The Church and the Cross of Christ

This series is a reflection of the life of the Cross in the life of the Church. Orthodoxy in the modern world (as well as its past) frequently engages in struggle – not only with the world – but within itself. This is not the failure of an ideal – for the Church is not an ideal – but instead is the life of salvation lived out in this world and in the age to come. These thoughts stay with me and are a comfort when the struggles of salvation seek to overcome. I reprint this in such a time.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye 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 (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





31 responses to “The Church and the Cross of Christ”

  1. leonard nugent Avatar
    leonard nugent

    Father, when you mention the Anglican Church being born of compromise and divorce it reminds me that the 475th anniversary of the execution of Anne Boleyn occurs in 6 days on May 19th. I’ve studied that history and her in particular for a couple of months now. it is truly fascinating. Especially the role that Thomas Cromwell played in the pillaging of the monasteries.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    I particularly like the historian, Eamon Duffy’s, work on the English Reformation. Very enlightening. The politics of the reformation certainly made the results problematic. Politics have always been a bane of the Church’s life in this world.

  3. David Avatar

    Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for this. As a Presbyterian whose denomination has only this week plunged eagerly into the abyss, I find this rich and comforting.

  4. Herman Avatar

    I hope that this message is heard across the entire Church, Father. Too often it is forgotten.

  5. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother

    Father Stephen,

    Whether you were the Matador or the bull, I would stay Ole!

  6. David Dickens Avatar

    Yes. Yes. And Yes.

  7. Joel Avatar

    “I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.” Amen.

  8. ray Avatar

    The idea that the cross is the “self-emptying of God” is another example of Christianity’s morbid obsession with pain and death. From a psychological point of view, it is understandable why “saint” Paul would invent a religion that calls the crucifixion a good and beautiful thing. After all, he was one of the saintly crew who carried it out. And didn’t he help with the stoning of Stephen? I guess that’s where the term “rock of ages” originated 🙂 I am an intelligent, careful reader who was steeped in this bloody religion all my life(they called it “the precious blood”) It makes no sense on any level. This glorification of “the cross” needs to end already. Do we hang a rifle around our necks to honor Martin Luther King? How about a handgun to honor John Lennon?
    People die, we all do, it’s a fact of life. The resurrection, whether of Jesus or our own, is a matter of faith. In this context, death can be seen as a release of sorts, I grant you. But the cross? That’s a sadistic and cruel invention of a depraved human mind; not the way a merciful God shows His love toward us. Enough already.

  9. Father Stephen Avatar

    There is not a morbid obsession with pain and suffering in Christianity (certainly not in the way you describe it) – I also gather that you have no experience of Orthodox Christianity.

    There is, however, plenty of pain and suffering in this world, unless you are fortunate and rich enough to avoid a lot of it. The emphasis on the Cross as the love of God, is not a love of suffering, but a love that takes suffering into itself and heals it.

    Virtually every good thing we have in this life is a result of someone who was willing to take on hard things, even suffering things, that we might have good things. Every good parent does this for their child. Love will always do this.

    This is not morbid – it’s what love looks like.

    You seem to have been wounded by someone’s teaching of the Cross (perhaps it was misguided).

    If you understand mercy – then you understand a God who would go anywhere, do anything, for our sakes. And if we love him and want to follow him, we become willing to do the same. How else would you describe love? As a feeling?

  10. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    There is not any obsession with pain and death even from a psychological viewpoint. The Crucifixion is intertwined with the Incarnation and the Resurrection. You might consider balancing your focus–you may have been steeped in ‘blood’ from your family background, but now you are an adult and you can study and reflect and pray and reach your own conclusions.

    The Cross is a very significant symbol, but there are also other symbols: the fish, the dove, etc. Furthermore, we honor MLK behaviorally–by practicing racial harmony and protecting the civil rights of all.

    And, if I may say so, I find your humor about the “Rock of Ages” in reference to the stoning of Stephen truly offensive, truly lacking in the understanding for which you yourself seem to be searching.

    You might consider reading the Bible with an objective and inquiring mind, and an open heart, and set aside ‘religion’ and just pray for guidance on your path. Just a suggestion.

  11. Karen Avatar

    Amen and amen. Never more timely. Thank you, Father.

