Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Holy Cross: The Gate of Paradise

Our first parents, Adam & Eve, lived in Paradise, the Garden of Eden. They enjoyed a life of blissful purity in the intimate presence with their loving, nurturing Creator, who had given them the fruit of every tree in the garden for food, except one. God warned them not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil.

The fruit of that tree alone was not good for them, at least not yet. Knowing this, the Serpent, the once-angelic being who had himself rebelled against God, appeared in the garden to deceive our first mother. He encouraged her to ignore God's instructions and to instead follow her own selfish desires. She listened. Eve reached out her hand, took fruit from the forbidden tree, and ate it. She gave some of the fruit to her husband, Adam, who also at it. Through their prideful, rebellious sin, they brought death, an existence of spiritual and physical corruption, chaos, and decay, into the vibrant, harmonious creation. The fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge and Good & Evil was itself good and meant for life. The fruit itself did not bring death, but the prideful rejection of God in favor of self-centeredness, the opposite of selfless love, brought death. Adam & Eve used their own freedom to do evil instead of good, a choice that brought isolation and sickness upon themselves, their descendents, and the whole world.

Our Creator, in His infinite love for the humanity He had created in His own image, did not intend to allow death to enslave and weaken us forever. To prevent them from also eating fruit from the Tree of Life and living forever poisoned by death, He exiled our first parents from Paradise and posted an angelic guard with a flaming sword to protect the sacred way to the Tree of Life.

The descendents of Adam & Eve, all of us who have lived on the Earth, have been born into a fallen world as children afflicted by the disease of death. After the sin of our first parents, the generations of humanity that followed continued to drift away from God into the dark shadows of self-destructive sin and ignorance. Even so, our Creator was not absent, but was always present and active in the world preparing us for the day of salvation, when He would free us from the curse of death and bring us back into Paradise.

In the fullness of time, the Archangel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary and announced to Her that she would give birth to a son, the Son of God, the Savior of the world. "I'm the Lord's servant," Mary replied, "Let everything happen to me according to your word." As the first Eve brought sin into the world by choosing of her own free will to disobey God, the New Eve, through faithful obedience, would give birth to Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God in human flesh. As the New Adam, Christ would free us from the death brought upon us by (the first) Adam and lead us back into Paradise.

When Christ came into the world, His enemies did not recognize Him or understand why He had come to walk among us. In their sinful ignorance, they intended to destroy Him by executing Him on a wooden cross, a symbol of punishment, defeat, pain, and death. They didn't understand that He had come into the world for this very purpose, to willing ascend the Cross and, through the Cross, to rescue us from death. Since Christ was completely human, having been born of a human woman with a mortal body, He died as one of us, leaving His body for burial and descending into Hades , the place of the dead (often translated as "hell"). Although Christ was fully human, He wasn't merely human. He was also truly God, the Son through whom the Father brought all things into existence. Since He was Life Himself, death could not contain Him. He trampled death by His own death and freed humanity from the curse of death.

The Holy Cross is the Door of Paradise, through which we return to real life in the presence of God:
The fiery sword no longer guards the gate of Eden, for in a strange and glorious way the wood of the Cross has quenched its flames. The sting of death and the victory of hell are now destroyed for Thou art come, my Saviour, crying unto those in hell: 'Return again to Paradise.'

Pilate set up three crosses in the place of the Skull, two for the thieves and one for the Giver of Life. Seeing Him, hell cried to those below: 'O ministers and powers! Who is this that has fixed a nail in my heart? A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly, and I am torn apart. Inwardly I suffer; anguish has seized my belly and my senses. My spirit trembles, and I am constrained to cast out Adam and his posterity. A tree brought them to my realm, but now the Tree of the Cross brings them back again to Paradise.' (Matins, Sunday of the Cross, Triodion)

The Cross is also the Tree of Life and Jesus Christ is its fruit:
Come, Adam and Eve, our first father and mother, who fell from the choir on high through the envy of the murderer of man, when of old with bitter pleasure ye tasted from the tree in Paradise. See, the Tree of the Cross, revered by all, draws near! Run with haste and embrace it joyfully, and cry to it with faith: O precious Cross, thou art our succour; partaking of thy fruit, we have gained incorruption; we are restored once more to Eden, and have received great mercy.
(Saturday Vespers, Sunday of the Cross, Triodion)
Whoever eats of this Tree receives spiritual purification, healing, illumination, transformation, and eternal life. Spiritual death struck our first parents immediately after their sin and physical death eventually followed. Through the Cross, we have access to spiritual healing and union with God in the eternal realm of Paradise right now, even while living in this world. We are travelers in the world heading toward our beloved home country, the Kingdom of God - Paradise, where our hearts reside. Eventually our lives on the Earth will end and our physical bodies will die, but since we live in mystical union with the Divine One who Himself triumphed over death by the Cross, death will not be able to contain us either. In the final triumph of the Cross, even physical death will be destroyed once and for all. We will rise from the dead to finally experience the fullness of Paradise in the presence of God forever.

