Holy Cross

Sunday of the Holy Cross


   We have gone almost half way in our lenten journey.

Half way through Great Lent the Church puts the Holy Cross in the middle of the Church. We are reminded what lies ahead. And it has been a difficult first half. Many of us resist Great Lent. Yet because of our current plague, all of our world has joined us in our lenten journey, even if they are mostly unwilling. 

   In the passage of Hebrews immediately prior to the reading today we have: For the Word of God is living, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged-sword, piercing through even to the divisions of soul and spirit, of joint and marrow, and is a discerner of thoughts and heart; nor is there any creature that is not manifested in His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. 

   Jesus — the Word of God, is both our Judge and our High-Priest. He suffered with us — He knows our infirmity. He took flesh, and shares our humanity. As Simeon the New Theologian observed: He “whose majesty is beyond anyone’s endurance has not disdained to become the father, the friend, the brother, of those rejected ones — the weak and the poor…”

   Since He is both God and Man, He is our High Priest. 

   At the time of the writing of this epistle, the old priesthood had passed away; it could only be spoken of in dimness, as a memory. Indeed, during the Roman occupation, the high-priests were often chosen for political reasons and not according to the law. Today, it is best that priests be chosen by God through the Church rather than desiring the office; for no one is worthy of it. 

   Yet Christ has become our High Priest. He Who Himself being God, equal to the Father, yet He humbled Himself to our flesh. And the Father has said: Thou art my Son, “This day” —  This eternal day, the day we will celebrate in the coming feast of Pascha, — “have I begotten Thee.” This is how He begins His priestly act in time (and in three and a half weeks we will hear about it at the beginning of the service of the Passion Gospels on Holy Thursday) with “Father, the hour has come, glorify Me with the Glory I had with Thee before the world was made.” He Who has no eternal mother takes flesh from a human mother without a father and Comes to offer Himself for us.

   And He suffers with us, and for us. He takes upon Himself the fragility of our human condition. It is especially important to remember that in these days. 

   Because of this, we go confidently before the throne of grace.

   Jesus says, in the Gospel, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” We have a hard time hearing this. Our culture tells us we are supposed to be happy and to be happy we have to buy stuff. But the stuff never seems to make us happy. Our default cultural philosophy is Epicureanism: Pleasure is good; suffering is bad. Don’t delay gratification; buy now. We have a hard time hearing, “Take up your cross and follow me.” We have a hard time hearing that, even though the suffering comes from unwelcome people, places, and things, that it can never-the-less be transformed to our healing and salvation. But now our world is hearing the importance of bearing one another’s burdens; for if we do not we will perish both bodily and in soul. 

   Christ wants us to take up our cross and follow Him, for He went to the Cross. He emptied Himself and took on our flesh. He is not asking us to walk exceptionalities where He Himself has trod. Taking up our cross is to embrace our struggles and not be attached to our pleasures. Take up our cross — keep taking that next step, even when we are tired and hurting — keep taking that next step even when it makes no sense to us — even when we forget why we are stepping. St. Augustine observed that sometimes we carry our cross, and sometimes it carries us. 

   For Orthodox, we glory in the Resurrection; but we must remember the Cross and the Glory of the Resurrection together. The path to the Kingdom always goes through the Cross. The shame and despair of the Cross are never the final word, for through it we have the Kingdom of God and the Resurrection both of Christ, and the hope of resurrection for ourselves — but it comes through the Cross. 

   The Cross is our strength; the Cross is a wound to demons — but it is not magic. It becomes strong in our lives when we take it up and follow Jesus. And on our cross we must crucify not just our passions and desires, but also our will — that it may become as God wills in us. For behold, Jesus teaches us through the Cross how to be exalted in humility. 

Before the Cross, at the supper, Jesus tells His disciples that He will no more take the fruit of the vine until He tastes of  it in His Kingdom. At the beginning of His Crucifixion He is offered sour wine. He refuses it. Then after three hours He says, “I thirst.” Again He is offered the sour wine. This time He receives it; and then He declares: It has been finished; it is accomplished.

