Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THE SCRIPTURES ENCOURAGE us to boast in the cross, glorifying the saving work of Christ who gave up His life on it. During this feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Church also reminds us of Christ’s warning to those who may be ashamed of Him and of what He has done. The Lord’s words are uncompromising: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

Why would someone – presumably a believer – be ashamed of Christ, the Lover of Mankind and the Savior of our souls? Over the centuries there have been several reasons why some Christians have been reluctant to confess their faith in Christ.

A Common Criminal

The Jewish people at the time of Christ who were waiting for the Messiah pictured him as a victorious warrior who would triumph over the enemies of Israel and restore their nation’s independence. The Messiah, it was believed, would be a figure like David who would restore David’s kingdom. Many felt that the Messiah would gather the scattered Jews from the four corners of the earth, restore the full observance of the Torah, and bring peace to the whole world.

Jesus did not overthrow the Roman Empire or reestablish David’s kingdom. If anything, He was a seemingly defeated wandering preacher who had been put to death in the most humiliating manner and had no effect on the fortunes of Israel. The Messiah was expected to triumph; Jesus had apparently failed.

Presenting Jesus as the Messiah who defeated, not Rome, but sin and Death, would have invited scorn from many of the apostles’ hearers. They became even more scornful when St Paul, the chief spokesman for Christ was himself captured and imprisoned. As Paul wrote from prison to his disciple Timothy, “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or about me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.” St Paul insisted, “this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day” (2 Timothy 1:8:11).

Afraid of Persecution

Fear for one’s life has caused many believers to abandon Christ, beginning with His most intimate followers. All the disciples abandoned Him when He was arrested. Peter, who followed at a distance, explicitly denied knowing Him, when accused of being one of His followers. Beginning with the arrest of the Protomartyr St Stephen and the killing of the Apostle James in Jerusalem up to our own day, Christians have often been forced to choose between being faithful to Christ and saving their own lives. At the start of the second century, St Ignatius of Antioch expressed the feelings of many who believed that denying Christ was simply not an option for them: “No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire” (To the Romans, 4).

A recent – and ongoing – example of the persecution of Christians has taken place in the Middle East at the hands of radical Islamic groups such as ISIS. Nonetheless, many Christians there are publicly proclaiming their allegiance to Christ despite the danger. An Australian observer on the scene, Steven Kryger, writes of his reaction: “In the heartland of violent anti-Christian extremism, I was confronted with how openly and unashamedly Christians are displaying their allegiance to Jesus. Crosses are everywhere. They dangle from rear view mirrors. They hang on bracelets around wrists. They stand tall, fixed to the top of houses. I encountered the most striking example on my second day. Less than 14km from the merciless armies of ISIS, I drove past a house that was painted inside and out with a mural of Jesus! That’s right – just minutes from people who wouldn't think twice about burning them alive, Christians were proudly choosing to communicate “I am with Him.”

I felt ashamed. I realized that while as a Christian in Australia I am at greater risk of being killed by a falling coconut than I am by an extremist, I am nowhere near this willing to be aligned with Jesus on a daily basis. In fact, outside of my time at church or with other Christians during the week, my words and actions (or lack of both) often don't declare ‘I'm proud to be with Him.’”

Ashamed of What Others May Say

In our society, overt persecution of Christians is still rare, although some think that is changing. Still, we often find ourselves reluctant to publicly express our faith, even in non-verbal ways. In some neighborhoods it is common to see religious images displayed on one’s door or lawn. In other neighborhoods, Christians might be reluctant to identify themselves as Christian in that way.

In some areas Greek-owned diners can often be identified by the icon hanging over the manager’s counter. Would I feel comfortable about placing an icon on my desk or in my place of business or do I fear people labeling me as a “holy roller”? Some Christians, who regular say a blessing before meals at home would not think of doing so when eating in a restaurant, even with other Christians. Others would be uncomfortable reading from a Bible or prayer book in a public place. Are these not examples of being ashamed of Christ?

It is not unusual for a Christian to find himself in the company of people who regularly use the Lord’s name in vain, despite the Commandment which identifies this as wrong. Some Christians would politely ask that such a person refrain from doing so. Others would be reluctant to say anything. Who wants to be thought of as a goody two shoes”? In Mark’s Gospel quoted above, the Lord warns against being ashamed of His words in an adulterous and sinful generation. Some Christians, who are convinced that certain issues of public policy violate the Gospel, are nevertheless unwilling to express their convictions to others.

None of the practices described here are commanded by Christ in the Gospels. Does that mean that reluctance to publicly express our faith should be ignored. As Steven Kryger, quoted above, suggests: “Our brothers and sisters in Iraq don’t have to display the cross in their cars, from their balconies, or on their wrists. They don’t have to paint the ‘Nazarene’ sign on their front doors. And in fact, given the risks of doing so, we would be quick to forgive them for keeping a low profile.

“But they choose to do these things.

“For them, being unashamed is so much more than standing firm on the day that ISIS arrive and demand to know if they follow Jesus. They choose to adopt these daily, public demonstrations of faith because they love Jesus and they are not ashamed or afraid to make this known.”
 
