With the Feast! We are still in the after-feast of the Elevation of the Cross, so we are blessed to hear two gospel readings today. I’m going to start with a few thoughts on the significance of the feast of the Elevation of the Cross and the cross of Christ itself. This is a very ancient feast of the church. St. Constantine defeated his powerful adversaries Maxentius and Licinius and became emperor of the eastern and western Roman empire after seeing the sign of the cross in the heavens and being told “in this sign conquer.” His Christian mother St. Helen, within a few years of her son Constantine establishing Christianity as a legal non-persecuted religion set off to Jerusalem in 326 to try to find the site of Christ’s burial and the holy life-giving cross. This was a very blessed and God pleasing endeavour. She discovered that 200 years earlier, the Emperor Hadrian had ordered that the grounds of Golgotha and the Sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem be covered over, and a temple of the pagan goddess Venus and a statue of Jupiter be built over them. Helen had the temple torn down and discovered the three crosses of Christ and the 2 thieves, as well as the Holy sepulchre of Christ. To establish which of the 3 crosses was the holy cross of Christ, Patriarch Makarios of Jerusalem touched each of the crosses to a body in a passing funeral procession. Upon touching the dead man with the actual cross of Christ, life returned to him and the identity of the true cross of Christ was established. The emperor Constantine gave orders to build a great church on the site and in 335, just 10 years after the 1st ecumenical council – this church was finished, and the feast of the Elevation of the Cross was established. We have just celebrated the 1683rd year since this blessed event and the Holy Fire has come down at this Church at Pascha every year since then!
Regarding the power of the cross, the apostle Paul says (1 Cor. 1:18, 23) “…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God…we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks, foolishness.”
It is the ultimate counter-cultural sign, representing the wisdom of God and His strength made perfect in weakness; and exposing the folly of the wisdom of the world, which we are all so saturated with. Christ tells Peter and the disciples that He will suffer crucifixion, and Peter immediately says; (Matt. 17:22) “Far be it from You Lord; this shall not happen to You” Christ tells him, and us, that this thought comes directly from Satan and that the cross is the true and only road to salvation. Any understanding of who Christ God is apart from the cross is directly from Satan! St. Athanasius said, “Christ put on a body that He might find death and blot it out.” We want to follow Christ, but we generally want to follow Him on our terms…for our own benefit. This should be a feel-good experience, shouldn’t it? Doesn’t God want us to be successful and prosperous and happy after all? Isn’t that the point? Somehow ending up being nailed to a cross and dying a painful death doesn’t really fit this view. We hear in our first Gospel reading today (Mark 8:34-35) “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My names sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Pretty much the opposite of striving to get ahead and achieve worldly success at all costs. But Orthodoxy is paradoxy.
The cross is such a powerful force in our life as followers of Christ. We adorn our churches with it, we wear it around our necks and cross ourselves at every prayer and supplication. One of the most terrible tragedies in the protestant world was when the enemy managed to convince them not to cross themselves, thus depriving them of a great weapon and source of protection in their battle against him. Last Sunday we blessed the baptismal waters by signing them with the sign of the cross, by pouring blessed oil into them in the form of a cross and finally by plunging the cross into the waters. We started the exorcism part of the service at the back of the church by breathing upon each of the baptismal candidates in the sign of the cross and signing them with the cross. We bless the waters at Theophany and other times, plunging the cross into the sanctified waters. The sign of the cross in blood above the doors kept the Hebrew children protected when the destroying angels were taking the children of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Moses signed the Red sea with the sign of the cross and it parted saving the Israelites and then closed on the Egyptians. The demons tremble and flee when the saints sign themselves with the sign of the cross. The first thing we do upon awakening in the morning and the last thing we do before bed at night is to cross ourselves. Two days every week, Wednesday and Friday are dedicated to “the power of the precious and life creating cross.” The last thing we do after every Liturgy is come and venerate the cross before leaving the church building, taking the power and victory of Christ’s voluntary death on the cross into the world around us. The cross heads our processions at Pascha! Twice a year, in the middle of Great Lent and at the great feast of the Elevation of the Cross which we are still celebrating today, we decorate and venerate the cross, and celebrate the great saving power and victory accomplished through it.
