Friday, April 3, 2015

Only from Him

‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.’ To many this saying of Jesus seems hard. But how much harder will it be to hear that word of doom, ‘Depart from Me, your cursed, into everlasting fire.’ For those who now cheerfully hear and obey the word of the Cross will not tremble to hear the sentence of eternal damnation. The sign of the Cross will appear in the heavens, when Our Lord comes as Judge. Then will all the servants of the Cross, who in their lives conformed themselves to the Crucified, stand with confidence before Christ their Judge.

Why, then, do you fear to take up the Cross, which is the road to the Kingdom? In the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of soul, nor hope of eternal life, save in the Cross. Take up the Cross, therefore, and follow Jesus. Christ has gone before you, bearing His Cross; He died for you on the Cross, that you also may bear your cross, and desire to die on the cross with Him. For if you die with Him, you will also live with Him. And if you share His sufferings, you will also share His glory.

See how in the Cross all things consist, and in dying on it all things depend. There is no other way to life and to true inner peace, than the way of the Cross, and of daily self-denial. Go where you will, seek what you will; you will find no higher way above nor safer way below than the road of the Holy Cross. Arrange and order all things to your own ideas and wishes, yet you will still find suffering to endure, whether you will or not; so you will always find the Cross. For you will either endure bodily pain, or suffer anguish of mind and spirit.

At times, God will withdraw from you; at times you will be troubled by your neighbor, and, what is more, you will often be a burden to yourself. Neither can any remedy or comfort bring you relief, but you must bear it as long as God wills. For God desires that you learn to bear trials without comfort, that you may yield yourself wholly to Him, and grow more humble through tribulation. No man feels so deeply in his heart the Passion of Christ as he who has to suffer in like manner. The Cross always stands ready, and everywhere awaits you. You cannot escape it, wherever you flee; for wherever you go, you bear yourself, and always find yourself. Look up or down, without you or within, and everywhere you will find the Cross. And everywhere you must have patience, if you wish to attain inner peace, and win an eternal crown…

… Had there been a better way, more profitable to the salvation of mankind than suffering, then Christ would have revealed it in His word and life. But He clearly urges both His own disciples and all who wish to follow Him to carry the cross, saying, ‘If any will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.’ Therefore, when we have read and studied all things, let his be our final resolve: ‘that through much tribulation we must enter the Kingdom of God.’
— Thomas à Kempis,
The Imitation of Christ, Book 2, Chapter 12

Today is Good Friday, though not for me. I am a Greek Orthodox Christian. The Greeks and all other Eastern Christians follow the ‘Old Calendar’ (Julian) for that part of the year which leads into Easter and follows it. This year, our Pascha (Orthodox Easter) is one week behind everyone else’s. It has something to do with our rule that Pascha must follow the Jewish Pesach (Passover), so whenever the Jews celebrate that movable feast (following a lunar calendar), our Pascha must follow it chronologically. Somehow the Western Church (Roman Catholic, Protestant), using the ‘New Calendar’ (Gregorian, which is astronomically more accurate) has decided to cut the link to Judaism. Those years where Orthodox Pascha is five weeks later than Western Easter, you will find the Jews celebrating Passover after Easter. For us, a big ‘no-no.’

Today is Good Friday. I wish I could read out loud for you the entire twelfth chapter of Book 2 of The Imitation of Christ, and it’s too long to quote it here. The opening paragraphs, and the last, are enough. Roman Catholics and some Protestants should need no recommendation from me about this book, which used to be the most widely read Christian book outside the Bible, but many Orthodox will either never have heard of it or else have dismissed it out of hand because it is a ‘Western’ Christian book. Still, I recommend it, because it has also been endorsed by a recently reposed Orthodox saint, Mother Gavrilía (1897-1992). Yes, I know she is not an ‘official’ saint and may never be ‘glorified’ as one, but anyone who knows her life and sayings cannot doubt that’s what she is—a saint. And in her list of books to be read, The Imitation of Christ is one she highly regarded (The Ascetic of Love, p. 178).

Today is Good Friday. As I drove home this evening after visiting with a friend, looking around me at the world passing by, I was struck by the complete indifference to, maybe just ignorance of, the great Event that a small minority was commemorating today. This is one of the few days in the year, maybe the only day, that many churches leave themselves unlocked and open to anyone passing by, to enter and contemplate the mystery of the Cross, through which salvation has come to the whole world.

Yes, I know, it’s through Jesus that salvation has come, but please, let’s remember it didn’t happen by magic. It took courage, effort, perseverance, faith, and especially love, and it cost everything, not just pain and suffering, but life itself had to be surrendered. All of this, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it true or not, is still the pattern of our own human existence. Though the world around me, as I drove home, seemed oblivious to the Cross, it is the Cross which is the key to all of its suffering.

I saw a man wearing a black robe, shouldering a life-sized wooden cross made from two pine trunks fastened together. The wood had not been hewn square at all. It looked a bit odd, but it was definitely a cross and it was obvious he was ‘witnessing’ publicly. Following him were three or four others, men in black robes, and a woman in a black dress, all very young. He did not drag the cross, but carried it aloft. I followed the little group in my rear view mirror till they vanished into the distance.

Back to the Cross. My mother used to tell me of her Catholic childhood. Good Friday she went on her knees into the church like everyone else to venerate the Holy Cross set up in the middle of the nave. She said she had sore, scraped knees, and torn stockings by the time it was over. As a young adult Christian in a High Church Episcopal parish, I did something similar for about a dozen years. Episcopalians aren’t as hard on the knees. We left the pews, single-filed and genuflected thrice on the way to the Cross.

Back to the world. I couldn’t stop thinking, as I drove home tonight, how the Cross is both the questioning and the answering of the human dilemma, how tragic yet typical it is that both are hidden in plain sight before us, yet most, almost all, do not make the connexion. It is either ignored, or else seen as ‘religion’ and rejected. How many Christians, ceremonially approaching a wooden image of a hand- and foot-nailed naked man make the connexion that it is their suffering and death they come to kiss?

As we are warned in The Imitation of Christ, ‘At times, God will withdraw from you; at times you will be troubled by your neighbor, and, what is more, you will often be a burden to yourself,’ and ‘The Cross always stands ready, and everywhere awaits you. You cannot escape it, wherever you flee; for wherever you go, you bear yourself, and always find yourself. Look up or down, without you or within, and everywhere you will find the Cross.’ Every pain, every sorrow, every disappointment, every loss, everything, everything—the Cross.

Perhaps it’s too close for us to see on our own. Perhaps it’s so much a part of us, ours and the world’s suffering, that we could never see it, even if we wanted to, just as no one can see his own face, except in a mirror. And here, before us, on this Good Friday (or on Orthodox ‘Great and Holy Friday,’ a second opportunity one week from today) that mirror is providentially supplied. We can crawl, walk, or even run forward to that irrefutable mirror, the Cross of Christ, and taking hold of it, kissing the image of His sacred wounds, find a comfort that comes from no one else, only from Him, who takes our place every day, in every trial, until the end of time.

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