September 20, 2020
Symbols are very important for us; they operate as a kind of shorthand to denote our belonging to a group and to evoke the feelings of loyalty and friendship towards the others in our group. Symbols proclaim without words, whole books about who we are and what we think. We have symbols that touch many aspects of our lives. The flag of our nation is a symbol that tells the world to which “tribe” or clan we belong and evokes in us a feeling of security and hope as a part of that tribe. Different clubs, organizations and political parties have symbols that the members display in various ways – on clothes, on cars, etc. Symbols are important to us.
As Christians Christians, we too have many symbols that are part of our faith – icons, candles, incense, domes, bells and so on. But the most important symbol of our faith is the cross. The cross is the mark of a Christian no matter where in the world you may be. Even if there are no other symbols to be found, where the Church is the cross will proclaim her presence. We put the cross on everything that is set aside as sacred and holy – we put the cross on our Churches, on our vestments and other clothing, on our scriptures and service books, on the chalice and on the other instruments of the sacraments. We even mark ourselves with the sign of the cross showing that we are set apart for holiness. The Cross is our symbol – the symbol of our Orthodox faith and of us Christians.
But the cross is more than merely a symbol, the cross also has the power to repel evil, to destroy temptations, to frustrate the evil one and his demons and to protect us against all harm. The cross, to us who are being saved, is as the Apostle says, “the power of God”. And herein lies the paradox. The cross, to the ancient world, was an instrument of torture and death reserved for the lowest of the criminals. It was a symbol of shame and humiliation. But for us the cross is our joy, it is the symbol of our victory, it is not a symbol of death but rather of life. To ascend the cross with Christ is to enter into Life.
The cross has been transformed by Christ from the instrument and symbol of death, into the means and symbol of Life. As we sing in the Paschal tropar, “Christ is risen… trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” This is the paradox of the Cross.
The way of the Cross is full of irony, so much so that it is, as the Apostles says, foolishness to the wise of the world (the Greeks) and a stumbling block to those who seek worldly power and esteem (the Jews). But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God, the door through which we pass to enter into Eternal life. And just as the symbol itself is a paradox so also the way of life that it symbolizes is a paradox. Our Lord said, “He who would save his life will lose it, but he who forfeits his life for the Gospel will save it” In order to acquire the Life of Christ, we must forfeit our own life. In order to be filled we must empty ourselves, in order to acquire the grace of God we must give all that we have in this world. The Orthodox Christian faith is full of opposites, full of paradoxes. Thus it is foolishness to the wise of the world, for it goes against all the worldly principles.
What does this mean then to us who are Orthodox Christians? We are the ones who mark ourselves and our world with the cross. We are the ones who have taken this instrument of death and made it our symbol. We are the ones who have embraced the irony. For us the cross is a constant reminder and help, about the way that we live. It is the guide for us, as we work out our salvation. We live in the world, but we are not of the world. We have given up our lives in favor of living the Life of Christ. When the world tells us to “be ourselves”, we choose instead to become like Christ. When the world tells us to seek power and influence and the praise of men, we strive for humility and poverty of spirit.
When the world tells us that we must acquire for ourselves this or that or the other thing, and store up our possessions, instead we give of what we have to the poor and entrust our future well-being to Christ who gives us all that we need (not what we want, mind you, but what we need). The world tells us to eat, drink and be merry, to pursue happiness but we choose instead to deny ourselves, take up our own cross and follow Christ. Surely those of us who follow Christ, who take the cross as our symbol, will seem as fools to the wise of the world.
We only seem foolish, however, to those who have lowered their eyes, who no longer can see beyond the life of this world and who have become blind to the life of eternity. The Psalmist reminds us that the fool has said in his heart that there is no God and yet it is just this kind of foolishness that now passes for wisdom in the world. The wisdom of the world is limited to this world, it excludes God or relegates Him to some place where He can have no part or influence in this world.
The wisdom of the world is a wisdom without God and therefore has itself become foolish. But the foolishness of the cross is true wisdom for it is based not on a false idea of the world without God but rather it is based on the very basic truth that God not only created the world but also that He loves his creation and desires that we who live in the world will become like Him and live in union with Him in eternity.
We recognize that this world is not the beginning and the end of all things. We see that God is the measure of all things and we are His creatures and His servants. We raise our eyes to see beyond this world and this life and perceive that there is something greater, something further, something towards which we strive, of which this world is but a small part. In this world we are caterpillars preparing for the day when we will enter the tomb of our cocoon and be transformed into butterflies.
It is the butterfly that is our true nature and purpose, and so we work towards that life rather than try to limit ourselves to being caterpillars. God’s plan for us when He created us, was to become like Him, to share in His life and to live in union with Him. This world is our preparation for that future life in eternity. To live wisely in this world, we must look beyond it and prepare not for life here, but rather for the life that is to come. That preparation is embodied in the life of the Church. It is symbolized for us by the Cross and the way of the Cross opens for us the path to that life.
Remember to read our Bible, for it is our, “Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth.” One of the best acronyms I have ever heard is an acronym for the Bible—Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Life is like a college class. At the end there is a final exam. Those who pass the exam inherit Eternal life and those who do not pass go to eternal punishment. The Bible is like the syllabus for the class. It gives us what is required in order for us to pass the “class” of life.
The Bible is basic instructions before leaving earth. These are the instructions we are to learn and to live, while on earth, so we are prepared for Eternal life when we leave earth. It tells us to ‘Take up our Cross’ !!
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