THE GREAT FEASTS OF THE CHURCH are each celebrations of an aspect of the mystery of Christ: Of these feasts Pascha is considered “the Feast of Feasts,” the center of our Church life, the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. While Pascha is celebrated with feasting, the Great and Holy Week which leads up to Pascha observes the last events of Christ’s earthly life, His death and burial with fasting. Each Sunday celebrates the resurrection with the Eucharistic banquet while each Wednesday and Friday remembers Christ’s betrayal and death – again, with fasting. Next in importance to Pascha are “the Twelve Great Feasts” which celebrate events of Christ’s life, of His Mother, of His ascension and the coming of the Spirit. Several of these are preceded by days or seasons of fasting. The feast of the Exaltation of the Holt Cross is the only one observed by simultaneous feasting and fasting!

Our Reasons for Feasting

The immediate historical events celebrated on this feast are, first of all, the unearthing of the Cross in the fourth century during the expedition led by St Helena to adorn the Holy Land with fitting shrines to Christ. The second event remembered is the recovery of the cross in the seventh century by Byzantine forces fourteen years after it had been captured by Persian invaders. Two traditions common among Eastern Christians celebrate the discovery of the cross. It is said that St. Helena’s workmen were led to the site of the cross by the fragrant aroma of basil growing there. It is customary to adorn the cross and, in some places, the entire church with sprigs of basil. Some basil would be given to people when they venerate the Cross to take home and adorn their icons. In some parts of Greece basil would be ground and added to the dough used to make prosphora. A second festive act observed throughout the Middle East in both Byzantine and Oriental Churches is the lighting of bonfires, usually after the vespers or vigil of the feast. When the cross was unearthed by St. Helena’s expedition, the news of this discovery was spread from Jerusalem to Constantinople by a series of bonfires set on the mountains along the coast through Asia Minor. Today’s bonfires are a popular re-enactment of that event. The recovery of the Cross is remembered by another festive act – the one which gives this feast its name. When the victorious Byzantine army returned the Cross to Jerusalem, Patriarch Zachariah “exalted” the Cross, lifting it high for the veneration of the people who continually cried out Kyrie eleison as they gazed on the Cross. In our ceremony of the exaltation, the Cross is raised high in each direction – north, south, east and west - to bless the entire world as the people repeatedly chant Kyrie eleison. Our most basic reason for feasting on this day, however, is what took place on the Cross. As St. John Chrysostom described it, “The Cross has taken away sin. It was an expiation for the world, a reconciliation of the ancient enmity. It opened the gates of heaven, changed those who hated into friends; it took our human nature, led it up to heaven, and seated it at the right hand of God’s throne. And it brought to us ten thousand other blessings” (Homily 3 against the Judaizers). The first stikheron sung at vespers on this feast echoes this festive sentiment:
By its elevation, the Cross is like an appeal to the whole creation to adore the blessed Passion of Christ our God who was suspended on it, for Christ destroyed by this Cross the one who had destroyed us. In His great goodness, He brought us back to life after we had been dead, and He beatified us and made us worthy of Heaven, for He is merciful. Wherefore, we exalt His name with great rejoicing and glorify His infinite condescension.

Our Reason for Fasting

We also observe the feast of the Cross by fasting – not in anticipation of the feast but on the feast itself. Church directives say that September 14 is a strict fast day, on whatever day of the week it falls. So we may be called upon to fast on Saturday or even – as in this year – on Sunday. The fast is mitigated on weekends (wine and oil are permitted) but not completely abolished. Since Sunday is always a Eucharistic day, today’s fast means that we do not eat until we receive Holy Communion. After that, we do not eat meat, fish or dairy products. The Church’s reason for fasting on this day is not to lament the death of Christ, which as we have seen is a source of blessings. Rather we fast because of our sins, committed despite the fact that we know what Christ has done for us on the cross and still prefer to follow our own egos rather than following His way. We do well to be distressed when we look on the Cross – not for the Lord’s sake (He is risen!) – but because our salvation, brought about on the Cross, means so little to us. The mention of fasting usually prompts two reactions. Some overly meticulous people tend to overemphasize fasting rules in a legalistic way. Others, imbued with a pietistic ideas about devotion, see fasting and any discipline involving the body, such as prostrations, kissing icons, etc. as unspiritual. St Paul would not agree. He definitely saw that the body becomes an important component in worship when we use it in a sacrificial way. “I beseech you therefore, brethren,” he wrote, “by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). When we refrain from food and drink, from sleep, from sexual activity or from any normal physical activity we make our longing an offering to God. In this way we push the physical beyond itself into the spiritual realm. Our physical desires become a logike latreia, a reasoned or conscious act of worship of the One who has given us all things
“The Lord accomplished our salvation by His death on the Cross: on the Cross He tore up the handwriting of our sins; through the Cross He reconciled us with our God and Father; and through the Cross He brought down upon us grace-filled gifts and all heavenly blessings. But this is the Lord’s Cross itself. Each of us becomes a partaker of its salvific power in no other way than through our personal cross. “When the personal cross of each of us is united with Christ’s Cross, the power and effect of the latter is transferred to us and becomes, as it were, a conduit through which ‘every good gift and every perfect grace’ (James 1:17) is poured forth upon us from the Cross of Christ. “From this it is evident that the personal cross of each of us is as essential to the work of salvation as the Cross of Christ.”
St Theophan the Recluse

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