Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Precious and Life-Giving Cross

17th Century Bulgarian icon of the Exaltation of the Precious an Life-Giving Cross

Celebrating the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross today has been a powerful conclusion to a difficult and necessary week of heart-work.  I made the decision to divorce my wife in March of this year after years of trying everything I knew to do to save our relationship.  The legal process crept along at its own pace over the Spring and Summer.  These were the ‘alone times’ for me.  It was good that I was working long hours behind the front desk at the local Y and out in a friend’s garden doing hard physical labor.  Part of me could not imagine that this was happening to me.  Part of me was in deep grief.  Part of me was feeling profoundly disoriented.  And part of me was very, very angry.  All of this took a lot of energy.

Word that the divorce had been granted came in a letter from my lawyer the third week of July.  I took my wedding ring off, the one that I had said thirty two years before represented the promises that I was making to my bride.  And now, I was no longer in a position even to try to keep those promises.  I had been told to leave.  I believe she would say that I had broken her trust.  And that was that.

Over four very painful years, I learned the hard way that I can’t change anyone else’s thinking or behavior; I can only change mine.  I can own my sins, shortcomings, failings, wrongs, hurtful words, and I can ask forgiveness, and I can work on changing what is wrong in my life.  But I cannot make another person forgive if they choose not to.  Twelve-step programs make use of the ‘serenity prayer’, which says simply, ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’  Very easy words to say.  But I have found them almost impossible to put into practice.  Serenity remains elusive.  But rather than shove this under the rug, my awareness of this gives me an opportunity to learn important things about me.

The Cross as the Tree of Life

One important thing I’ve learned is that I am very much still governed by this world’s understanding of justice.  Outraged cries for justice are all over our news and media.  From race-relations and Ferguson to the agitation for gay marriage to immigration reform.  This concern for ‘justice’ has contributed to the staggering number of lawyers who are all eager to help this person or that cause redress this unfairness or that imbalance, this discrimination or that miscarriage of justice.  It’s one thing to realize that we live in a litigious society.  But we also seem to be hard-wired as Americans to be litigious people – hyper-sensitive to how we are being treated, quick to take offense, holders of grudges, taking pleasure in revenge, wanting to get our due while ensuring that the other gets his/hers.

The justice that I am tempted towards (feel entitled to?) is something very different from what I found myself singing/chanting in Church today.  One of the hymns of the feast goes like this:

Come, all you nations,
Let us fall down in worship before the blessed Tree,
By which eternal justice has come to pass!
For he who deceived Adam by a Tree
Is caught by the lure of the Cross;
And he who held under his tyranny the creature endowed by God with royal dignity
Is brought down in a headlong fall.
The serpent’s venom is washed away by the blood of God,
And the curse of just condemnation is undone
When the Just One is condemned by an unjust judgment.
For it was fitting that the Tree
Should be healed by a Tree,
And that by the Passion of the passionless God
What was wrought on the Tree should destroy the passions of the man who was condemned.
But glory to your dread dispensation for our sakes, O Christ the King,
Through which you have saved us all,
Since You are good and the Lover of mankind!

I am learning many things.  God’s ‘eternal justice’, illuminated by ‘the blessed Tree’ is different from the ‘justice’ that I have caught myself crying out for.  If someone slaps me in the face, calls me names, or speaks half-truths or untruths about me, my impulse to slap back, put down or otherwise defend myself is exposed here to be precisely the strategy of Satan.  Jesus, the ‘Just One’, said: ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak.  And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.’ (Matthew 5:38-41)  Jesus on the cross said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34)  Jesus did not cry out for justice, or for revenge.  He did not revile the people who were hurting him. He did not cut off the ones who betrayed him.  He forgave them.  He forgave them

Jesus did not wait for them to ‘get it’.  Jesus did not wait for them to convert.  Jesus did not wait for them to show some signs of remorse.  Jesus did not wait for them to fulfill some sort of repentance inventory.  Jesus forgave them.  Paul nails it precisely when he says, ‘For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:6-8)

Let me complete the circle; or rather, let Jesus complete it.  It’s all right there in the gospel that I presumably believe:  ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you [emphasis mine], love one another.  By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)  Simply put, I am called to love.  To love as Jesus loved me.  Without condition.  Even if it is never acknowledged, much less returned.  It's simply what He has done.  And He shows me how.

