In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ; today brings us to midpoint of the Great and Holy Lent which is also called the Sunday of the Cross.
In today’s Gospel we hear “Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34) What we often think of when we hear these words is struggle and pain. When we think of the cross that our Lord was crucified upon, we think of His pain and suffering. As a result of the Western culture around us we look at Christ’s death as atonement for original sin and the sins world. We also look at this verse and think that our Lord is telling us that we too must suffer and atone for our own sins; with the ultimate punishment of our sins being death.
How then can we reconcile the thoughts we have with the words the Church puts before for us referring to the cross? Words like Holy, Most Precious and Life Creating or St. Paul when he says “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness…. God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:22-27) which seem to be at odds with this concept of atonement and punishment for sin.
The Western Christian view of sin and salvation is legalistic; for every sin there is a measured out penance. The greatest sin in view the West is the original sin, the sin of Adam, because it stole God’s dignity. The only way the original sin could be paid for was through the death of His Son; His suffering and agony on the cross for the sins of the world. This legalistic payment system for sin is referred to as atonement.
Our Orthodox Christian faith does not have this understanding of legalism and payment for sin. Our view of the sin of Adam is that we are not guilty of that sin; we merely live in the consequences of that sin. The term that we use to describe Adam’s sin and its consequences is Ancestral Sin. For us salvation and repentance are a healing process to restore us to the image and likeness of God that Adam had in the garden so that we may progress to be like God. We achieve a synergy with God; where divine grace and mercy and our human actions work together for us to achieve salvation.
When we look at the scene of the crucifixion in our Orthodox icons what do we see? We see Christ at peace. We see Christ depicted as the King of Glory in Extreme Humility. Why is Christ so serene while this terrible event is taking place? He is serene because he is doing the will of His Father and not His own will. He is showing His obedience to the will of the Father which is in contrast to Adam’s actions of exerting his own will against God. Christ’s death upon the cross shows that through God’s grace and mercy man by choosing to act in concert with God can come back into communion with God. It is our sin that breaks communion with God.
In our hymnography and as St. Paul says “as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men” (Romans 5:12) we see that the breaking of communion with God through sin results in a consequence of death. For us death is seen as something merciful that God gives us to put an end to the sins that we commit and the resultant suffering. Man was never created to experience death but as a consequence of the Ancestral Sin man suffers a temporary parting of the soul from the body; which we call death. At the resurrection of all men during the Second and Glorious Coming of our Savior the soul will be reunited with the body. Those that have lived the life of repentance or healing of their souls and bodies will be in the kingdom of God. Those that have chosen not to receive the healing grace of repentance will suffer in the” outer darkness weeping and gnashing their teeth” as it says in the Gospel. (Matthew 25:30)
When we come to the holy mystery of Confession we should keep in mind that what we’re doing there is repenting and receiving healing. We are stopping the struggle of our own will, our sin, and receiving healing so that we may draw closer to God, to become more like Him, to be in communion with Him. Through the healing grace of repentance we will live our lives in humility and peace amongst all of the turmoil of this life in the same manner as Christ was able to experience the crucifixion. This healing grace of repentance will also bring us to be with Christ in the General Resurrection and we will truly be able to say “Oh death where is thy sting.” Amen
Delivered by protodeacon fr. Milan Medakovic at St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church, Steelton, PA on the Third Sunday of Great Lent 2012