How do we experience the reality of the Cross? We mystically experience the reality of the Cross by living the fullness of the Orthodoxy Christian way of life. Whether prayerfully making the sign of the cross over ourselves (During the baptismal service we proclaim, "Let all adverse powers be crushed beneath the sign of the image of thy cross."), or by giving our bodies over to martyrdom for the sake of Christ and His Church, as many of the Saints have done, the Cross for us is not just a symbol, but a present reality made real in our lives through the Holy Spirit as a spiritual weapon and instrument of salvation. We especially experience the Cross through our participation in the Holy Mysteries, central to our life within the Church. The Mysteries infuse us with the transforming power of the Cross that brings our hearts closer to Christ, unites with Him, forms us into His divine image, and enables us to more perfectly embody His healing love in the world.

While on the Earth, Christ taught His disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8.34, RSV). Our way of life is the daily lifestyle of taking up the cross and following Christ. The way of self-denial is the way of love. It involves relinquishing our own self-centered desires so that we can really love God and also love the people around us with pure, selfless love. How much should we love God and love others? Our example is the Cross, where God, with arms outstretched, shows us how much He loves us.

Today is the Sunday that marks the half-way point between the beginning of the Fast (Great Lent) and the Feast of Feasts (Pascha/Easter). It is the Sunday of the Adoration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. We read about the Cross from the Holy Scripture and carry the Cross in procession while singing,
O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting to Thy people victory over all their enemies, and by the power of Thy Cross, preserving Thy kingdom.

We bow down before the Cross in worship, singing again,
Before Thy Cross we bow down in worship, Sovereign Lord, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify.

For us the Holy Cross, is not a sign of death, but a sign of Life. During the Fast, let us look toward Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) when we will celebrate in greater fullness the beauty of the Cross and the glory of the Resurrection, not only in the spiritual history of humankind, but as a reality we are called to live every single day of our earthly lives on the way toward Paradise.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo © 2005 by Dana S. Kees. (Passages from Vespers and Matins from The Lenten Triodion, trans. by Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware, St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 2001.)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Resource: Political Commentary Worth Considering

We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, the divine dominion where Christ is King, but right now we are also living as legal residents in the world, a place where human politics influences society and culture. In a healthy society and culture, the Faith shapes politics.

Several days ago I heard a commentary on National Public Radio (NPR) by Rod Dreher, author of the new book, Crunchy Cons. He identifies crunchy conservatives as those who value family over career, small businesses more than "big business," and living in traditional communities instead of manufactured developments. They are ecology-minded conservationists who eat organic foods. They hold to values that are both counter-cultural and traditional, tend to educate their children at home, reject consumerism, and place their religious faith at the center of their lives.

I don't identify myself as either liberal or conservative. I'm an Orthodox Christian. Our Faith transcends general political labels, parties, and platforms. I'm not interested in reforming a political party, but I am interested in living the Orthodox Christian way of life in America. Several of the ideas identified with the crunchy conservative ideology is also part of the Orthodox Christian worldview. I'm not offering an endorsement of a political party or ideology, but I like the idea of a political movement inspired, influenced, and shaped by spiritual values that are in harmony with, or at least sympathetic to, our way of life.

Rod Dreher's commentary and an excerpt from his book are available on the NPR website ( To listen to his commentary, click on the red button at the top of the page, just under the heading. You can read his Crunchy Con blog on National Review Online. Our own Frederica Mathewes-Green, an Orthodoxy Christian author and commentator, contributes to the blog. I'm glad there's an Orthodox voice in the ongoing discussion.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo © 2006 by Dana S. Kees.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Last Sunday, Orthodox Christians celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy. We remembered a time when a group called the Iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”) attempted to eradicate the presence and veneration of icons in the life of the Church. They may have been influenced by both the teachings of Judaism and Islam, which prohibit at least some kinds of images, especially images of God. During this period, certain emperors influenced by the iconoclasts enforced the prohibition on icons and sometimes severely persecuted those who continued to honor them. The Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates the public restoration of the icons to the churches under the leadership of the Empress Theodora in the year 843. During the reign of her husband, the iconoclast Emperor Theophilos, she had secretly kept icons and continued to venerate them. The Church had already affirmed the centrality of the holy icons in the Orthodox Christian life during the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787). When Theodora took control of the empire after her husband’s death, the icons were restored to the churches in a solemn procession on the First Sunday of Great Lent. (When her son Michael came of age and assumed the throne, Theodora retired to a women’s monastery until her death.) After the restoration of the icons, the Church once again condemned iconoclasm and reaffirmed the Orthodox teaching concerning the veneration of icons.