It should surprise no one that I feel wronged, that I feel mistreated, that I feel misunderstood and misrepresented, that I feel abandoned.  This is old ground.  And, I don’t need to apologize for feeling this way.  It happened.  Things were said that are regrettable.  Things were done that are regrettable.  Things were not said and not done that were regrettable.  ‘Friends’ of many years simply disappeared.  I would lie if I said it didn’t hurt.

Ethiopian Orthodox icon

However, I do not need to stay in this place.  This day that we celebrate the Exaltation of the Cross teaches me that Jesus meets me and my role in His crucifixion, not with anger and retribution and revenge, but with forgiveness.  It’s like His response to the woman caught in adultery.  ‘Moses says “Stone her!”  What say You?’  And of all the sons of Adam ever born, Jesus is the only one who has a right to pick up that first stone.  But he doesn’t.  And when her accusers slink away, shamed when their hearts are simply exposed for what they are, Jesus refuses to condemn her and instead forgives her and charges her to go and sin no more.  I am met with the same love, touched by the same forgiveness, and so are you.  Freed from my very heavy burden, I am freed from the need, indeed the compulsion to demand justice for the other.  I can, instead, forgive.  Because I am forgiven.  I can turn the other cheek.  I can give with no expectation of getting back.  Because I am no longer dependent on that person to give me what I need.  I am getting it from the Lord instead.

This is not a new lesson for me, but a very old one applied to a painfully present situation.  But there is a further application that has been brought to my attention this week in conversation with friends.  I found myself throughout the week senselessly spinning my tires, feeling that wrong had been done and that I had been wrongfully banished to the nether regions.  This sort of thinking becomes unhealthy very quickly, and I sought to remedy my wrong thinking by forgiving my former wife again and again.  It wasn't working. Mainly because the old way of ‘forgiving’ that I learned in my former life was to apply ‘forgiveness’ to the wrong without understanding the what and the why and how of what was going on.  Such ‘forgiveness’ was not real forgiveness.  It just kicked the can down the road for me to deal with it again when I caught up with it.

A friend helped me see this week that my feelings were not something that I should repress or try to change.  They are what they are.  Instead, they are giving me an opportunity to learn something about myself.  For example, if I am feeling wronged, if I am feeling misrepresented, if I am feeling abused, then let these become a mirror. What do my feelings, what does my reaction tell me about myself?  Have I done wrong in this case?  Have I misrepresented what was going on in this case?  Have I abused or treated, in this case her, in a way other than with love?  I begin to see my own flaws emerge.  In each case, the pain, the hurt, the wrong goes both ways.  I need not only to forgive, but to be forgiven.

So I find myself back in that place where I started, a divorced man, feeling all the pain that that brokenness implies.  But I am freed from the need to blame, freed from the need to exact revenge, freed from the need to make sure ‘my narrative’ gets out there.  Real wrong was done.  And this wrong has had terrible consequences.  And I (and my children and others) feel them profoundly.  But I can forgive.  And I need not be defined by my failure. Or hers.  I choose, instead, to be defined by the cross.

As the Cross is lifted on high,
It urges all of creation
To praise the undefiled Passion of Christ,
Who was lifted up on it.
For by the Cross He killed the one
Who killed us,
And brought us back to life when
We were dead. 
He adorned us in beauty,
And in His compassion made us
Worthy to live in heaven.
Therefore we rejoice and exalt His name,
And magnify His infinite condescension.

And one last hymn from the day, this one by ‘John the Monk’:

Your precious Cross, O Christ God,
Which Moses of old prefigured in
His own person
When he overthrew Amalek and
Put him to flight;
Which David commanded to be [venerated],
Calling it your footstool.
This Cross we sinners [venerate]
Today with unworthy lips,
And praise You, Who deigned
To be nailed upon it,
And we cry to You:
‘With the thief make us worthy of Your Kingdom, O Lord!’

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