  12. ray Avatar

    Aunt Melanie,
    In my analogy, the cross and the rock are both the same thing: an instrument of torture and death. If that offends you, you are on the way to understanding my point here. I say neither should be glorified. Shameful acts of human sadism, both.
    Father Stephen,
    I understand about self-sacrifice and generosity. I just don’t see how I can take succor in the horrendous suffering Jesus endured. I feel bad for the guy. And if he does return, I doubt he would appreciate seeing crosses everywhere as icons. It would just bring back alot of bad memories for him. He endured it, he came out on top, and we can learn from his example. I just don’t think the means of his death(the cross) is something to focus on. It could have been a knife, a gun, a guillotine, whatever. If those methods were used, would they then be valid as icons? I think that’s at least a valid question, is it not? And do you not see the slightest irony that Paul stressed the centrality of “the cross” and he was likely in on the murder himself?
    I have looked into orthodoxy. That’s why I receive your blog. Initially it was to discover an alternate atonement theory, untainted by Augustinian penal substitution. But that’s pretty much the extent of my understanding. I did ask you to elucidate your views on the subject before but you were leaving on a trip and did not have time to answer. So I just let it be.
    I know I’m coming at this as an outsider, so in the future I will not try to stir up trouble among the faithful. God bless you all in whatever you believe. Peace.

  13. ray Avatar

    i thought i had left another reply. have i been deleted and/or excommunicated?

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Somehow your note got hung up in the spam filter. I cleared this morning. Sorry.

  15. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Re: Ray on the “rock of ages.”

    Rock of Ages
    A hymn by Augustus M. Toplady, 1740-1778

    1. Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
    let me hide myself in thee;
    let the water and the blood,
    from thy wounded side which flowed,
    be of sin the double cure;
    save from wrath and make me pure.

    2. Not the labors of my hands
    can fulfill thy law’s commands;
    could my zeal no respite know,
    could my tears forever flow,
    all for sin could not atone;
    thou must save, and thou alone.

    3. Nothing in my hand I bring,
    simply to the cross I cling;
    naked, come to thee for dress;
    helpless, look to thee for grace;
    foul, I to the fountain fly;
    wash me, Savior, or I die.

    4. While I draw this fleeting breath,
    when mine eyes shall close in death,
    when I soar to worlds unknown,
    see thee on thy judgment throne,
    Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
    let me hide myself in thee.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is a strain of Western Christianity that understands Christ’s blood as a payment to appease the wrath of God. This is foreign to the Orthodox faith. Nevertheless, I cannot think of a religion worth its salt (though I can think of a few religions that are not worth their salt) that does not address the problem of pain and suffering in some manner. Some treat it as a problem of our delusional existence – others in other ways. Orthodox Christianity holds that pain and suffering are largely products of our existential position. We have broken communion with the good God, who is the Lord and Giver of Life. The pain and suffering of the world is the result of our embracing of death and corruption in the place of our true life.

    The good God makes Himself known to us in becoming man. And having taken on Himself our humanity, He enters as well into the darkness of our pain and suffering, particular through His death on the Cross and His entrance into Hades. There He “tramples down death by death,” and makes for everyone a path to the resurrection (the fullness of new life in God).

    None of that is a “bloody religion.” The faith of Christ is a faith that forgives enemies and is commanded to “do good to those who hate you.” This is not a bloody religion. St. Paul does not teach violence or hatred. His championing of Christ’s Cross, is as an example of God’s love and great humility – which is to be the model of our own lives as well.

    Humanist theories have a bad track record (their various incarnations in the 20th century are a story of the world’s greatest mass carnage).

    May God direct your heart in understanding. Forgive me if I have failed to make any of this clear.

  17. Lewis Avatar

    Your audaciousness is refreshing, and I commend your returning for dialogue. When I finally escaped my religious upbringing and learned that ‘intelligent people’ did not believe in God, I generally left the scene quietly. Your overtness is better than my smugness.

    You raised a question about the irony of Paul’s stressing the centrality of the cross while participating in the murder. As I understand it, Paul was fully aware of this and other ironies. Paul was also fond of paradox.

    After my decade of meandering through agnosticism, quasi-religion and a cult, I lost my faith in coincidence during military service (Vietnam). Then I completed Graduate School (late 1960s) amidst war protests, rotten politics, recreational drugs and the sex revolution. One of the slogans was to have ‘an open mind’: behind this facade, even academicians really meant be open to substituting their viewpoint for mine. My skepticism was sliding toward cynicism, which I knew was a self-destructive worldview for life.

    I determined to reexamine Christianity for myself. Many things did seem upside down, backwards, bizarre and offensive. Finally, I reached an impasse but proceeded anyway. Against my critical mindset, Jesus’s Gospel rang audaciously true, and now I love the irony and the paradox — except when it applies to me, of course (humor intended).

    Go where you must go, Ray, and wrestle with everything necessary. Remain honest and truthful, and you will eventually resolve enough of your religious issues to deal with your most troubling protests. God is there, I believe, and God will respond to your inquiries –even the ones you have not yet discovered.

    The verity of Orthodox Christianity can be found in her people. This blog is a good place to stay plugged in.

