Melkite Greek Catholic Church

"Renounce yourself and take up the Cross"

Homily for the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross

By Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros

Renounce yourself and take up the Cross

(the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Precious Cross (Mark 8:34 - 9:1)

Whenever we wish to win people to a cause, a party or a club, we point out the advantages they would gain should they join our group. When Jesus wanted people to follow Him, He said very strange words: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must renounce himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Mk 3: 34).

1. To renounce oneself

"He must renounce himself'. Let us say something about this life of ours. One of the big troubles we have with the self is that it is always with us. We cannot get away from it. If we have a disagreeable neighbor, we can move away from him. But we can never move away from ourselves. If we go to the uttermost parts of the earth, we take ourselves along. And this is the cause of a lot of misery to people who go on vacations to faraway places to "get away from it all".

To escape themselves, many people turn to drink and sex. The trouble with these is that the escape is only temporary. After we have gotten drunk and indulged ourselves to excess, the self, with whom we still have to live, becomes less desirable to live with. We come to hate ourselves more.

What then does one do with oneself? Many answers have been given. The man bent on pleasure says: "Enjoy yourself'. The teacher says: "Educate yourself'. The artist says: "Express yourself'. The philosopher says: "Know yourself'. Christ says: "Renounce yourself'.

Why do we have to renounce ourselves? Is not this a sort of spiritual suicide, to destroy the personality? How can it be God's will that we destroy the self which He himself has given us? If God gave us our personality, why should He want us to deny it? Why does the Lord ask those who wish to follow Him to renounce themselves? For one good reason; each of us has at least two selves. Plato described human being as a charioteer who drove two horses: one white that was tame, the other black and wild. Others tell us that man is not so much a human being as a civil war. In most people there is a constant tension between these two or more selves of which we are composed.

Saint Paul wrote to the Romans, describing the situation of every human being: "I cannot even understand my own actions. I do not do what I want to do, but what I hate. When I act against my own will, by that very fact I agree that the law is good. This indicates that it is not I who do it but sin which resides in me, that is, in my flesh; the desire to do right is there but not the power... My inner self agrees with the law of God. But I see in my body's members another law at war with the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members. What a wretched man I am! Who can free me from this body under the power of death?" And the answer is: "All praise to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rm. 7:15-25). Who can free me? Jesus himself gave the answer when he said: "Everyone who lives in sin is the slave of sin. That is why if the Son frees you, you will really be free" (In 8:34-36). Jesus is our Savior and our liberator, who liberates us from the slavery of sin.

2. To save one's life

There is, then, a bad self. But there is also a good self in each one of us.

When the prodigal son "hit bottom" in the far country of sin, the Gospel tells us that he "came to himself'. The real self in each of us is the good self, the self one truly is. It is the image of God which we all bear. The sinful self is a stranger, someone who does not belong inside us, but struggles to invade and take control. And Jesus came to restore in us our real self, this image of God. So when Jesus said that a man must renounce himself, he means the selfishness and all kinds of sin which prevent him from becoming all that God wants him to be. Jesus asks us to renounce the false self, the sinful self, in order that we may express the true self, the image of God in us.

We cannot have a double life, as Jesus said: "No man can serve two masters" (Mt. 6: 24). We have to choose. If we have said "Yes" to Christ, we must keep saying "No" to sin and evil. That is what Saint Paul means when he says: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me".

Some time ago the walls of the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople were being cleaned, and under many layers of dirt was found a beautiful mosaic of the Lord Jesus. That icon is in every human being. God painted it there. It is the image of God in our souls, but only God knows how we can overlay it and hide it with our sins. This is why Jesus tells us in today's Gospel lesson: "Give the best in you a chance. Say 'No' to evil. Renounce your false self, your sinful self and let the real self, the self you truly are, the image of God in you, blossom forth in its entire splendor".

