At the Center of Everything – the Cross

img_1007Fr. John Behr, in his book, The Mystery of Christ, takes a very close look at the earliest centuries of the Christian faith, and at the very heart of Orthodoxy itself which is to be found there. In particular he speaks with great clarity about the “rule of faith,” certainly known to all of the Apostles and to the Apostolic Church. If placed in words it sounds much like the Apostles’ Creed (which is, indeed, one of its earliest verbal expressions). We hear echoes of that same rule in various places in the New Testament, which bears witness that the writers of the New Testament, such as St. Paul, knew full well the “rule of faith” before ever they wrote a word. (It is also interesting that Creeds in some form are older than the New Testament).

The early Christian community, despite being surrounded by false teachers, Judaizers, gnostics, and what-have-you, were nonetheless not a confused bunch. It was not the “California-believe-what-you-want” paradise that the neo-gnostics such as Elaine Pagels and some others would have us imagine. Orthodox Catholic Christianity was steady on from the beginning and silenced everyone around them, not through the machinations of the state (they were not even legal yet), nor of some plot of sinister paternalism that modern feminists like to conjure.

This small minority clung to an understanding of Christ because they both knew the “rule of faith” – that is they could recite the Tradition that had been given them – but also because the Tradition that had been given to them was itself living and true. The truly Great Tradition of the Church was and is the Crucified God. It sings through every page of the New Testament. Unknown in the gnostic writings with their Ogdoads and Aeons, the gospel of Christ was and is the good news that God became man, and became the very least of us, entering even into the depths of death and hell to rescue us from the hell we had created for ourselves.

The Gospel of the Crucified God is that strength is found in weakness, triumph in forgiveness; evil is overcome by good; losing ourselves is finding ourselves; wealth is poverty and poverty is wealth; and the list could be multiplied many times over. Most importantly these are not abstract principles, but descriptions of Who God Is and How God Is in His revelation of Himself to us.

The “dogmatic consciousness” of which the Elder Sophrony occasionally writes, is finally having the truth of the Crucified God written into the very core of your heart and soul. It is knowing the God who emptied Himself and yielding yourself to be conformed to His image.

The wonder of the writings of an Elder Sophrony, and of others like him through the years of the Church, is that both they themselves and many whom they knew, embodied this knowledge of God and became bearers of the light in their own generation. The saints are the great treasury of Orthodoxy, living proof of the rightness of our doctrine. Indeed, they are what the doctrine looks like.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 3:3) …”you are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” This gives a new meaning to the “New Testament Church.” Now we can see that it means the Church which is the “New Testament,” and this same New Testament continues to be read in the Churches who have preserved that same faith.

It is simply not enough to study the Scriptures. We must become the Scriptures so that all might read Christ in our heart and know the Truth of the gospel. Talk about the gospel will not save the world. Only the gospel enfleshed in human lives can be said to constitute preaching. This is what Christians are ordained (Baptized) to do.

In a couple of weeks we will gather again around the Cross of the Christ and remember its centrality. Orthodox Christians should never make the mistake that this event is only momentary or an accidental rescue of fallen man. It is the revelation of God that must become the revelation of our own true self.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





7 responses to “At the Center of Everything – the Cross”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: A pilgrim at Golgotha. The place of the Cross is directly beneath the altar. Pilgrims prostrate and venerate the holy site. A traditional Orthodox “Golgotha” stands behind the altar. Beneath the altar as well is the icon of the “Bridegroom.”

  2. Mark Epstein Avatar

    Talk about the gospel will not save the world. Only the gospel enfleshed in human lives can be said to constitute preaching. AMEN!

    Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, our actions speak volumes to all of those around us. When the scriptures/gospel are “enfleshed” within us, our actions in most circumstances will be loving. The “preaching” in the early days of the church included the early Christians’ response to persecution, which was rooted in the “rule of faith.” As their martyred lives released a fragrance of love, even their persecutors could not ignore their belief in the traditions taught them.

  3. Mark Galbaugh Avatar
    Mark Galbaugh

    You touch on many topics here, but in the paragraph beginning ‘The “dogmatic consciousness”’, you begin to speak of the intimate union of the sould with God, but it is somewhat disconnected for the prior thoughts on the “rule of faith.”

    Speaking only from my own experience, first comes the invitation to faith through preaching, witness, example, etc. Then, with God’s help, comes coversion, profession of the Creed, & subsequent immersion into the Church & it’s running lifeblood of Tradition.

    But at some level, at some point, it is the experience of Christ Jesus himself that nourishes & sustains our individual souls. I would not die for a creed, but I will die for Christ who gives the Creed authority. Maybe it’s spiritual growth or maturity, or Christ inviting us to take a higher seat closer to him. I don’t know. But it surely seems to have been her personal encounter with Jesus that sent Mary Magdelene running to the Apostles to announce, “I have seen the Lord!”

    It is certainly not my intention to set the Creed against the Lord, but rather point out a different aspect. The world is starving for a love that is found only in God. Creeds are only useful to the point that they help us to find the God who is love & remain with him. This is the only thing worth living or dying for.

    What is said about being the Gospel Incarnate as Christ’s Body is true. When I have asked unbelieving friends or co-workers the reason for their unbelief, they inevitably say it is the hypocritical witness & same-as-the-world attitude of Christians that tells them the Faith is untrue.

    Father, I drive by St. Anne’s every Sunday afternoon on my way to & from St. Therese Catholic Church in Clinton. I would very much like to meet you some time.

  4. PastorS Avatar

    “The truly Great Tradition of the Church was and is the Crucified God.”

  5. ochlophobist Avatar

    The Creed (in Orthodox usage) is not a utilitarian device. It is the language of martyrdom. The words of salvation which we know through that witness of saints which is the recapitulation in the life of the Church of the Cross of Christ. To say that I will not die for the Creed is inconceivable to me, as an Orthodox, for to say the Creed is to enter into the image of the laying down of my life for Christ’s sake, to enter into the Church’s witness/martyria.

    Perhaps some of the problem is semantic – many Christians think of Creeds as a proposition, in something along the lines of the propositionalism espoused by some modern conservative Protestants, or that ethos that came out of the manualist traditions of Roman Catholicism. That sort of an understanding certainly might present an obstacle, as an abstraction, to an actual experience Christ. But that is not at all the Orthodox experience of the Creed. The Creed is the song of the martyrs.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    When we become Orthodox, as converts, we take an oath to die for the faith. The Creed cannot be separated from Christ – it is a dogmatic icon of Christ – and yes I would die for an icon – we have many such saints in Orthodoxy.

    Much modern thought compartmentalizes these things, but they are not divided, but part of the life of the Church, the Body of Christ. Had no one died for the Creed, the truth would have perished from our midst. Indeed, it is the song of the martyrs.

  7. Mark Galbaugh Avatar
    Mark Galbaugh

    Thanks for the clarification. Something to ponder. God bless.

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