   Through His Passion, Christ establishes the Glory of His Kingdom on earth; through His death and Resurrection the way of the Kingdom is now opened to us. We are restored through the Cross. Through the Cross, He has become our Peace and reconciliation. 

This is what we are taught in the Kontakion of this day: Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden; for it has been mysteriously quenched by the wood of the Cross. The sting of death and the victory of hell have been vanquished, for Thou, O Lord, hast come and cried to those in faith: enter again into Paradise.”

   Now He calls us to follow Him and take up our Cross that we might be united to His sufferings. Let us journey with Him to Jerusalem and share in His Passion in our own meager way that we may share in the Joy of His Resurrection, which gives us hope of our own. 

Through Him may we find Paradise, and our Homeland in the Kingdom of God. To Whom be all glory and honour, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. 

First half of Holy Week

First Three days of Holy Week

   The King of the Universe enters Jerusalem in humility — He even had to borrow a donkey to ride. And the Pharisees are upset. This One Whom they had counted as an enemy is now proclaimed King of Israel.

Thus begins Holy Week. Jesus comes as a humble King. And Time as we know it begins to pass away. In the Eucharist, the Passion, the Death, the Resurrection, the Kingdom of God breaks into our time. That which is without Time comes to dwell in time. The fathers of the Church underline this by having no assigned Tone to this week. The Octoechi have ceased. Time, as we usually measure it, in the Church, is going away.

Our services in the parishes underscore this. Morning services begin to be served in the evening, and evening services are served in the morning.  Time is beginning to wobble.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening we celebrate the Bridegroom Matins. The theme of these services is the same as the parables of the Heavenly Banquet. Jesus had said: “The Kingdom of God is like unto a banquet.” The Kingdom of God is that Time-outside-of-time. This banquet we prepare for on these days. And we prepare ourselves, for “Behold the Bridegroom cometh at midnight…” And the great Banquet we prepare for is the Eucharist that we shall see inaugurated on the coming Thursday, and the Passion that we will encounter later in the week. And the Passion flavours everything we do this week, “for Christ, in His love, hastens to His sufferings.” These first three days are seen as a first-fruit of the Passion.

The daily themes of the Bridegroom Matins focus on the movement towards the end of time as we know it.

The first day of the Bridegroom Matins we focus on the Patriarch Joseph, who fled the temptation of Potiphar’s wife, and who was placed by God, in a time of famine to preserve his people. He also set in motion the events that would require the Passover. The Gospel focuses on the Fig tree.  The Fig tree was not ready to encounter Jesus, and so it was cursed. This is a rebuke and a warning to us. We go to Church services and do our best to appear religious, but we lack the fruits of religion: we do not feed the hungry, give to the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned. Instead we are self-willed, greedy, arrogant, and prideful. Part of our preparation to receive the Kingdom of God is to be watchful over these things in our selves and to be merciful to others.

On Tuesday, we focus on the Ten virgins, half of whom were prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom, and half of which were not. The service asks of us “Are we prepared? Are we ready?” much in the same way that our weekly preparation for communion asks us. The Kingdom of God is coming to us; that day beyond all days will soon be upon us. And what about the oil? Oil is a pun for mercy. Five had plenty of mercy, five did not. So we must be merciful to all, for behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight.

On Wednesday, we are given a contrast between the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, and Judas who betrays Jesus.

Jesus comes to be anointed before His death. It  is both for His death and to indicate Him as the anointed One, the Christ, that He is anointed. He is anointed not by His host, but by a sinful woman, a harlot. What Simon the Pharisee withheld from Jesus this woman gives freely. The Lord of the Universe is recognized by the humble, while the self-righteous miss Him even when He comes to them. All Simon can offer Jesus is his offense at the offering of this woman.

And Judas also takes offense. Jesus rebukes him. He paraphrases Deuteronomy: “The Poor you shall always have with you.” This has been used by some as a justification for doing nothing for the poor. But the rest of that verse in Deuteronomy says: “Therefore, I command thee saying: thou shalt open thy hand wide unto thy brother and to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” Jesus makes reference to our duty to the poor, but indicates that His time with them in the flesh is limited — that it must be savoured.

