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A Powerful Thought: the Elevation of the Precious, Life-Giving Cross and Christian Behavior

September 14, 2012

“Before Thy Cross, O Master, we bow down and worship, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify!”

In general, our behavior is shaped by our thoughts, but only by those thoughts that are powerful enough to grab our attention and to stir our will. And among the billions of potential thoughts we can have, there is one thought, one remembrance that is especially powerful and stirring, and that that is the thought of the Cross of our Savior and bowing before it in the glory of His Resurrection. This is why two weeks into the new ecclesiastical year, Orthodox Christians take courage and strength for leading the Christian way of life by allowing the Cross to fill the horizon of their mind, to fill their heart with gratitude for the One Who hung upon it, and then to venerate this precious and life-giving Cross by bowing down before It and by making It a way of life. Even before the events of Holy Friday, the cross immediately grabbed the attention of any who would see that instrument of brutal torture and execution meant to discourage criminals from breaking civil laws. But with the death of the innocent and loving Lamb of God on that Cross, the Cross was invested with the power of sacrificial love and with the glory of the Resurrection. And so, what once attracted attention as an instrument of torture and death, now draws all of humanity towards It as the symbol and vehicle of healing and eternal life. Of course, it’s a paradox that exceeds the rational mind, but it’s also a paradox that heals the rational mind. Saint Paul reflects upon this paradox when he writes, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied (ekenose) Himself, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

After Holy Friday, kenosis, self-emptying, becomes the Way, the Truth, and the Life for every sincere Christian believer, because it entails the imitation of Christ. It is, as it were, a measuring stick in terms of our identification with Christ and ultimately, our openness to a process leading to theosis. As the model for Christian behavior, it is also the pathway to our own restoration. Now, that sounds simple enough. Yet, after the Fall, it has become something we fear, something quite unnatural in our unnatural state of fallenness. Our fallen state tempts us to think that we have to look out for number 1, assert ourselves, and stand up for ourselves, especially in the light of perceived injustices to self.

The way of the Cross, the way of kenosis offers a different path. It is the path first trod by Christ Himself as the way. If kenosis is the path, the sure guide along this path is self-reproach. Ancient Christian Wisdom refers to the following patristic advice for treading along this way: “Saint John Cassian suggests that the irritated ascetic remind himself how he had planned to get the better of all his bad qualities and how a gentle breeze caused by a troubling word shook his entire house of virtue. In other words, the disturbing word becomes an opportunity for humble honesty that is the foundation of genuine self-knowledge. Abba Dorotheos likewise enjoins the grieved to stop brooding over their grievances and refocus on silence, heartfelt repentance, and prayer. Of course, it can be challenging for people to reproach themselves when a reasonable assessment of a situation clearly indicates that they are innocent. Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite offers a number of aids for self-reproach in such instances. For example, he suggests that believers bring to mind other faults where they were clearly responsible and to view the present difficulty as a penance imposed on them. Alternatively, they can recall that tribulations form the entryway to the kingdom of heaven, that adversities line the path of Christ and his friends, and that everything that happens on life’s journey is permitted by God.”

The path of kenosis guided by self-reproach is indeed the “narrow gate” of which Christ spoke in the Gospel. The daily struggle against the passions, the desire and striving for virtue, and the focus on self-reproach is the exaltation of the cross in one’s own life precisely because these are the seeds of eternal life. And so, let’s begin by looking towards the Cross of our Lord with fear and trembling, with love and devotion, with joy and hope, for if we plant the thought of the Cross deep in our heart, it will take root and become a Tree of Paradise, nurturing us and strengthening us with humble thoughts, with self-emptying thoughts, and ultimately with the fruit of Christ’s Holy Resurrection manifested in every aspect of our daily life.

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From → Spiritual Life

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