Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, March 15, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
The cross which we adore today, the third Sunday of Lent, is most often discussed in the Orthodox tradition in terms of the conquest of death by Jesus Christ. It is on this cross that the deathless One puts death to death. Because He is man, He is able to die, but because He is God, He is immortal. And when His immortality touches mortality by means of His being a mortal man, mortality itself is destroyed. He tramples down death by death.
Another way of looking at the Cross is the one typified by the Gospel reading—“If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.” So the Cross is the suffering and self-denial that we take up in order to follow Christ. We can be saved only through humility, through self-denial and suffering.
Today, especially in the context of our Lenten meditations on evangelism, I would like to explore the Cross through the lens offered by the epistle reading from Hebrews which we read on this Sunday.
In this reading, it is not the destruction of death which is focused upon nor is it self-denial and suffering. Rather, this reading is about priesthood, the priesthood of Christ. Let’s look at this passage closely.
It begins this way: “since we have a great High Priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast the confession.” It is because Jesus is our great High Priest, the Son of God Who ascended by passing “through the heavens” that we must “hold fast the confession.”
“The confession” is our profession of faith, this Orthodox Christianity which we believe and which we live. And we “hold fast” to it, not just because it’s correct or because we always have done so, but because “we have a great High Priest” Who ascended into Heaven. That is, our Orthodoxy is bound up in Christ’s priesthood. We may not think of it this way very often, but to be an Orthodox Christian depends on Christ’s priesthood, a priesthood which is now ascended into Heaven.
And why does our faith depend on Christ’s priesthood? The epistle goes on to say: “For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
Our faith depends on Christ’s priesthood because He is a High Priest who is able to sympathize with our infirmities, because He was tempted in every way that we are.
Sometimes, I think we do not actually believe in the Incarnation in our hearts. Yes, we confess in our creed that the Son of God “became man” when He was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. But most of the time, our conception of Christ is probably as Someone Who is far away from us, far above us. But here Hebrews tells us that He is able to sympathize with our infirmities, that He was tempted just as we are tempted.
Jesus Christ as our priest is from among us. He is one of us. He is a priest “taken from among the people,” as the epistle goes on to say. When our priest stands at the altar, He does so being intimately familiar with our weaknesses, with our experience of what it means to be human with all its pain and brokenness and day-to-day suffering and difficulty.
Is this not what a priest is to be? The priest who stands before the altar is not someone who is “above” the people, but “taken from among the people.” He is the people’s offering just as much as he is the one making the offering. Listen further to the Scriptures:
“For every high priest, being taken from among the people, is appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God, that he may offer up both gifts and sacrifices for sins.”
Christ our High Priest makes the sacrifice on the altar for our sins, offering up gifts to God so that we can be cleansed and sanctified, set apart for God’s service, made holy in God’s sight, healed of our brokenness. And He does this because He is from us. Only a priest who is truly one with his people can make such sacrifices. A priest who is not “taken from among the people” is incapable of being the one who stands before God on their behalf and makes the offering, the offering from the people to God.
And the priest who stands before the altar is not qualified to become the one offering the sacrifice only because he is the same kind as them, but because he knows their suffering. And he not only knows their suffering in the sense that he is aware of their pain, aware of their shortcomings and their ignorance, but because he is also weak, because he is aware of his own lacking.
The Scripture says of this priest that he is one “who can have compassion on the ignorant and on those who are erring, since he himself also is encompassed with infirmity.”
I will admit to you that, as a priest, it is often hard for me to “have compassion on the ignorant and on those who are erring.” I often have not compassion but rather judgment in my heart. This is my weakness. I have this weakness because I have the sins of vanity and pride. But I have noticed that at the moments when I am most aware of my own ignorance, my own errors and incompetence, then I find it is much easier to be compassionate. And than I can see you who are given to me by God for my salvation not as obstacles to what I want to accomplish but rather as the means for what God wants to accomplish.
I have thought about this a great deal these past couple of weeks, as I have mourned the loss of a friend who knew his own weaknesses and also had a lot of compassion for the ignorant and the erring. It is because he knew that he was “encompassed with infirmity” that he was able to be like this. And this is just like our Lord Jesus Christ, Who as our priest has compassion on us, because He knows us, because He knows what it is to be us.
This is why the Scripture says of a priest, “Because of this he is bound, as for the people so also for himself, to offer up for sins.” He goes because of his weakness to offer up both for himself and for the people. And even though Christ goes to this offering sinless, He is still our priest because He shares in our weakness. He was weak but did not sin.
So is this just a meditation on the priesthood of Christ and perhaps of the priesthood of those who are ordained in the Church? Or does this have anything to do with most of us?
This is about all of us. And this is about our evangelism of the world.
If we are to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, we do so by participating in the priesthood of Christ. And our beginning point is to know our infirmities, our ignorance, our errors—our weakness.
We confess at least once a week here that we are the “chief” of sinners. So we at least make this our confession. But what we say with our mouth must also have a correspondence in our hearts. I have to take a good look at myself and see how I am not the man I think I am. I have to look into my heart and see how I am selfish, how I am lazy, how I want to be entertained and to have pleasure and convenience, how I am judgmental, how I want things always to be my own way.
But when I take that look into my heart, it is not so that I just feel guilty or judged. It is rather like looking at a broken leg. Okay, my leg is broken. I cannot walk. I need a cast and a crutch. I am a little slower than everyone else. I need time to heal. I need some help. I need some therapy. This is what repentance is like. It is not feeling bad about what I “should” do or “should not” do. It is rather a sober assessment of my ability to walk in the Spirit of God. I could use some work.
And so when we know our weakness, then we are able to be “appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God, that [we] may offer up both gifts and sacrifices for sins.” All of us who stand here and make this offering of praise to God, of bread and wine to God, are “appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God.” We all have the priesthood. As baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians, we all share in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ, Who is our High Priest.
And so as we have compassion on the ignorant and the erring, because we know our own weakness, then we make the offering to God on the altar so that both our sins may be forgiven and our wounds healed and also so that all the people of this world may be forgiven and healed. What we do here in worship is a work of evangelism. We are evangelizing the world even in their absence. This sacrifice on the holy altar is offered up not just for us or even for the whole Church, but truly for the world.
Though only a few are called to be presbyters or bishops, all Orthodox Christians are ordained as priests in this holy temple. We all stand here in this holy place to make this sacrifice together. There are no spectators here. There are only priests. That is why the Scripture says that we “therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help in time of need.” We don’t send someone else to draw near to the throne of grace, which is the altar. We are the priests. And we gather around our great High Priest, Who is the Lord Jesus Christ, and concelebrate with Him this holy mystery.
And the gifts and sacrifices which we offer on the altar are accepted by the Father for mercy and grace. And this is what is happening on the Cross that we adore today. The weakness of Jesus Christ is laid bare for the world to see, as He is both the One making the offering and also the One being offered. And we participate with Him as we ourselves are crucified in our weaknesses and failings. And that sacrifice made on the Cross which is also now becoming present on the altar of this holy temple brings to us and brings to the whole world “mercy” and “grace to help in time of need.”
So let us stand with our High Priest and together with Him make this offering.
To our crucified and risen High Priest Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
I would be remiss if I did not mention this homily’s indebtedness to one preached for the same day some years ago by my departed friend Fr. Matthew Baker. Read it here.