Jesus is telling them that there will be plenty of opportunities to minister to Him indirectly by ministering to the poor — but this is a unique opportunity to minister to Him directly.

And lest we exalt ourselves above Judas, let us remember that at the betrayal, in Matthew’s Gospel he kisses Jesus with affection. How do we kiss Jesus? Mostly we kiss him mindlessly, without thought or attention. Judas intentionally betrayed Jesus — we betray Him without intention, but we still betray Him. In the Kontakion we acknowledge that we have transgressed more than the harlot. We also transgress more than Judas. Yet we are assured, in the hymn of Kassiani, that Christ has mercy without measure.

Each night the Exapostilarion of the feast sings: Thy Bridal Chamber, I see adorned, O Saviour; and I have no wedding garment that I may enter.

What is our wedding garment? It is love: Love of God and neighbour. This we must not only feel, we must also do, that the Giver of Light may illumine our soul and save us.

Sermon 7th Week after Pentecost

Sermon 7th Week after Pentecost



Bear one another’s burdens . . . We who are strong must bear the infirmities of the weak; just as Christ has bore our infirmities. This is a beautiful turn of phrase in Greek. Paul deliberately alludes to Isaiah.

Brothers and Sisters: Most of us are strong in some areas, not so strong in other areas. This is what comes from our experience, our toil, our facing adversity. We each face, and are strengthened in one area and become mature, and yet we are still children in other areas. We should not reproach ourselves for this. We see this in Peter who in one moment confesses Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and then at the very next moment tells Jesus that He cannot go and suffer death, and must be rebuked for this. We can be strong for others, but we also need others to be strong for us. Paul lays this upon us as an obligation we have to each other. Just as Christ bore our reproach, so we also must bear each other, pray for each other, be present and listen to each other, love each other. In Galatians, Paul tells us to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

So we must bear with the weakness of others and build them up and strengthen them rather than blame them for their weakness, for in other areas they are the strong and we are the weak. For we are one body; the weakness of others is our weakness — the strength of others is our strength.

For God has received us and listens and loves and is present to us even in our weaknesses, failings, and prejudices, and has born our infirmity upon Himself, and seeks our healing.

In the Gospel, Jesus heals. He has just raised the daughter of the Synagogue leader. Now He privately heals the blind, and the dumb/deaf. There are three levels of this that cause the pharisees anguish: He heals; the people follow Him; His healing fulfills prophesy. The blind men cannot see, but find out enough to know that Jesus is coming by. It is interesting how they address Jesus. Usually only the demonic address Jesus as “Son of David”. Of them, Jesus asks if they have faith. Note, that they did not see and then believe; they had faith and then saw. And Jesus does not heal them when they first cry out to Him. He waits until He has come to His own home after the crowds are gone to heal them.

The dumb one cannot hold this sort of conversation. Jesus casts out the demon who has imprisoned this one’s tongue. The word for “dumb” in Greek is interchangeable with “deaf”. And the one formerly possessed by the demon now gives glory to God.

And the people exclaim: There has never been seen this way in Israel. In putting Jesus before all, the prophets, even before Moses. The pharisees bristled.

This fulfills the prophesy of Isaiah (35). “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like an hart and the tongue of the stutterer shall speak plainly.”

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees . . .Comfort one another . . . Behold our God will come . . . and save us.

This is what Jesus points to when He gives His one sentence sermon in the synagogue. This is what Jesus points to when the disciples of John the Baptist question Him.

And what of us? Where are we strong that we need to give aid to others? Where are we weak that we need to ask for help? Where are we like the people to whom Isaiah was charged to speak: See; and in seeing perceive not: Hear, and in hearing understand not.? Where are we spiritually blind and deaf?

The Kingdom of God is come upon us. We just spent the last hour in the banquet feast of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is here for our healing and the healing of our stronger and weaker brethren.