In today’s second gospel reading we hear the parable about the talents. We are all given a different amount of talents and it really is not important how much we are given. One talent is worth over $1 million so it is plenty to work with. What is critically important is what we do with what we are given. Are we willing to share them, to use them to bless those around us, or do we bury and keep them from being of much use to anyone including ourselves? What we choose to do with the talents each one of us have been given will largely be determined by how we view the Master – our God. The two faithful and good servants, who both received identical praise saw that God was a generous rewarder, a good God who loved them and all of mankind, full of abundance and they worked to be like Him. They used their talents to further the kingdom of God investing in those investments that last eternally, the poor and needy and the church and the kingdom of God generously, building up their treasure in heaven while here on earth. The wicked and lazy servant saw that his Master was a stern and hard taskmaster, one to be feared. Now fear of God, is the beginning of wisdom as we recognize just how far the difference in essence is between us as created beings, and He Who is our Creator. As we grow to know His great love for us and for all His creation, this fear changes to great love and adoration. St. Anthony the Great said “I no longer fear God, but I love Him.”
The lazy and wicked servant was deluded in his view of his Master and probably surrounded himself with those who were of like mind, who would confirm his viewpoint and tell him how clever and wise he was to be suspicious and fearful. Got to watch out and protect yourself after all, “Looking out for #1” as song goes. St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century tells us what it means to bury your talent in the earth, “To hide one’s talent in the earth is to occupy the intelligence God gives us in purely earthly matters, not to seek spiritual profit, never to lift our hearts above worldly considerations…Paltry are the goods of this world, however great they may seem, in comparison with the reward of eternal life.” The fearful and spiritually unprofitable servant was not willing to do the work to change his thinking, to seek truth. “You wicked and lazy servant” says his Master upon his return; seeing his gift lay stagnant and useless, buried in the ground, of no use to anyone, as he had made no effort to work and grow and to bless the world around him with his God given talent.
We are all guilty to some degree of refusing to do the work it takes to grow in Christ. We are called to change, to go from glory to glory, we have yet a long way to go on this blessed path. What is the work? Self-examination leading to a life of repentance and conforming to the ways of God. Understanding our purpose is to look for opportunities to bless and help those God brings into our lives. We need to seriously consider how we are thinking; how do we view God and life? Why do we do the things we do? What is our motive base? Is it love of God and His creation, or need for admiration from people? If there is bad fruit in our lives, then we have work to do. How does what we are thinking line up with what the scriptures and the Church’s understanding of the scriptures say? We have 2000 years of faithful and unconfused revelation contained within the treasure house of the Church. Agreement from the Apostles and saints of every generation up to today on every issue of theology and what it means to live a God-pleasing life. Have we taken the time to find out what the Church has to say on how we think? Do our views match up? Or would we rather take the easy road, the presumptuous, self-assured but often deluded path of trusting in our own private interpretation. Do we do the work to see if we are truly understanding the people and situations God brings to us? Do we stop and pray and seek to align with the mind of Christ and His Church? God loves us completely and unconditionally, but we must choose to do the work, if we are to grow in illumination into life in Christ – into Theosis and our true destiny.
Our talents are given to us to bless those around us, our family and friends and all of mankind. They have great power to bless and be a conduit of God’s love and grace to all of the world. It is a great tragedy when we hide them and refuse to let ourselves come to life. It is a great loss, not just to ourselves, but more importantly to those who we are meant to bless. But our talents will not be allowed to stay buried forever. No, like the lazy servant’s, they will be taken away and given to those who will risk and use them.
So let us learn from the lazy and fearful servant in today’s gospel. Let us get out our shovels and with great haste ask God’s help in doing whatever excavation is needed to unbury these precious talents we have been given from Him. Each one of us has been given them, no-one has been missed, and we desperately need to learn to put them to use; that we may bless and give and receive an abundance that has no limit in the kingdom of God. May God help us to locate and generously put those talents He has blessed us with to use, for the glory of His kingdom and to life everlasting, now and ever and unto ages of ages…With the Feast!