Renunciation is nothing else than a manifestation of the cross and of dying…. Consider, then, what the cross implies, within whose mystery it behooves you henceforth to proceed in this world, since you no longer live, but he lives in you who was crucified for you…. But you might say: How can a person constantly carry a cross, and how can someone be crucified while he is still alive? …

Our cross is the fear of the Lord. Just as someone who has been crucified, then, no longer has the ability to move or to turn his limbs in any direction by an act of his mind, neither must we exercise our desires and yearnings in accordance with what is easy for us and gives us pleasure at the moment but in accordance with the law of the Lord and where it constrains us.

~ St. John Cassian, Institutes

Tonight in the Orthodox Church, we commemorate Great Friday: the crucifixion of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

There are cosmic dimensions to this. St. Paul tells us “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ … the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). So also, says St. John, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

This cosmic and mystical aspect of the cross historically occurs more frequently in the Byzantine Tradition.

We can also speak of the crucifixion as fulfillment of the sacrifices of old:

And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man [Jesus], after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. (Hebrews 10:11-13)

This tends to be the more common Western emphasis: Christ offers himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, so that partaking of his Body and Blood we may live anew in his victory.

There is at least one more emphasis, and perhaps, from my limited reading, this is more prevalent in the Russian Tradition, understood in the historical sense (rather than present-day nations and politics). This emphasis, according to G. P. Fedotov, can be called the “kenotic” or self-emptying aspect of the Cross.

Says St. Peter:

Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps:

“Who committed no sin,
Nor was deceit found in His mouth”;

who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. (1 Peter 2:21-24)

Even more so, St. Paul told the Philippians:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation (eauton ekenosen), taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:5-11)

This aspect has a mysterious element: in what sense can Christ, being fully divine (“in the form of God”), empty himself? Of course, he did not cease to be what he was, but by becoming what we are, he took on all the aspects of creaturely existence that are foreign to divinity — finitude, place, passion, change, and of course suffering — “even the death of the cross.”

The Cross was not simply any form of death, it was the worst form. From the Roman point of view, it had been engineered to be as painful and prolonged a way to die as possible (hence the term “excruciating“), while also being public and humiliating, so as to deter all intention of revolt that would disrupt the pax Romana.

From a Jewish perspective, there was a belief that “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). It wasn’t simply an undignified way to die, it was a form of anathema: being cut off from the community of God’s elect and the covenant of his promised blessings for the world.

Yet the paradox of the Gospel is that this undignified, humiliating, accursed, and in Jesus’s case, absolutely unjust darkness cannot overshadow, and indeed is utterly consumed by, the light of divinity.

The kenotic image thus has an ethical and life-giving aspect. Christ “emptied himself,” refusing to keep his divinity to himself, refusing to use his power to prevent his passion, in order to sanctify suffering and sacrifice itself. So also, both St. Peter and St. Paul call us to imitate Christ in his self-giving passion that thereby we may purge ourselves of all self-will and walk in the Spirit, in the overfullness and superabundance of Resurrected life.

Of course, none of these emphases are limited to any geographic region or jurisdictional Tradition. Indeed, Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic saint who gave her life to serving the poor, infirm, outcast, and “untouchable” in Calcutta, said, “I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, but only more love.”

So also, St. John Cassian, an Easterner in the West, an inspiration for asceticism and monasticism as far West as Ireland and as far East as, well, Alaska (the Russian Orthodox were the first Christian missionaries there), concludes the same homily, itself a record of a holy elder of ancient Egypt:

According to the Scriptures, ‘the beginning’ of our salvation and ‘of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.’ From the fear of the Lord is born salutary compunction. From compunction of heart there proceeds renunciation — that is, the being deprived of and the contempt of all possessions. From this deprivation humility is begotten. From humility is generated the dying of desire. When desire has died all the vices are uprooted and wither away. Once the vices have been expelled the virtues bear fruit and grow. When virtue abounds purity of heart is acquired. With purity of heart the perfection of apostolic love is possessed.

Cassian has in mind, of course, the total renunciation of monks. But that does not mean that only monks find “the perfection of apostolic love.”

Meditating on Christ on the Cross, recapitulating the corruption of the Fall in the restoration of redemption, offering himself as the perfect expiation for the sins of the world, and giving himself to the point of emptiness on our behalf, we ought also to think of St. Paul’s famous elaboration of the humble heart of love and look around us at all the ways in which we are invited to go and do likewise.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)

Adam Smith — a moral philosopher before a political economist — once observed, “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.” In showing us how deeply “God so loved the world,” the Cross teaches us that we all, despite ourselves, are “lovely” to him.

Thus, struggling each day to walk in the way of the Cross, perhaps we, too, whatever our vocations in life, might show others how lovely they are to God and to us, in that most lovely man of all who ever lived: Jesus.

Kalo Pascha!

Resurrection is the goal. May we all get there through the kenotic humility of the Cross. There is no other way.