Homily 255 – Third Sunday of Great Lent (Exaltation of the Cross)
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
March 19, 2017
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.
What we hear today, what we honor and venerate today, began several weeks ago, in the last Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent – we call it “Forgiveness Sunday” or “Cheesefare Sunday”.
The theme of that service is the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise to the Earth. That story is found in Genesis, Chapter 3, verses 22 through 24:
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever–” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
There was a verse at Great Vespers on that Saturday evening.
Adam sat before the gates of Eden,
bewailing his nakedness and crying out:
“Woe to me! I have listened to wicked deceit;
I have lost my glory, and now am driven away!
Woe to me! My open-mindedness has left me naked and confused!
No longer will I enjoy your delights, O Paradise;
no longer can I see my Lord, my God and Creator.
He formed me from dust, and now to the dust I return!
I beg You, O compassionate Lord:
‘Have mercy on me who have fallen!’”
Today, in our presence, we find the Mercy that Adam begged for in the hymn. We find the redemption.
The Kontakion for the feast that we sang a moment ago tells us as much:
Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden;
it has been mysteriously quenched by the wood of the Cross.
This Cross set before us. We refer to it as “life giving” and “merciful.” It restores us to paradise, to Eden where we began.
Where did this transformation come from? How did this wood, this method of execution, turn from a fear-inducing element of Roman control of a conquered people – to the live-giving and merciful Cross we venerate?
It all comes down to one thing. Obedience. Christ’s obedience to His Father.
Not just begrudging obedience – but there is no doubt the Cross was not something Christ took up enthusiastically!
If it is possible, Christ prayed, let this cup – this cross – pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done, my Father.
Through that prayer, that agonizing request of God, Christ restored humanity.
He took the fully-human will he possessed – that part which wanted no part of the Cross – and placed it under subjection to the fully divine will he also possessed – that part that faced what the Father asked, out of nothing but Love.
Make no mistake – the Christ took up the Cross voluntarily. He wasn’t hung on a cross, he ascended it. Climbed up onto it, if you will.
If you look at the icon of the Crucifixion, Christ doesn’t hang – he appears to support the Cross itself. Strength. Power.
The manifestation of pure love – for His Father, and for us.
And the restoration of the human will to it’s rightful place, in voluntary subjection to the divine will. Voluntary obedience to God.
That is the mystery of how the wood of the cross didn’t burn, but rather extinguished the fire of the flaming sword.
It is the mystery of voluntary obedience. It is also the goal of Lent.
God doesn’t place these demands on us for His amusement and our torture. He is giving us a wonderful, blessed, and holy opportunity to obey. Voluntarily. Without compulsion.
It is a voluntary sacrifice that leads to our martyrdom – our witness – of God’s love. Thankfully, we begin with martyring our appetite, and not ourselves completely.
Martyrdom is the pinnacle of obedience. And Christ voluntarily ascended the Cross – but, and please take note of this – he voluntarily ascended the Cross reluctantly.
He didn’t go looking for the Cross. He didn’t turn himself in to the Chief Priests of the Temple and demand his own death.
No, he was betrayed. And he accepted that betrayal. He was tried, and offered no defense. He was tortured, and offered no resistance or retribution.
As we continue our path to Pascha – our own crucifixion and resurrection – we do well to keep this in mind. We voluntarily accept whatever God chooses to bring to us.
We can ask him to remove it from us.
But in the end, we must voluntarily accept it – and give thanks for it – because it comes for our benefit.
And it comes from Love.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!