  18. Jerilyn Avatar

    Lewis, what a wonderful testimony, and so beautifully expressed. Ray is not alone in his thoughts–people I’ve known throughout my lifetime have asked me “why the Cross? why such a horrible death for such a good man?” I try in my own poor way to say that Christ’s horrific suffering is in direct correlation to the sins of man (usually in simpler terms). We had wandered far away from Eden into a dark, distant land full of misery, living our lives in hateful opposition to God, and He walked into our sad, horrible, dead world and rescued us there at the cost of His own life.

    But it doesn’t, of course, end there, or we wouldn’t have just celebrated Pascha! Christ lives, never to die again, and we also live in His new world of light and life.

  19. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for addressing the “wrath” issue. That actually slipped by me; I think because I was so focused on attempting to restore respect for the Cross, the blood, the stoning of Stephen, and for an old hymn which–despite some doctinal difference–has helped a lot people maintian communion with God throughout the pain and suffering of their earthly life.

    Ray, Lewis: It is I who should not plug in to this blog–because I cannot relate to the “audacity” of Jesus or the “Augustinian penal subsitutiion” and other such terms–I have tried and I usually just get confused–and I obviously am not helping anyone else. If you can help each other, I think that’s great.

    Maybe it is a matter of doctrine, or maybe it is just a stylistic difference. Anyway, because I discovered Fr. Stephen’s blog, I was able to grasp some important points and I know my heart became more humble and loving–for that I am grateful. But, the intellectual details are beyond me–whether doctrinal or stylistic, or even necessary in order to stay on a good path.

    Ray: I hope you find whatever you are searching for. I believe that I have found an appropriate path for myself–we all have a unique journey, and I hope we all meet together at the same final destination.

  20. Karen Avatar

    Ray, you may have already seen these reflections by Frederica Mathewes-Green, but I offer the links as one who has also wrestled with the meaning of the Cross as it is interpreted to us from popular Evangelical thought and much western Christian traditional thought (and ended up Eastern Orthodox). Her thoughts may be helpful:

  21. Ruth Ann Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, this isn’t a very relevant comment compared with the others. But I would be appreciative to know which Bible(s) you used as sources for the quotations. Some of them use archaic language, and I don’t mean that pejoratively; others use more contemporary language, which I don’t think is necessarily better. Although I’m not a Biblical scholar, I am intrigued by various English translations and find that reading a passage from different translations expands my understanding of the meaning. I do not know the original languages of Greek or Hebrew.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ruth Ann,

    Often times I use the New King James, but I read Greek and Hebrew and thus I will occasionally change something if it strikes me as less than accurate. For instance, I am a stickler for not translating the Greek, koinonia, as “fellowship.” I’ll usually change it to “communion” or “participation” both of which are far more accurate. I’ve posted an article or two on this particular topic (the politics of Bible translations). Many English translations are decidedly Protestant, and politically or doctrinally slanted. There really is no true “Orthodox” translation in English (that I’m familiar with). The Orthodox Study Bible is NKJV with some alterations in the OT to bring it in line with the Septuagint version of the Old Testament.

  23. Ruth Ann Avatar

    I’ll search your site to find those articles about the Bible. Thank you.

  24. ray Avatar

    I recommend Deepak Chopra’s fictional novel “Jesus”. That’s a view of Jesus’ life and teachings I can actually relate to. I have never stopped believing in God because he has made himself known to me from an early age. My suffering becomes bearable as I stay in communion with Him. In time, the suffering dissipates into a sea of forgetfulness. I guess that’s my problem with dwelling on “the cross”: it is focusing on the wrong thing, in my opinion. And I would not call it “the cross of Christ”. I see the cross as an invention of a very depraved group of misguided men. Thanks for all the comments. God Bless you all.

  25. mike Avatar

    …I understand you Ray…and Lewis does too:”Go where you must go, Ray, and wrestle with everything necessary. Remain honest and truthful, and you will eventually resolve enough of your religious issues to deal with your most troubling protests. God is there, I believe, and God will respond to your inquiries –even the ones you have not yet discovered”…..

  26. Randi Avatar

    If the cross is an arhetypal symbol before man made it a cruel instrument of death, and if Jesus sanctified everything He touched, then it truly is the cross of Christ.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    Though the cross was a cruel and barbaric instrument of execution – the Church glorified it as the instrument of our salvation – in a typical use of Divine Irony. They were not gruesome or sentimental. St. Peter was crucified. St. Andrew was crucified. St. Paul was beheaded because as a Roman citizen he was exempt from crucifixion. They saw the Divine Irony (which robs the Romans – and all other earthly powers – of the falsely presumed “power” which they used as a threat). This attitude (almost one of mocking) rendered the “powerful” as “powerless.”
    Later Western commentators developed a less than helpful doctrine of atonement and Cross. But the Biblical witness is a great celebration of the ironic nature of God’s victory in our lives.

