“The theme of the Orthodox account of Christ’s suffering and death is that of bearing shame and mockery. You can search the texts of Holy Week for the word ‘pain,’ and come up with almost nothing. The mocking and the shame, however, color everything.
“The same is largely true of the New Testament as well. When St. Paul describes Christ’s self-emptying (kenosis) on the Cross, he says that Christ ‘became obedient to death,’ and adds, ‘even death on a Cross.’ The point of the ‘even’ is not that the Cross is painful above all pain, but that the Cross is shameful above all shame.”
In an article titled An Atonement of Shame Father Stephen discusses how our own shame and vulnerability before God are the key to our understanding what has been done for us on the Cross, and he points us to the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose father ran to embrace him while he was yet in shame.
“The first instinct of shame is to look down, to turn the face away and hide. Blood rushes to the face (it ‘burns with shame’). Shame is the very sacrament of broken communion, the most proper and natural expression of sin. When Christ enters our shame (and bears it), it is as though God Himself stands before us, takes our face in His hands, and turns our eyes back to Him.”
Today near the beginning of Liturgy I found myself standing close to my dear friends Mr. and Mrs. Bread. Mr. Bread whispered, “I have something for you,” and he put this gift into my hand, a little cross he had carved from abalone shell. I’ve been trying for an hour to take a photograph that shows all the colors that shimmer from it, and this is the best I could do.
It is so much more than a visual thing – I held it for a half hour before I could bring myself to put it away in my bag. So smooth and cool on its face, with gentle contours… I felt the need to keep stroking it with my fingers that were suddenly clumsy and large. I don’t usually have anything in my hands during worship, but its natural beauty and Christian meaning fit right in with the smell of beeswax candles and the chanting of prayers, and of course the icons.
Maybe next week I’ll be wearing it around my neck. 🙂
“When St. Paul preached in Athens, the world was thronged with crosses, rooted outside cities, bearing all of them the bodies of slowly dying men. When Augustine preached in Carthage, the world was also thronged with crosses, but now in the very centre of cities, lifted in processions and above altars, decorated and jewelled, and bearing all of them the image of the Identity of dying Man.
“There can hardly ever have been — it is a platitude — a more astonishing reversion in the history of the world. It is not surprising that Christianity should sometimes be regarded as the darkest of superstitions, when it is considered that a thing of the lowest and most indecent horror should have been lifted, lit, and monstrously adored, and that not merely sensationally but by the vivid and philosophic assent of the great intellects of the Roman world. The worship in jungles and marshes, the intoxication of Oriental mysteries, had not hidden in incense and litany a more shocking idol. The bloody and mutilated Form went up everywhere; Justinian built the Church of Holy Wisdom to it in Byzantium, and the Pope sang Mass before it on the hills where Rome had been founded. The jewelled crosses hid one thing only — they hid the indecency. But original crucifixion was precisely indecent. The images we still retain conceal — perhaps necessarily — the same thing; they preserve pain but they lack obscenity. But the dying agony of the God-Man exhibited both….”
-Charles Williams in The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church
6th century Byzantine mosaic in the apse of the basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy. Photo in the public domain, on Wikipedia Commons.
In my reading through the Gospel of Mark I came yesterday to the account of the crucifixion of our Lord. I wasn’t thinking at the time of how it was the eve of the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, because I was soon on my way to yet another birthday party, this time to celebrate Laddie’s turning two.
Later, I thought about how appropriate it was that I contemplate Christ’s being forsaken by his Father, taking that cup of death and thereby conquering and destroying death, so that we can drink from the cup of joy, and have a feast. This is truly a spiritual feast, and not the kind where we delight in earthly food. And for that reason it’s set right here in the middle of the Lenten fast. The following is from our church bulletin.
ON THE CROSS:
As they who walk on a long and hard way and are bowed down by fatigue find great relief and strengthening under the cool shade of a leafy tree, so do we find comfort, refreshment, and rejuvenation under the Life-giving Cross, which our Fathers “planted” on this Sunday.
Thus, we are fortified and enabled to continue our Lenten journey with a light step, rested and encouraged. Or, as before the arrival of the king, his royal standards, trophies, and emblems of victory come in procession and then the king himself appears in a triumphant parade, jubilant and rejoicing in his victory and filling those under him with joy, so does the Feast of the Cross precede the coming of our King, Jesus Christ. It warns us that He is about to proclaim His victory over death and appear to us in the glory of the Resurrection….
The present feast has been placed in the middle of Great Lent for another reason. The Fast can be likened to the spring of Marah whose waters the children of Israel encountered in the wilderness. This water was undrinkable due to its bitterness but became sweet when the Holy Prophet Moses dipped the wood into its depth. Likewise, the wood of the Cross sweetens the days of the Fast, which are bitter and often grievous because of our tears. Yet Christ comforts us…
Moreover, as the Holy Cross is called the Tree of Life, it is placed in the middle of the Fast, as the ancient tree of life was placed in the middle of the garden of Eden. By this, our Holy Fathers wished to remind us of Adam’s gluttony as well as the fact that through this Tree has condemnation been abolished. Therefore, if we bind ourselves to the Holy Cross, we shall never encounter death but shall inherit life eternal.