3. To take up one's cross

After this call to renouncing ourselves, Jesus calls us to take up our cross: "Let him take up his cross, and follow me". Each and every one of us has his own cross: sickness, poverty, pain or suffering. Jesus did not look for suffering, it was forced on him. He accepted it in love and without losing his trust in God His Father. Following the cross does not mean copying the suffering of Jesus. That would be presumption. But it certainly means enduring the suffering that befalls us in our own situation, in our everyday life, in our daily obligations, demands, claims, and promises in our family or our calling. It is impossible completely to refuse suffering without refusing to accept life as a whole, without ceasing to enter into any relationships. Pains, losses, amputations exist even in the smoothest-running life which can be conceived: separation from parents, fading of youthful friendship, the death of people who have figured in our lives, with whom we have identifies ourselves, the death of relatives and friends, finally our own death. And here everyone can add his own crosses. What is our attitude in face of the cross? It can be an attitude of revolt against these sufferings, and our life will be filled with bitterness and anger. But we can also unite our suffering to the suffering of Christ on the Cross. Our life will then acquire a new personal quality; through suffering we become more mature, more experienced, more modest, more genuinely humble, more open for others - in a word, more human.

Suffering then, for the Christian, does not need to be a fate to be borne passively, a destiny to which we have to submit. "Suffering is a change experienced by man; it is a mode of coming to be". It is a growth toward a greater, higher, freer, final goal. It is a growth in faith, and hope that suffering is not the ultimate reality. The ultimate reality is God, with whom all suffering will definitively be dissolved in eternal life. That is our faith in the loving God, and that is our hope in the living God

We begin our creed by expressing our faith in God the giver of life: "I believe in one God the Father Almighty Creator of heaven and earth". And we end it by expressing our hope in eternal life: "We look forward for the resurrection of the dead and the life to come". We read in the Book of the Revelation that God is "the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End" (22: 13). Let Him be "the Alpha, the First, and the Beginning" in our life now, so that he will be "the Omega, the Last, and the End" in our "life to come". Amen!

The faith in the Resurrection

" The resurrection faith –and this must be said to bring out the contrast with all unbelief and superstition - is not faith in some kind of unverifiable curiosity, which we ought to believe in addition to all the rest. Nor is the resurrection faith a faith in the fact of the resurrection or in the risen Christ taken in isolation: it is fundamentally faith in God with whom the risen Christ is now one (cf. Rom. 4:24).

The resurrection faith is not an appendage to faith in God, but a radicalizing of faith in God. It is a faith in God which does not stop halfway, but follows the road consistently to the end. It is a faith in which man, without strictly rational proof but certainly with completely reasonable trust, relies on the fact that the God of the beginning is also the God of the end, that as he is the Creator of the world and man so too he is their Finisher.

The resurrection faith therefore is not to be interpreted merely as existential interiorization or social change, but as a radicalizing of faith in God the Creator. Resurrection means the real conquest of death by God the Creator to whom the believer entrusts everything, even the ultimate, even the conquest of death. The end which is also a new beginning. Anyone who begins his creed with faith in "God the al­mighty Creator" can be content to end it with faith in "eternal life." Since God is the Alpha, he is also the Omega. The almighty Creator who calls things from nothingness into being can also call men from death into life Rom. 4:17).

It is precisely in face of death that God's power hidden in the world is revealed. Man cannot work out for himself the resurrection from the dead. But man may in any case rely on this God who can practically be defined as "a God of the living and not of the dead" ((Mark 12:26-27), he may absolutely trust in his superior power even in face of inevitable death, may approach his death with confidence. The Creator and Conserver of the universe and of man can be trusted, even at death and as we are dying, beyond the limits of all that has hitherto been experienced, to have still one more word to say: to have the last word as he had the first. Toward this God the only reasona­ble and realistic attitude is trust and faith. This passing from death to God cannot be verified empirically or rationally. It is not to be expected, not to be proved, but to be hoped for in faith. What is impossible to man is only made possible by God. Anyone who seriously believes in the living God believes therefore also in the raising of the dead to life, in God's power which is proved at death. As Jesus retorted to the doubting Sad­ducees : "You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God." (Mark 12:24).

The Christian faith in the risen Jesus is meaningful only as faith in God the Creator and Conserver of life. But, on the other hand, the Christian faith in God the Creator is decisively characterized by the fact that "he raised Jesus from the dead" (Rom. 4:24). "He who raised Jesus from the dead," be­comes practically the designation of the Christian God. (Rom. 8:11)."

(Hans Kung, On being a Christian, pp. 360-361)

"By the Cross we are healed from our infirmities"

Homily for the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Cross

By Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros

By the Cross we are healed from our infirmities

(the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Cross -John 3,13-17)

On September 14 of every year we celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross. A tradition relates that Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great, discovered near Golgotha the three crosses on which Christ and the two criminals had been crucified. Bishop Macarios identified the true Cross of Christ as the one whose touch immediately returned a dying woman to perfect health.

