The Cross – the One True
Glorification of God
by Joseph Ratzinger
(Pope Benedict XVI)
Christ on the Cross, by El Greco (1585-95)
According to the account of the evangelists, Jesus died, praying, at the ninth hour, that is to say, around 3:00 P.M. Luke gives his final prayer as a line from Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46; Ps 31:5). In John’s account, Jesus’ last words are: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). In the Greek text, this word (tetélestai) points back to the very beginning of the Passion narrative, to the episode of the washing of the feet, which the evangelist introduces by observing that Jesus loved his own “to the end (télos)” (John 13:1). This “end,” this ne plus ultra of loving, is now attained in the moment of death. He has truly gone right to the end, to the very limit and even beyond that limit. He has accomplished the utter fullness of love – he has given himself.
In our reflection on Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives in chapter 6, we encountered a further meaning of this same word (teleioun) in connection with Hebrews 5:9: in the Torah it means consecration, bestowal of priestly dignity, in other words, total dedication to God. I think we may detect this same meaning here, on the basis of Jesus’ high-priestly prayer. Jesus has accomplished the act of consecration – the priestly handing-over of himself and the world to God – right to the end (cf. John 17:19). So in this final word, the great mystery of the Cross shines forth. The new cosmic liturgy is accomplished. The Cross of Jesus replaces all other acts of worship as the one true glorification of God, in which God glorifies himself through him in whom he grants us his love, thereby drawing us to himself.
The Synoptic Gospels explicitly portray Jesus’ death on the Cross as a cosmic and liturgical event: the sun is darkened, the veil of the Temple is torn in two, the earth quakes, the dead rise again.
Even more important than the cosmic sign is an act of faith: the Roman centurion – the commander of the execution squad – in his consternation over all that he sees taking place, acknowledges Jesus as God’s Son: “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). At the foot of the Cross, the Church of the Gentiles comes into being. Through the Cross, the Lord gathers people together to form the new community of the worldwide Church. Through the suffering Son, they recognize the true God.
While the Romans, as a deterrent, deliberately left victims of crucifixion hanging on the cross after they had died, Jewish law required them to be taken down on the same day (cf. Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Hence the execution squad had to hasten the victims’ death by breaking their legs. This applied also in the case of the crucifixion on Golgotha. The legs of the two “thieves” are broken. But then the soldiers see that Jesus is already dead. So they do not break his legs. Instead, one of them pierces Jesus’ right side – his heart– and “at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). It is the hour when the paschal lambs are being slaughtered. It was laid down that no bone of these lambs was to be broken (cf. Exodus 12:46). Jesus appears here as the true Paschal Lamb, pure and whole.
So in this passage we may detect a tacit reference to the very beginning of Jesus’ story – to the hour when John the Baptist said: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Those words, which were inevitably obscure at the time as a mysterious prophecy of things to come, are now a reality. Jesus is the Lamb chosen by God himself. On the Cross he takes upon himself the sins of the world, and he wipes them away.
Yet at the same time, there are echoes of Psalm 34, which says: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (Psalm 34:19-20). The Lord, the just man, has suffered much, he has suffered everything, and yet God has kept guard over him: no bone of his has been broken.
Blood and water flowed from the pierced heart of Jesus. True to Zechariah’s prophecy, the Church in every century has looked upon this pierced heart and recognized therein the source of the blessings that are symbolized in blood and water. The prophecy prompts a search for a deeper understanding of what really happened there.
An initial step toward this understanding can be found in the First Letter of Saint John, which emphatically takes up the theme of the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side: “This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:6-8).
What does the author mean by this insistence that Jesus came not with water only but also with blood? We may assume that he is alluding to a tendency to place all the emphasis on Jesus’ baptism while setting the Cross aside. And this probably also meant that only the word, the doctrine, the message was held to be important, but not “the flesh”, the living body of Christ that bled on the Cross; it probably meant an attempt to create a Christianity of thoughts and ideas, divorced from the reality of the flesh – sacrifice and sacrament.
In this double outpouring of blood and water, the Fathers saw an image of the two fundamental sacraments – Eucharist and Baptism – which spring forth from the Lord’s pierced side, from his heart. This is the new outpouring that creates the Church and renews mankind. Moreover, the opened side of the Lord asleep on the Cross prompted the Fathers to point to the creation of Eve from the side of the sleeping Adam, and so in this outpouring of the sacraments they also recognized the birth of the Church: the creation of the new woman from the side of the new Adam.
