking about death really means that we think properly about this present life and its goods. God has given us all good things to enjoy, and this world was created for us to enjoy and cultivate, it was given to us as Sacrament. Lent calls us to think about the world in this way, and not in the way we are so accustomed to think about it: this world is here for my consumption. It is the misuse of this world’s goods that turns us from Life, and it is to this death we should be dying.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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One Response to The Sunday of the Cross: the path of the disciple

  1. marcus josephus says:

    I am about to attend the Funeral Mass of my 90 year old Uncle Matthew, a former WWII Marine and observant Catholic. He would cringe to know that this evening and tomorrow morning the formalities at the “Funeral Home” are officially entitled his LIFE CELEBRATION. Indeed it is no longer even called a Funeral Home but a Life Celebration Center! Reminds me, as does Cyril’s Orthodox Orations of Alexander Schmemann’s prescient meditation on Death and Secularism. Though itt may be longer than Dr. Gary’s post, it is but WELL WORTH READING. Still not sure if I bless or rue the day I first read it (come to think of it very close to the date I first met Gary!) I read it at least once a year.

    It would be a great mistake … to think of secularism as simply an ‘absence of religion.’ It is, in fact, itself a religion, and as such, an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an ‘other world’ of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a ‘survival’ about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given ‘value’ in terms of death. Secularism is an ‘explanation’ of death in terms of life. The only world we know is this world, the only life given to us is this life – so thinks a secularist – and it is up to us men to make it as meaningful, as rich, as happy as possible. Life ends with death. This is unpleasant, but since it is natural, since death is a universal phenomenon, the best thing man can do about it is simply to accept it as something natural. As long as he lives, however, he need not think about it, but should live as though death did not exist. The best way to forget about death is to be busy, to be useful, to be dedicated to great and noble things, to build an always better world. If God exists (and a great many secularists firmly believe in God and the usefulness of religion for their corporate and individual enterprises) and if He, in His love and mercy (for we all have our shortcomings) wants to reward us for our busy, useful and righteous life with eternal vacations, traditionally called “immortality,” it is strictly His gracious business. But immortality is an appendix (however eternal) to this life, in which all real interests, all true values are to be found. The American “funeral home” is indeed the very symbol of secularist religion, for it expresses both the quiet acceptance of death as something natural (a house among other houses with nothing typical about it) and the denial of death’s presence in life.

    Secularism is a religion because it has a faith, it has its own eschatology and its own ethics. And it “works” and it “helps.” Quite frankly, if “help” were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion. To compete with it, religion has to present itself as “adjustment to life,” “counselling,” “enrichment,” it has to be publicized in subways and buses as a valuable addition to “your friendly bank” and all other “friendly dealers”: try it, it helps! And the religious success of secularism is so great that it leads some Christian theologians to “give up” the very category of “transcendence,” or in much simpler words, the very idea of “God.” This is the price we must pay if we want to be “understood” and “accepted” by modern man, proclaim the Gnostics of the twentieth century.

    But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer “insufficient help,” but precisely because they “suffice,” because they “satisfy” the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die – and not just live – for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

    Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a “status,” a rationale, make it “normal.” Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. At the grave of Lazarus Christ wept, and when His own hour to die approached, “he began to be sore amazed and very heavy.” In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere “help,” not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced with an “other world” which looks like a cemetery (“eternal rest”) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to “dispose” every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a “just society” and to be happy! – this is the fall of man. It is not the immortality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his “positive ideal” – religious or secular – and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes “awful,” the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the “end” and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.

    Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World:
    Sacraments and Orthodoxy (first edition 1963)

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