The Holy Cross was preserved in the Basilica of the Resurrection in Jerusalem until May 4, 614, when the Persians conquered the city and burned down the basilica. In 628, Emperor Heraclius defeated the Persians and returned the Holy Cross to Jerusalem on the 14th of September. And from that date, the Church celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross of Christ.

The Gospel of today is chosen in preparation to that feast. Jesus refers to an event that happened in the Old Testament. The Jews during their journey in the desert were bitten by serpents, (as we read in the book of Numbers: "With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses: 'Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food'. In punishment the Lord sent among the people serpents, which bit the people, so that many of them died.) To heal the people, Moses, following God's order, made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he recovered" (Numb. 21,5-9).

The specific principle at work in the utilization of the bronze serpent is sympathetic magic. In this instance one combats pernicious snakes by enlisting in the cause a more powerful snake, or, to be precise, an empowered snake capable of destroying the hostile one. The term "sympathetic" means the identity in form or in nature of the friendly power with the hostile power. In modern immunology one uses serums of the same composition as the disease or virus to fight its infectious effects. A bronze image of a snake is, therefore, an appropriate artifact for the purposes involved. The gaze of the afflicted person set in motion the curative powers of the serpent. It may be that the bronze serpent was thought of as returning the gaze, or radiating power, and in so doing destroyed the poison in the body of the afflicted person.

So comparing his cross to the serpent of bronze lifted up by Moses, Jesus tells us that all those who are bitten by the serpent of sin can be healed by a look of faith to the lifegiving Cross. The moment a sinner does that he is saved, just as God said to Moses: "if anyone who has been bitten looks at the bronze serpent, he will recover". Anyone who has been bitten; no matter how far the poison had advanced in its progress to a fatal issue, if he but looked he should live. Such is the Gospel declaration: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not die, but may have eternal life". Whoever: there is no exception. Not sin but unbelief can bar the sinner's way to the Savior.

At the cross of Jesus there were three men looking at him: two sinners, the criminals hanging in crucifixion near him, and an unbeliever, the centurion. One of the criminals blasphemed him: "Aren't you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us". But the other one rebuked him: "Have you no fear of God, seeing you are under the same sentence? We deserve it after all. We are only paying the price for what we've done, but this man has done nothing wrong". Then he said: "Jesus remember me when you enter upon your reign". And Jesus replied: "I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise". Notice the two looks: the look of the impenitent and the look of the repentant. The third one who looked at Jesus on the Cross was the centurion. We read in the Gospel according to Saint Mark: "The centurion who stood guard over him, on seeing the manner of his death, declared: 'clearly this man was the Son of God'" (Mk 15,39).

God has given us eyes to look. Jesus came to teach us how to look. He said: "The eye is the body's lamp. If your eyes are bad, your body will be in darkness. And if your light is darkness, how deep will the darkness be" (Mt. 6,22-23)..

Man became a lost sinner by a look, for the first thing recorded of Eve in connection with the fall of our first parents is that "the woman saw that the tree was good for food" (Gen. 3.6). In was a look of lust. And in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: "You have heard the commandment: You shall not commit adultery; what I say to you is: anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in thoughts" (Mt.5,27 -28). Jesus came to purifiy our look. The Christian life begins by looking, as we read in Isaiah: "Look unto me, and be safe, all you ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is no other" (Is. 45,22). And the baptism is called "illumination", or "enlightment": the Christian sees by the light of Christ. The Christian life continues by looking, as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "let us run with patience the race which is set before us, looking unto Jesus who inspires and perfects our faith" (Heb. 12,2). And at the end of the Christian life we are still to be looking for Christ, as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: "We have our citizenship in heaven; it is from there that we eagerly look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3,20). And in the eternal life we shall see God "face to face". From first to last, the one thing required is looking at Jesus Christ, and through his light we see God's light, as we sing in the Great Doxology: "For with you is the fountain of life, and in Your Light we shall see the Light".

In the Holy Eucharist we look at Jesus Christ crucified for our salvation and risen for our holiness, we unite with him, and from him we receive the Holy Spirit, as we sing after the Communion: "We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity who has saved us".

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