Since the year 843 the Church has celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy on the First Sunday of Lent. The event affirms the spiritual nature of painted icons, their importance in prayer and worship, and their significance for communicating the Truth. The Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates the bold conquest of spiritual Wisdom and Truth and the shameful defeat of ignorance and confusion. In a culture that at best ignores Truth and at worst denies its existence, the Triumph of Orthodoxy is an event worth remembering and celebrating. It also reminds us of the great mystery that Christ, “the image (icon) of the invisible God,” became human like us. Those who saw Christ walking on the Earth saw the living God in human flesh. Unlike the Israelites, who were forbidden before the birth of Christ from making images of God, we now see with our eyes, kiss with our lips, and venerate with our hearts the holy icons depicting Jesus Christ Himself. As we honor the icons of Christ, we also respectfully honor the icons of His Mother with all His Saints.

The meaning of icons was described during Vespers (evening prayer) on Saturday night:

The grace of truth has shone forth upon us; the mysteries darkly prefigured in the times of old have now been openly fulfilled. For behold, the Church is clothed in beauty that surpasses all things shadowed by the ark of testimony. This is the safeguard of the Orthodox faith; for if we hold fast to the ikon of the Saviour whom we worship, we shall not go astray. Let all who do not share this faith be covered with shame; but we shall glory in the ikon of the Word made flesh, which we venerate but worship not as an idol. So, let us kiss it, and with all the faithful cry aloud: O God, save Thy people and bless Thy inheritance.
During our worship at Matins (morning prayer) before the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, the chanters said these words:

Keeping the laws of the Church that we have received from the Fathers, we paint ikons of Christ and His saints, and with our lips and hearts we will venerate them as we cry aloud: O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord.

The honour and veneration that we show to the ikon we ascribe to the prototype it represents, following the teaching of the saints inspired by God, and with faith we cry aloud to Christ: O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord.

Her mind enlightened by the illumination of the Holy Spirit and filled with the wisdom of God, the honoured Empress has loved the beauty and splendour of Christ’s Church, and with all the faithful she blesses Jesus, the God-Man.

The celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy concluded with Vespers on Sunday evening. During a procession with the icons around the church, we sang a hymn to Christ:

Before Thy spotless icon, we adore thee gracious Lord, and ask forgiveness of our stumblings, O Christ our God, for of thine own will it pleased Thee to ascend the Cross in the flesh to deliver us, Thy creatures, from enslavement to our foes. Wherefore, greatfully we cry to Thee, “Thou hast filled all things with gladness, O our Saviour, for Thou hast come to save the world.”

Then, we loudly reproclaimed the Synodikon, the official statement concerning icons declared by the Christian Church at the Seventh Ecumenical Council:

As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have dogmatized, as the Universe has agreed, as Grace has shown forth, as Truth has revealed, as falsehood has been dissolved, as Wisdom has presented, as Christ awarded, thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor His Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration.

This is the Faith of the Apostles,
this is the Faith of the Fathers,
this is the Faith of the Orthodox,
this is the Faith which has established the Universe.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (Text from Saturday night Vespers and Sunday Matins & Vespers from The Lenten Triodion, trans. by Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001. Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy from the IconoGraphics ColorWorks Library, Theologic Systems, Used by permission.)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

About Forgiveness

Jesus once told a story about a father and his son. The young man asked his father to give him his share of the inheritance. When he received it, he left home, traveled to a far-off country, and wasted everything supporting his wild lifestyle. When he spent all of his money and a famine hit the land, the once carefree playboy found himself working as a pig-feeder on a farm. He was so hungry that he longed to fill his stomach with pig’s food, but no one gave him anything to eat. He thought to himself, “My father’s employees eat as much as they want and have food left over. Here I am, starving. I’m going back home to tell my father, 'I have sinned against heaven and before you. I’m not worthy to be called your son, so make me like one of your hired servants.'” As he approached home his father saw him in the distance. He had compassion on his son, ran to him, embraced him, and kissed him. The prodigal son, as he had planned, asked to be made like a hired servant, but his father ordered the servants to bring the best robe to cover him, put a ring on his hand, place sandals on his feet, and to kill the fatted calf for a “welcome home” party. The father proclaimed, “My son was dead and is alive again. He was lost, but now is found!”

