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.)