ABBOT PAUL'S HOMILY
Good Friday 2018
“What I have written, I have written.” It was Pilate’s last word. He had written the notice himself and fixed it to the cross; “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.” For St Paul, the Cross was the answer to all his questions. Nothing else was needed: he could glory in the Cross of his Lord and Saviour, accepting all manner of suffering and hardship in the joy and confidence of being reconciled to God in Christ Jesus. The Cross is the work of the Father, who so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It is the work of the Son, who did not cling to equality with God but humbled himself, accepting death on a cross. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, in whom the Son offers himself to the Father and who is poured out by the Son, when “bowing his head, he gave up the spirit.” In the Cross, we come to know the love of God, which surpasses all understanding.
Adam fell at a tree, yet by a tree he was saved. Eve was seduced at a tree, yet through a tree the bride was restored to her spouse. At a tree Satan defeated Adam: on a tree Jesus destroyed the works of the devil. At a tree God cursed man and through a tree that curse gave way to blessing. God exiled Adam from the tree of life: on a tree the New Adam endured exile that we might inherit the earth and know the joys of heaven. The Cross is the tree of knowledge, the tree of judgement and the tree of life. The Cross is the staff of Moses that divides the waters and leads us dry-shod through the sea of life. The Cross is the wood thrown into the bitter waters of Marah to make them sweet and life-giving. The Cross is the standard on which Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness and on which Jesus is now lifted up to draw all people to himself.
The Cross is planted on Calvary, and Golgotha is the new Eden. It is greater than Sinai, for the new Covenant is sealed in the Blood of Christ. On Calvary God reveals his Glory and speaks his final Word. It is greater than Mount Zion, the mountain of the Great King. It is the true Tabor, for the Transfiguration prefigured this moment when Christ is glorified and in him God is glorified. Calvary is the new Carmel, where the fire of God falls from heaven to consume with its living flame the altar of the new Israel of God, the Church, the Body of Christ made up of living stones. The Cross is the new ladder of Jacob, by which we climb to heaven, while Jesus is the new Bethel, the house of God, in which there are many mansions, where we shall live forever.
The Cross lies at the heart, at the crossroads of history, “the twisted knot at the centre of reality”, to which all previous history leads and from which all subsequent history flows. The Cross reveals the ultimate meaning of life, where the love of God embraces the whole universe and redeems it in the sacrifice of Christ, our High Priest, who takes into his very being our sufferings and our sins, the tragedy of our fallen nature. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering, but having been made perfect, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation.” The Bible contained in a single verse.
Pilate was a weak but stubborn man. “What I have written, I have written.” St Paul was a stubborn man, calling all things rubbish when compared to knowing Christ crucified, for the Jews a stumbling block, for the Gentiles madness, but for those who believe the very wisdom and salvation of God. Let us be stubborn in our faith. We worship you, Christ, and we bless you, by your Cross you have redeemed the world.
Great and Holy Friday:
By Fr. Alexander Schmemann
From the light of Holy Thursday we enter into the darkness of Friday, the day of Christ's Passion, Death and Burial. In the early Church this day was called "Pascha of the Cross," for it is indeed the beginning of that Passover or Passage whose whole meaning will be gradually revealed to us, first, in the wonderful quiet of the Great and Blessed Sabbath, and, then, in the joy of the Resurrection day.
But, first, the Darkness. If only we could realize that on Good Friday darkness is not merely symbolical and commemorative. So often we watch the beautiful and solemn sadness of these services in the spirit of self-righteousness and self-justification. Two thousand years ago bad men killed Christ, but today we -- the good Christian people -- erect sumptuous Tombs in our Churches -- is this not the sign of our goodness? Yet, Good Friday deals not with past alone. It is the day of Sin, the day of Evil, the day on which the Church invites us to realize their awful reality and power in "this world." For Sin and Evil have not disappeared, but, on the contrary, still constitute the basic law of the world and of our life. And we who call ourselves Christians, do we not so often make ours that logic of evil which led the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, the Roman soldiers and the whole crowd to hate, torture and kill Christ? On what side, with whom would we have been, had we lived in Jerusalem under Pilate? This is the question addressed to us in every word of Holy Friday services. It is, indeed, the day of this world, its real and not symbolical, condemnation and the real and not ritual, judgment on our life... It is the revelation of the true nature of the world which preferred then, and still prefers, darkness to light, evil to good, death to life. Having condemned Christ to death, "this world" has condemned itself to death and inasmuch as we accept its spirit, its sin, its betrayal of God -- we are also condemned... Such is the first and dreadfully realistic meaning of Good Friday -- a condemnation to death...