  28. Vicki Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    This was a long post: I am speaking mainly to one paragraph toward the beginning, the one that begins with, “The insanity of modern American Christianity…”. I know you believe that the Orthodox way of understanding the things of Christ is the right one. And usually I read your column for your great depth of insight. But, though you go on to show that all Christians need to empty themselves and love one another, at the outset you make some comments that seem uncomfortably self-congratulatory to me. When you say, “Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships),” then you go on to say how, in contrast, the Orthodox church–with some small exceptions–understands things right, it seems to me that you are going the same route as the others that you easily look down on.
    I love learning the Orthodox view of many facets of Christianity; it is less helpful when you smirkingly dismiss other parts of the Body of Christ as badly guided or foolish.
    I was raised Presbyterian, left the church, then had an experience of the sovereign God all alone outside of church, then, searching for Home, went into the Evangelical church, and finally the Catholic Church; I find that all of them have strengths and all of them have weaknesses. I don’t believe any of them has a corner on Right Doctrine. But Christ is present nonetheless, and leads us from wherever we are.
    I hear the same kind of triumphalism in the Catholic Church, and it irks me. All Christians need each other, I believe, even when their views contradict each other. I believe that all of the churches have some areas of truth and some areas of misunderstanding, and that’s OK. We are better off to respect and embrace each other–because each group of Christians has Christ living in us in some way–than to point to the rightness of our own way.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar


    I appreciate your thoughts and your honesty. However, it seems to me that you either heard me say something I did not say, or you did not hear what I was saying. Thus, I offer to underline a few points.

    In the early part of the article, I point to the failings of the non-Orthodox, in an effort to catch the ear of the Orthodox who too easily enjoy such criticisms. I then draw attention to the common Orthodox language of the Church as “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” “Fullness,” etc.

    But I do that in order to make the point (which seems quite clear to me) that such words, when taken out of context, become “war words.” They become weapons to beat down others – and I note that when we use such words incorrectly, they are immediately betrayed by other words we have spoken (the sinful ones) and things we have done.

    The point of the article then comes into focus – to point not to the superiority of Orthodoxy, but rather to its weakness – and I am explicit about that weakness. I draw that to the conclusion saying, “Let everyone else be excellent – I need to die.”

    This is an essay on the Way of the Cross as the Way of Life for all believers. Yes, I am an Orthodox Christian, but I dare not think of Orthodoxy as a choice among choices, a Church among Churches, one of only many denominations. This would betray the very fullness that is the content of the Orthodox faith. But the fullness of that faith is only found in the emptiness of the Cross. There is no place for triumphalism from the Cross, only the forgiveness of all by each and of each by all.

    But in the light of the Cross, there is no relativism – no place for our excellence or our opinions – no place for the traditions of man – no relevance of our own insights. There is only the self-emptying of God and the call to have “this mind among yourselves.”

    The essay is a word to the Orthodox – who will be servants of the world only when they no longer care for their own excellence and properly embrace their weakness (which is also the weakness of God.)

    cannot say what others must do – though I think the observations about American Christianity that I offered are not untrue. We have no excellence, no virtue, apart from the way of the Cross.

    Events within the Orthodox world (news which many others may not notice) only underline for me the truth of what is offered in this essay. There is no way forward except for that of the Cross. Man constantly stands at the edge of an abyss, dangerously weighed down and drawn towards its darkness by the weight of his own excellence. The abyss swallows us up regardless of our creed or allegiance. The enemy hates us one and all.

    The only way into the abyss that is also a way out is the Way of the Cross, the Way of self-emptying. Thus my question and the point of this essay is to ask the question, “What would the way of the Cross look like if it were understood to be the true basis of the Church (ecclesiology).

    Sorry if I created a misunderstanding and I hope this is clarifying.

    Christ is risen! I

  30. joel in ga Avatar

    Better to choose the inescapable cross freely than have to be compelled.

  31. Vicki Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for your kind and indeed clarifying comments.
    I think I made two mistakes. One, I didn’t realize that your column’s intended audience was the Orthodox community. (Certainly it is the world at large that reads it.) Two, I do have a tendency to zero in on what I perceive as derisive comments, and then stop listening to (or, as in this case, reading) the rest of the matter. It’s a fault, I realize, and it may be that the actual meat of this essay contains, among other things, the way to overcome it.
    If I really make it my aim to follow Jesus to the cross, emptying myself as he did–or even desiring to empty myself as he did–then those issues that beset me will maybe not stick quite so tight any more. Like everything else that is not part of Real Life, they will fall away.
    The fullness of faith that is only found in emptyness is hard to embrace, amid the trinkets of our lives. God give us the willingness to embrace it.

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