Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Into all the world

This morning, an article caught my eye titledWhy Does the World Reject the Cross of Christ?by the worthy presbyter Fr Themistokles Mourtzanos. It was a very well-written essay, and everything he wrote is quite true. My only problem with it is, what good does it do to even talk about it? Talk about what? Why the ‘world’ rejects the Cross of Christ. This is not a subject I am interested in. Knowing why the world rejects the Cross doesn’t help me personally one bit, nor does it help my witness to that world.

Instead, the question I would ask, especially if I were a presbyter, is: Why does the Church reject the Cross of Christ? Asking this question might do something for the hearers or readers. It might turn some heads. It might cause even one person, myself at least, to pay attention and pause to consider what it implies. If it seems to you that to ask ‘Why does the Church reject the Cross of Christ?’ is somehow a betrayal or even a blasphemy, think again. We have no say in what the world does, only in what we do..

And yes, why does the Church reject the Cross of Christ? How does it reject it? The Church venerates the Cross, sings about it, praises its power. The members of the Church wear the Cross around their necks, display it in their homes and in their cars. This is certainly not rejecting the Cross of Christ. Others reject it. The heathen, the Jews, the Muslims, the atheists, just about everyone we don’t like. But we don’t, do we? Well, yes and no, it all depends on what you mean by ‘reject.’ And it depends on what you think the Cross of Christ is.

Today we commemorate the nativity of the Birth-giver of God, Mary the Theotokos. She is, as I have often heard, the first Christian, as well as the last faithful Jew. If anyone can teach us what the Cross of Christ is, it is she, who lived a life of crucifixion, of hanging on the Cross, even before she found herself at the foot of One who hangs on the Cross for her, for us, and forever—Jesus the Christ. Not an image formed in its likeness, but the true Cross was what she bore, not what she wore on her as a talisman.

The world cannot really reject the Cross because it doesn’t really know what the Cross is. In fact, look at almost any fashion magazine, or go to any jewelry shop or tattoo and piercing studio, and what do you see? The emblem of the Cross in myriad configurations, hanging on the necks of studly, good-looking young men, hanging from the ears of alluring, sexy young gals who neither of them probably ever set foot in church, unless they were carried there, infants in arms, by their parents for christening.

No, the world actually loves the cross because it doesn’t, it doesn’t want to, and it therefore can’t, know what the Cross of Christ is. And how could it? The Church, though we confess the Cross of Christ, because ‘through the Cross, Joy has come into all the world,’ promotes an image of the Cross, not the Cross itself. Someone else—Jesus—has suffered on the Cross and died for us, so we don’t have to. Instead, we can focus on the celebration, make festivals about it, wear it, even flaunt it. As for living it…

The Cross of Christ means one thing—death. We hear that we must bear our crosses, and we trudge along reluctantly but loyally, even faithfully, bearing them. But it is as the saints have told us, whose sayings we’d rather not hear, that ‘in the Cross all things consist, and in dying on it all things depend’ (Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ, Book II, Chapter 12, ‘On the Royal Road of the Holy Cross’). We might be willing to bear a cross now and then, but to die on one? What can that mean?

Well, we already know the answer. How many times should we allow a person to take advantage of us, and still forgive them? Once, twice, ten times? No, as many times as it takes. This is only the passive aspect of the Cross of Christ. Believe it or not, even while rejecting the Cross, the world already has this one down pat, having learned to eat humble pie and be indiscriminately tolerant and forgiving for the sake of—you know the answer—money. So, it’s not surprising they can’t serve two masters…

But the active aspect of the Cross of Christ, now this is where we all have a problem, whether we’re in the Church, or unchurchable. This is the application of that verse we all love to quote but turn the other cheek on, when it comes to putting it to practice, ‘No one has greater love than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). This is where the question, ‘Why does the Church reject the Cross of Christ?’ comes to haunt us, that is, if we’ve got at least half a conscience, and are honest.

What would happen to the unbelieving world if the Church did not reject the Cross of Christ? Could an honest, unchurched humanitarian like Mohandas Gandhi say, ‘I will become a Christian as soon as I see one’? We only notice in others the faults and failings we have in ourselves, which is another reason why we shouldn’t ask why the world rejects the Cross of Christ, unless we want to admit to everyone that we are doing exactly that. Our camouflage or our excuses can cover us up to ourselves, but not to others.

This is a hard thing to say, I know, because the Church is all that we’ve got. She is the presence of Christ in the world, and we cling to her, but do we understand that ‘Christ among us’ means almost the same thing as ‘Christ as us’? This is not soft blasphemy. This is not ‘we’re all God, so I’m okay, you’re okay’ thinking. Actually, quite the opposite. It’s taking ownership of the Cross, or rather, letting the Cross of Christ take charge of us. It means letting ourselves be nailed when we least expect it, and least want it.

This is the incarnation of the gospel. This is ‘good news for modern man,’ not the book, not even the movie, but the real life. We’re called by Christ not to be mere actors (in ancient Greek, υποκριτης, hypokrítis) but real people, new people, people to whom the good news has come. Yes, people through whom the good news has come, because we have not rejected the Cross, but through dying on it, live, and by that life witnessing to the truth, that ‘through the Cross, Joy has come into all the world.’

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