But this day of Evil, of its ultimate manifestation and triumph, is also the day of Redemption. The death of Christ is revealed to us as the saving death for us and for our salvation.
It is a saving Death because it is the full, perfect and supreme Sacrifice. Christ gives His Death to His Father and He gives His Death to us. To His Father because, as we shall see, there is no other way to destroy death, to save men from it and it is the will of the Father that men be saved from death. To us because in very truth Christ dies instead of us. Death is the natural fruit of sin, an immanent punishment. Man chose to be alienated from God, but having no life in himself and by himself, he dies. Yet there is no sin and, therefore, no death in Christ. He accepts to die only by love for us. He wants to assume and to share our human condition to the end. He accepts the punishment of our nature, as He assumed the whole burden of human predicament. He dies because He has truly identified Himself with us, has indeed taken upon Himself the tragedy of man's life. His death is the ultimate revelation of His compassion and love. And because His dying is love, compassion and cosuffering, in His death the very nature of death is changed. From punishment it becomes the radiant act of love and forgiveness, the end of alienation and solitude. Condemnation is transformed into forgiveness...
And, finally, His death is a saving death because it destroys the very source of death: evil. By accepting it in love, by giving Himself to His murderers and permitting their apparent victory, Christ reveals that, in reality, this victory is the total and decisive defeat of Evil. To be victorious Evil must annihilate the Good, must prove itself to be the ultimate truth about life, discredit the Good and, in one word, show its own superiority. But throughout the whole Passion it is Christ and He alone who triumphs. The Evil can do nothing against Him, for it cannot make Christ accept Evil as truth. Hypocrisy is revealed as Hypocrisy, Murder as Murder, Fear as Fear, and as Christ silently moves towards the Cross and the End, as the human tragedy reaches its climax, His triumph, His victory over the Evil, His glorification become more and more obvious. And at each step this victory is acknowledged, confessed, proclaimed -- by the wife of Pilate, by Joseph, by the crucified thief, by the centurion. And as He dies on the Cross having accepted the ultimate horror of death: absolute solitude (My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me!?), nothing remains but to confess that "truly this was the Son of God!..." And, thus, it is this Death, this Love, this obedience, this fulness of Life that destroy what made Death the universal destiny. "And the graves were opened..." (Matthew 27:52) Already the rays of resurrection appear.
Such is the double mystery of Holy Friday, and its services reveal it and make us participate in it. On the one hand, there is the constant emphasis on the Passion of Christ as the sin of all sins, the crime of all crimes. Throughout Matins during which the twelve Passion readings make us follow step by step the sufferings of Christ, at the Hours (which replace the Divine Liturgy: for the interdiction to celebrate Eucharist on this day means that the sacrament of Christ's Presence does not belong to "this world" of sin and darkness, but is the sacrament of the "world to come") and finally, at Vespers, the service of Christ's burial the hymns and readings are full of solemn accusations of those, who willingly and freely decided to kill Christ, justifying this murder by their religion, their political loyalty, their practical considerations and their professional obedience.
But, on the other hand, the sacrifice of love which prepares the final victory is also present from the very beginning. From the first Gospel reading (John 13:31) which begins with the solemn announcement of Christ: "Now is the Son of Man glorified and in Him God is glorified" to the stichera at the end of Vespers -- there is the increase of light, the slow growth of hope and certitude that "death will trample down death..."
When Thou, the Redeemer of all,
hast been laid for all in the new tomb,
Hades, the respecter of none, saw Thee and crouched in fear.
The bars broke, the gates were shattered,
the graves were opened, the dead arose.
Then Adam, thankfully rejoicing, cried out to Thee:
Glory to Thy condescension, O Merciful Master.
And when, at the end of Vespers, we place in the center of the Church the image of Christ in the tomb, when this long day comes to its end, we know that we are at the end of the long history of salvation and redemption. The Seventh Day, the day of rest, the blessed Sabbath comes and with it -- the revelation of the Life-giving Tomb.
This is taken from the DRE publication Holy Week: A Liturgical Explanation from the Orthodox Church in America.
Orthodox Good Friday (Moscow) 8 mins.
Good Friday Procession on the Jerusalem West Bank
Orthodox Good Friday in the Middle East
Armenian Burial Service on Good Friday (an excerpt)
Reconsidering Christ's Crucifixion