To the King be glory honour and worship, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen

The Last Judgement

In today’s Gospel Jesus gives us a different sort of teaching. Instead of speaking of Himself and the Kingdom obliquely or through Parables, He confronts us with a vision of the Last Judgement. This Glorious vision is of Him, the Son of Man, as King of all nations, for all nations will be judged, those we like, and those we do not like. All nations before the Throne of Glory are judged based on how they recognized the Image of God in the least of them.
Some will see the King as joy and bliss; others will see the King as judgement and condemnation. And the dividing line is “How did we treat others.”

And He divides the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the wicked. One thing to note is that neither the righteous nor the wicked are aware of who is which. The righteous question being considered righteous; the wicked question being considered wicked. The righteous are unaware that by ministering to the least of these, they ministered to the King.

He was: hungry, and they fed; thirsty and they gave drink; a foreigner, and they welcomed Him; naked, and they clothed Him; sick and imprisoned and they visited Him The righteous ministered to Him by ministering to the least of these. They didn’t know that by ministering to the Image of God in the least of these, that they ministered to God, the King. For God does not need food, drink, asylum, clothing, a physician, or liberty — but the least of those created in His Image do. Come ye blessed, inherit the Kingdom that was prepared for you from the foundation.

To the goats, the wicked He says: Depart you cursed ones. He does not curse them. They have cursed themselves. Depart to a place that was NOT prepared for you, but for the devil and his demons. The fire of punishment was not designed for you, but you have brought it upon yourself; you have chosen it.
They choose it by refusing to do all the things the righteous did.

Brothers and sisters, we live in a culture dominated by protestant calvinism. If you read social theory you will find that they have divided the poor into “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor”  But SS John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Ambrose of Milan will have nothing of this.

For most people, when they see someone in hunger, chronic illness, and the extremes of misfortune, do not even allow him a good reputation but judge his life by his troubles, and think that he is surely in such misery because of wickedness.  — St. John Chrysostom
Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven but to the poor; for if you stretch out your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven. But if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing . — St John Chrysostom
Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead. —  St John Chrysostom
If you see any one in affliction, ask no more questions. His being in affliction involves a just claim on your aid. For if when you see a beast of burden choking you raise him up, and do not curiously inquire whose he is, much more about a human being one ought not to be over-curious in enquiring whose he is. He is God’s, be he heathen or be he Jew; since even if he is an unbeliever, still he needs help. For if indeed you had been charged by God to investigate and to judge, well and good, but, as it is, the fact that he has fallen into misfortune is all you need to know. If you see him in affliction, do not say that he is wicked. For when a person is in calamity, and needs help, it is not right to say that he is wicked. For this is cruelty, inhumanity, and arrogance. — St. John Chrysostom
The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally. — St. John Chrysostom
The rich seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.—  St. Basil the Great
He who strips the clothed is to be called a thief. How should we name him who is able to dress the naked and doesn’t do it. — St. Basil the Great
The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. — St. Basil The Great
There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand there confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering. — St. Ambrose of Milan
You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not just to the rich. —  St Ambrose
Feed him who is dying of hunger; if you have not fed him you have killed him. — St. Ambrose of Milan

I was hungry and you took my food away; I was thirsty and you gave my water to someone who paid you; I was a foreigner and you sent me back to the perils of the country I escaped, I was naked and you condemned my morality; I was sick and you made it impossible for me to see the physician; I was in prison and you forgot me.

Rather than take Jesus’ words to heart we try to find a way to justify our greed, our hard heartedness, our neglect, our theft of the resources that belong to all mankind.
In a week we will begin a time when we are asked by the Church to simplify our lives, to soften our hearts, to be generous with alms, to turn down the volume of our noisy world.

Brothers and sisters, listen. Our souls are on the line. Jesus taught us to pray that our debts be forgiven as we forgive our debtors — our debts, those things we should have done but didn’t. Jesus did not accuse the goat people of adultery or murder; He accused them of lack of mercy.
I would be guilty of not clothing you if I soft-peddled this. This is what our Lord expects of us. This is the criteria by which we are judged.

