THE V. Reverend Protopresbyter Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. [BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD, ThD (post-doc.)], serves the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA, and is Professor of Liturgy and Languages at SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. A native of Boston and a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, he received his postgraduate degrees and his doctorate in liturgical theology from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. He is an active member of several academic societies (AAR, SL, SOL, BSC, OTSA), a frequent conference speaker both nationally and internationally, the author of a monograph, Economia and Eschatology: Liturgical Mystagogy in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite (Boston, 2013), and the author of an introductory chapter for a textbook on Christianity, as well as numerous papers and studies in theological journals. He is a frequent consultant on liturgical matters for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.
Perhaps I am preaching to the choir when I say that the older I become, the more I come to see that our world is full of paradoxes. Contradictions of all sorts abound in our lives — between individuals and their behavior, among ideologies and political systems, and so forth. I need not rattle off specific examples to prove my point. With age, we want to believe, comes wisdom and certainly the capability to engage critically about the world around us. Thus, a perceptive mind sees the ideological or ethical paradoxes that challenge or threaten. The wise, however, direct their lives to extract the benefit and the goodness out of every situation, not only for themselves but also for the people in their lives.
The paradoxes, though, to which I refer appear on a wholly different plane. I am speaking about the paradox of God and His ways. In Isaiah 55:8-9, God speaks through the prophet about His sublime uniqueness and the unexpected manner with which He interacts with His creation: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.'” In one sense, God’s wisdom is, by purely human standards, utterly unfathomable and peculiar only to Him. In another sense, in the course of salvation history, man has completely estranged himself from God, so much so that he no longer recognizes God’s ways, let alone His full autonomy and freedom to act in the only manner that defines His “god-ness” as the infinite expression of divine power and love. In other words, God is a paradox to man because man has forgotten who God is, because he has lost faith in Him and in his own self. Perhaps God is a paradox to man because man has become a paradox to God. We often forget that according to the Christian Faith, man cannot be the point of reference in life; God is. So the paradoxical for man is really irrelevant; He is the norm, before whom we have fallen short.
I submit that the greatest “paradox” in man’s mind regarding God is His forbearance and unrelenting love and compassion toward those who despise Him. How odd really, to love someone who has hurt us, who has gossiped about us, who has sought out our demise. But the Lord seeks to bring every hateful heart back to its primordial state of innocence, fashioned in the divine image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). Christ’s prayer of absolution to God the Father from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), reminds us that God sees in us only a pristine beauty with which He defines who we truly are, a beauty tainted in part by the evil angelic forces but more so by the wrong, misguided decisions we have made. As such, like the Father of the Prodigal Son in the parable of the same name (Luke 15:11-32), God sees a victimized world immersed in the muck of its own suffering, and so He rushes to our aid to bring out the best in us, to help us recover the vision of our true greatness when we associate with Him, to see that we do not belong to the world or even to ourselves, but to Him as His children, whom He loves and respects beyond any conceivable human idea.
And in order to prove His love for us, in order to place our cause first, in order to set the example by which evil alone can be defeated, He offers the paradox of paradoxes — God decides to die for His children according to human standards. It is not a permanent death, of course, but it is a submission to an extreme and unfair form of humiliation that God freely chose at the hands of those who rejected Him, to prove that the power of divine love is not only creative but redemptive. Love gives life, love decorates and ameliorates, and love corrects, even the worst of mistakes. This love, beyond any resemblance to an emotion, is incarnated in the Person of Jesus Christ and in His execution of the divine will. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).
The Cross, then, once an instrument of extreme physical torture and death, now becomes, paradoxically, the key that opens God’s heart to embrace man fully once again, to endear the Father to His children after their long estrangement from Him. The example set of the innocent sheep led to the slaughter also speaks powerfully to each of us, to suffer quietly in love in order to bring our enemies around. For how can a hateful individual change his life if no one around him gives him the opportunity to be loved and so also to love in return? The Christian life is then, as the Fathers of the Church so correctly put it, a daily dying and rising in Christ, a life of self-sacrifice that showers the world with God’s light and love and so sanctifies both the giver and the recipient. It is God’s love crucified, filled with indescribable warmth and power, rising from the murkiness of abandonment and humiliation, and capable of transforming hearts willing to be transformed. It is a gift of immeasurable value; it only needs to be opened.
Thus, the Most Precious and Life-Giving Cross of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, exalted universally on September 14 in commemoration of its first elevation in Jerusalem in the year 326 A.D. when the Byzantine Empress St. Helen discovered it and venerated it, reminds us that the greatest power in the entire universe is God’s boundless love in action. It is the Church’s greatest paradox, the physical evidence of God’s love in the world. The Exaposteilarion hymn of the feast highlights the paradoxical nature of the Precious Wood of Life: “O Cross, you are the guardian of the whole world. O Cross, you are the height of the Church’s beauty. O Cross, you are what strengthened the Emperors. O Cross, the believers’ firm support. O Cross, the glory of Angels and the defeat of the demons.” How can an inanimate object, despised for centuries and feared for the indignity it brought to criminals, have such prominence today? By the will of the God whose ways are not our ways, whose wisdom far surpasses ours, who is always one step ahead of us in His divine providence to save that which was lost.
As we gaze upon the Precious Cross of Christ, whether we observe it in our churches or around our necks or in our prayer corners at home, let us rejoice in God’s abundant love toward us and draw strength in faith that nothing can separate us from this divine love unless we desire it. And let our love toward one another emulate the Lord’s divine ἔρως in its intensity and impartiality, for in no other way can hurting hearts be healed, transfigured, and saved.
Our Lord is a God of manifold paradoxes — and for our sakes there is nothing more beautiful than this truth!
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