Saturday, September 24, 2016

Something greater

What our Saviour saw from the Cross - Tissot

For those Orthodox, along with the rest of the Christian world, who follow the Gregorian (New Style) Calendar, Holy Cross Day has come and gone. For the Orthodox majority who still parse the year by the Julian (Old Style) Calendar, Holy Cross Day is coming up soon, next Tuesday, in fact. The year I wrote this testimony, the Jewish New Year coincided with New Calendar Holy Cross Day; hence, the references and points I make below. I want to share these thoughts again, as they are on my mind.

Holy Cross day, the fourteenth of September, for the Orthodox Christians, begins at sunset the day before, though few have that sensibility. Only the devout who live in communities large enough to support the full feast-day liturgical cycle of vespers (at sunset), matins (at dawn), and divine liturgy (following matins), will preserve in themselves the Byzantine mindset regarding time. It is a very logical and orderly mindset. It claims time itself for Christ, consecrating every moment of it to Him.

This mindset derives from Christianity’s religious ancestor, Judaism, which also consecrates time in its entirety to the transcendent Eternal. This year, the Jewish New Year day, Rosh Hashanah, exactly coincides with Holy Cross day. The Christian feast day commemorates the return of the relic of the true cross after its capture by the Persians. The Jewish one commemorates the creation of Adam, according to their reckoning, five thousand seven hundred seventy-six years ago. Both look back, not ahead.

History itself has been claimed and consecrated by both religions, and though this may have its benefits, this also has its liabilities. Both religions encourage believers to live their faith in the fleeting present moment of time, as a reenactment of and a participation in the mysteries of the past. Both hold out to their followers a future full of consolation for the righteous and judgment for the heedless. Both see humanity as fallen, and infected with sin. Both expect deliverance only at the end of human history.

This is religion, consecrating the past in such a way that not only its imagined glories are celebrated but also its mistakes are conserved and repeated, generation after generation, even if only in theory. For the Christian, though human society and the race itself is evolving and capable of transcending its past mistakes, there is no hope or help for mankind but in accepting Jesus, and then joining in the perpetuation of religious cycles designed to keep our sins, our sicknesses, unabolishable, under control.

When the Holy Cross was set up in Jerusalem and worshiped, albeit a form of latent idolatry, the Church and the State were a single thing. If you were a Christian, your choice had been made for you, and there was no changing it. If you were not a Christian, you had only one choice, to convert and become one, otherwise you were next to nothing. A marginal existence was your lot if you were unlucky enough to find yourself surrounded by Christian society, as totalitarian as any modern dictatorship. We forget that.

Because we were the victors, we muse, we wrote the history that shapes us, and we continue to make it. We refuse to accept the truth of life in the material world, that it is constantly changing, that history writes itself, we don’t write it, but because we think we do, we become its victims, dragged along behind its march as dead weight. Then we wonder why the world pays no attention to us. It’s not a matter of being outdated. It’s not about customs and mores. It’s about choosing death over life.

Which is an irony of the greatest magnitude, because we say we believe in a God who plainly declares that He ‘makes all things new,’ and that He comes to give us ‘life, and life in abundance.’ Yes, it is by death, by enduring this fact of ultimate change, that He renews not only the race, but the universe, in an act of dauntless bravery, meeting annihilation with transfiguration, that carries us over the barrier of our original, damaged nature, and opens to every human creature the possibility of complete recovery.

Isn’t this what the Cross is really about? Isn’t this why it is elevated? Isn’t history itself, even as we have written and remembered it, only a backdrop to the Divine economy that has prepared for us a place in an orderly cosmos which sets us above even asomatic beings we call angels? Bodiless powers as they are, knowing no evolution or change, are below us who have bodies and are being perfected by an evolution that transcends even itself. Something greater than the wood recaptured from the Persians is here.

The Holy Cross, the throne from which Man reigns as God, whose wood, far from dead, keeps renewing itself with each cut of the knife, whose roots planted in the earth give rise to a crown that contains the heavens, whose depths penetrating even the darkness of Hades are matched by heights participating even in the Divine Nature, has been restored to us who never realized what treasure we had lost, by a victory not won by earthly powers or by the bodiless, but by Him who is with us, now and to the ages of ages.

Τον Σταυρόν σου προσκυνουμεν Δέσποτα,
και την αγιαν σου Ανάστασιν δοξάζομεν.

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