The Joy of the Cross

Fr Gregory, Sermon for Lenten Vespers (Sunday, 2023 March 19), Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Thou Hast Filled All With Joy

On the first Sunday of Great Lent when we sing:

We venerate Thy most pure image, O Good One;

and ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ our God.

Of Thine own will Thou wast pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh

and deliver Thy creatures from bondage to the Enemy.

Therefore with thankfulness we cry aloud to Thee:

“Thou hast filled all with joy, O our Savior,

by coming to save the world.”

Let’s think for a minute about the last line of the hymn: through His Cross, Christ has filled all creation with joy.

About joy, Fr Alexander Schmemann writes, “One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice.”

He goes on to say,

Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful. Outside of joy, they become demonic, the deepest distortion of any religious experience. A religion of fear. Religion of pseudo-humility. Religion of guilt: They are all temptations, traps – very strong indeed, not only in the world, but inside the Church. Somehow “religious” people often look on joy with suspicion.

From one point of view, it is easy it is for me to lose my joy. How easy it for me is to be scrupulous in my theology and my worship, my daily prayers and fasting, to say nothing of attention to the myriad failures of the Church and the surrounding culture. The demons don’t lack opportunities to distort the Gospel, to tempt me to embrace fear rather than love, to embrace pride rather than humility, to embrace guilt rather than repentance.

To see why this is, we need to go back even further; we need to go to the beginning.

In the Beginning

After our fall, in the quiet of the late afternoon, God is strolling in the Garden “in the cool of the day” and, noticing the absence of our First Parents, calls out “Where are you?” (Genesis 3: 8,10). 

Commenting on these first moments St John Chrysostom says that God “was not unaware of the truth when He asked them.” Instead, the saint goes on to say, God “knew, and knew very well.” God asks our First Parents not to condemn them but to remind them of his “loving-kindness” and to invite them “to make admission of their faults.”

What happens next is so well-known that we almost don’t need to repeat it. 

To God’s offer of forgiveness, the First Adam “instead of confessing what he had done, which would have helped him” and us, he plays the victim, complaining about “what had been done to him, which did not help him [or us] at all….Adam … failed to confess his folly and blamed the woman.”

And not only her: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (v. 12). The Man doesn’t accept responsibility for his sin; he doesn’t simply blame the Woman. He blames God and “cunningly tried to attribute his sinning to God Himself.” There is “nothing,” St Augustine says, “as characteristic of sinners as to want to attribute to God everything for which they are accused.” And the source of this? Pride, “for man wishing to be like God, that is, to be freed from His dominion, as God is free from all dominion, since He is Lord of all,”

Now, betrayed by her husband and the bond of conjugal charity broken, the Woman nevertheless follows the example of the Man: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (v. 13).

“Eve too, instead of making supplication with her tears and bearing the fault herself so that mercy might take hold of both her and her husband,” St Ephrem the Syrian says, she blamed the serpent, and so both she and her husband are “found wanting in remorse.”

Looking to our last moments in the Garden, St Dorotheus of Gaza says Adam “has not the guts to accuse himself” and Eve refuses to “humble [her] soul and be forgiven.” He then speaks to both and asks

What are you doing you, wretches? Kneel in repentance. Acknowledge your fault, take pity on your nakedness. But neither one nor the other stooped to self-accusation, no trace of humility was found in either of them.

Dorotheus then turns to himself and all of us and say

…look now and consider how this was only an anticipation of our own state! See how many and great evils it has brought on us–this self-justification, this holding fast to our own will, this obstinacy in being our own guide.

Events unfold quickly from here.

The serpent is condemned and our First Parents are expelled from Paradise. But all is not lost. 

The Promise of a Redeemer

God promises a Redeemer, a Child of Adam and Eve.

So the Lord God said to the serpent:

“Because you have done this,

You are cursed more than all cattle,

And more than every beast of the field;

On your belly you shall go,

And you shall eat dust

All the days of your life.

And I will put enmity

Between you and the woman,

And between your seed and her Seed;

He shall bruise your head,

And you shall bruise His heel” (vv. 14-15)

The promised Redeemer is, of course, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. And this brings us to our veneration this past two days of the Cross.

It is in our worship that we find not only what we believe but how we are to live: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, a Latin phrase that means the Church’s worship (lex orandi) determines what we are to believe (lex credendi) and how we are to live (lex vivendi).

For us, as we heard last night at Vespers, the “Cross of the Lord” is a light that illumines our “hearts” and is the source of “hope” that wipes away “our tears,” releases us from “the snares of death,” and is the road to “everlasting joy.”

Say “YES!” to Joy

One last thing.

Think back to the encounter between God and our First Parents. Fallen–and more importantly, unrepentant–they hide from God. And when they could no longer hide from Him, they lied to God, blamed first each other and then, finally, God Himself.

And when on that first, dreadful Great and Holy Friday, our willingness to blame God reaches its final and terrible conclusion: for their own transgressions, creatures crucify the Creator. When finally we have God in our hands we don’t hide from Him, we don’t lie to Him or blame Him; we murder Him.

In response to our crime–to my crime–the sun turns dark and all creation is silent.

The silence of Good Friday brings to mind the silence of Annunciation when all creation held its breath as it waited to see if Mary would consent to receive the Son of God in her womb. This hopefully silence reveals our true dignity–we can say “Yes!” to the God Who has first said “Yes!” to us.

And the silence of Good Friday? It reveals the depth to which we can sink–that we can say “No!” to Him Who never says “No!” to us.

On the Cross, at that moment when each of us in our every sin says “No!” to God (see Hebrews 6:6), He once again says “Yes!” to us. And so we only a moment ago turned away from God now sing:

Come, O Adam and Eve, our first father and mother,

who fell from divine glory

through the envy of the murderer of man!

Bitter was the pleasure of the Tree of old;

but see, the honored Tree of the Cross draws near!

Run with haste and embrace it in joy,

crying out with faith:

“Thou art our help, O most-precious Cross!

We eat thy fruit and gain incorruption!

We are restored again to Eden, having received great mercy!”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! 

As we begin the second half of the Great Fast, let us like Adam and Eve, come and “run with haste” to embrace the joy of the Cross and go to Holy Confession! Let us say “Yes!” to God Who in each Yes!” to us in Holy Communion. Let us enter into the joy of our Lord (Matthew 25:23).