The Kingdom which was prepared for you from the beginning, the joy of all joys — or, the punishment that was not prepared for you but rather for the devil and his angels. Which will we decide? We must decide whether to let the medicine of these commandments be a healing for us. Or by not applying the medicine a fate which was never ours to begin with awaits.

But by our actions or inactions, we decide.


Guest Blog. Fr. Stephen Freeman: Mere Morality

Today I have invited Fr. Stephen Freeman to be my guest Blogger.
Mere Morality

What makes an action moral? I use the word to describe something done in an effort to conform to a rule, a law, or a principle. It is a matter of the will and a matter of effort. All societies require some form of moral behavior. If there were no such behavior, life would be unpredictable, unstable, and quite dangerous. Governments encourage some form of morality (it is the sole purpose of laws). Most religions also endorse a code or moral rule.

Having said all of that – I want to be clear that I do not suggest that people engage in immorality. However…

Morality is not the province of Christianity, nor is the Kingdom of God a matter of moral effort. I have written elsewhere that “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good…He died in order to make dead men live.”

The work of the Holy Spirit in the human life involves the true transformation of the Person. We are not commanded to behave, but to become.

This same principle runs throughout the sacraments of the Church. And the pattern of the sacraments is the pattern of our salvation. Baptism is not a matter of behavior (mere obedience to a command). Baptism is a true union with Christ in His death and resurrection.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2Co 5:17)

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Gal 6:15)

The waters of Baptism become the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Eucharist is not a new behavior for bread and wine, but a new reality is revealed: they become the true Body and Blood of Christ. We do not eat and drink as a moral act, or a memorial. We eat the true Body and drink the true Blood in order to live.

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. (Joh 6:53-55)

There is within our culture a constant pull towards a moral model. The demand that others conform to an external rule, and the drive to force the same on ourselves, is a distraction that draws us away from the truth of our lives. We fail in our repeated moral attempts and secretly upbraid ourselves. With others we become consumed by anger. And both are driven by the pool of shame that failure generates.

But the nature of our life-problem is not failure to behave correctly. Were there to be someone who always acted in a proper moral manner – they would still be as sick as everyone around them. The sinlessness of Christ does not describe His unfailing conformity to the Jewish Law. It is rather His utter integrity with the Father – He is one with the Father and nothing ever severs that relationship.

Moral performance does not secure our union with God.

Christ on the mount of Transfiguration is what the truly “moral” man looks like. Our goal is not conformity to a standard, but life from the dead.

We are able to make “moral” judgments. Societies legislate morality (for this is the sole concern of the law). The good order of a culture is largely measured by its general conformity to its moral code. But this conformity is not the goal of the Christian faith. We have something far greater in mind.

I have noted a tendency among some to treat the Church’s concern for the environment as a moral goal (which is entirely appropriate). But some have confused this moral goal as somehow of a piece with the true goal of the transfiguration of creation. If every scintilla of pollution ceased at this very moment and the climate stabilized for the remainder of our planet’s existence, nothing relevant to the Kingdom of God would have been established. For our goal is not a moral planet (expressed in our stewardship). The proclamation of the gospel is that God has a goal and a purpose in all creation that transcends every moral effort of humanity. The created will be united with the uncreated.  This will not be a measure of its environment but the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Some are troubled (I’ve noticed) when such statements are made, fearing that they lessen the moral demands for stewardship of the environment. That may be, though it is not my intent (and thus not the intent of properly stated theology). But the gift of God is inexorable – not depending on human action. That Christ makes bread to be His body is not therefore a moral demand for better baking (though we should present the finest work of human hands at His altar).

The transformation of creation is the promise of a good God in the face of all human failure and of a creation “made subject to futility.” None of us can predict what the outcome of human habitation of our planet will be. We may yet be so silenced that any comment from the Church on the topic will be unheard. The seas may turn into wormwood and the planet breathe poison as in the earliest days of its formation. I think it completely likely that the planet will reflect the bankruptcy of mankind in every way.

But the transformation will come. That is a gospel promise.

We shall be changed. Everything shall be changed. And that’s the moral of this story.

Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog can be found at

Republished with permission of author