Last Sunday night we began Great Lent, the annual season of spiritual training, with Forgiveness Vespers. This is one of the prayers chanted during the service:

As the Prodigal Son, I also come to Thee, O compassionate Lord, and I fall down before Thee. Accept me as one of Thy hired servants, and have mercy on me.

As the man who fell among thieves and was wounded, I too have fallen through my sins and my soul is wounded. To whom shall I flee for refuge, guilty that I am, if not to Thee, the merciful Physician of our souls? Pour on me, O God, the oil of Thy great mercy.

Sinner though I be, O Saviour, cut me not down as the barren fig tree. Grant me forgiveness for my many years of sin, and water my soul with tears of repentance, that as fruit I may offer Thee acts of mercy and compassion.

Thou art the Sun of righteousness; illumine the hearts of those who praise Thee, singing: Glory be to Thee, O Lord.

The story of the prodigal son is about us and our relationship with God. Although His love for us is infinite, we sometimes act more like self-absorbed rebellious teenagers than mature loving and loyal sons and daughters. Nevertheless, no matter how distant from God we find ourselves and how irresponsibly we live, the way back to God is repentance, changing our minds and hearts about how we are living, and returning to the Father’s warm embrace. Since we constantly fall into sin, which not only injures our relationship with God, but also damages our relationships with others and wounds our own souls, then the spiritual life is a life of constant repentance, turning away from sin back to God. The more spiritual we grow, the more self-aware we become, and the more self-aware we become, the more clearly we see our own faults that keep us from perfect, harmonious spiritual communion with God and others. When we see a fault, we throw it off, turn away from it, look to God, and God forgives.

One of our most familiar prayers of forgiveness is the one Christ taught us:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Another way of saying, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” is “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” As God compassionately forgives us, we are called to compassionately forgive others. As we received God’s healing grace, we have been appointed ministers of His healing grace to those around us. Through the act of forgiveness, we restore relationships, remove pain, heal wounds, throw off pride, and disarm our spiritual enemy. Forgiveness is a divine medicine bestowed upon us and given to us for use in the name of Christ, the Physician of our Souls.

When St. Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often should I forgive my brother if he sins against me? Up to seven times?,” Jesus replied, “I’m not telling you to forgive him up to seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18.21-22). As God’s mercy and love flows freely toward us, may selfless, compassionate forgiveness flow from our hearts to others as spiritual acts of worship offered from pure hearts.

At the conclusion of Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday evening, our senior priest asked us to forgive him for anything he has done or said in the past year that didn’t live up to his title as “Father.” All of our priests asked each other for forgiveness and stood in front of the congregation to receive us. One by one we walked forward. When I reached the priests I embraced them and asked for their forgiveness as they asked for mine. After speaking with the priests, I made my way down a long line of my brothers and sisters that stretched around the interior of the church. After exchanging forgiveness, we kissed each other three times, a kiss on one cheek, then the other, then back again. When I reached the end of the line, I joined it, another link in the chain, to receive those coming after me.

The act of forgiveness expressed during Forgiveness Vespers is not a shallow sentimental ritual meant to make us all feel good. It’s the real thing, an actual opportunity for us to heal and experience the healing that forgiveness brings. It’s a chance for each of us to give the forgiveness we expect God to give us during our journey of repentance. It’s a sign showing us how we must always live, a lifestyle of forgiveness. It’s a great way to begin Great Lent, when we look deeply into our souls, become more aware of our own sinfulness, and run back to the only One who can wash us clean, make us whole, and give us newness of life.

If I have sinned against you and wounded you, please forgive me.
O Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us all.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (Text of Forgiveness Vespers from The Lenten Triodion, trans. by Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001. Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son is in the public domain, available at the Art Renewal Center,

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

An Invitation: Come & See

Over the next several weeks I plan to post a series of articles relating to Great Lent, the intense forty-day period of spiritual training and preparation that leads us to Great & Holy Pascha (Easter). I hope you personally benefit from what I write during this time, but I would like to invite you, not only to read about the Orthodox Christian Faith, but to also learn about our way of life by experience. Great Lent, which begins this Sunday evening, provides a really good opportunity for those who are not Orthodox Christians to visit us in our local churches to see how we practice repentance, pray for healing and wholeness, worship our loving Creator in His presence, and commune with the living God. Our culture extols the virtues of physical exercise and diet for physical health. Discover the ancient way of engaging in spiritual training for the good health of the entire being.

Peace, Symeon

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The icon shown above is from St. Philip Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida: Used by permission.)