Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Suffering and Glory: Sharing in the Doxa of the Cross (John 12, Glory, Suffering, Grain of Wheat, Lent)

Fr. Lee Nelson
Presented to the Parish and People of St. Francis Church – Dallas, TX
The Feast of St. Patrick, Bishop and Confessor

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

These are the words of the Savior, not before His ascent to the Mount of Transfiguration, not before His Blessed Resurrection, not before His ascension to the right hand of the Father, but on the night of the Passover, on the night He would be handed over to suffering and death, on the night He would be betrayed.

But after these words, He says still more:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me; the Father will honor him.”

Honor and the following of Jesus to the Cross. Honor and suffering. Suffering and glory. Suffering and glory are an odd pairing in the eyes of this unbelieving world.

Suffering is a thing to be avoided. In the modern world, we like to think that we have indeed done away with suffering, but retained the glory. We like to think that we can have honor without cuts and bruises, indeed honor without wounds. This is possibly best seen in the Middle East, especially Iraq, where we want to believe that honor and glory can come without cost. This is invariably not so.

As well, we can look to the ever-growing appeal of euthanasia, of so-called “civilized” capital punishment, without pain, and even those dentists who anesthetize for even the simple check-up.

And yet, Jesus tells us that the means of His glory, what we will now refer to using the greek term, doxa, is the Cross. It is not merely the Cross which brings glory, but also the events of His Passion. He sweats blood, he agonizes, he perhaps suffers the worst pain of all, the pain of abandonment. And yet, this is how the Son of Man is glorified.

It is this which leads St. Paul to write to the Galatians: “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But it is not merely the suffering of Our Lord which I wish to focus on tonight, it is rather the call He issues to those who would be faithful to Him – the call to join Him in His suffering, the call which says “If anyone serves me, he must follow me;” It is a following which leads to Cross, it is a following which leads to humiliation, torture, despair, and rejection.

Why must we follow Him in His suffering? That is the first question.

The second question is how we must follow Him in suffering. But, we will turn to that question later.

Why suffering?

Saint Paul writes to the Romans: “…we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” For Saint Paul, the necessary means of glorification with Jesus Christ at the right hand of the Father is conditional upon our suffering with Him. He says that the sufferings of his time are truly nothing compared with the mysterious glory of eternity with God. In a sense, one could say that suffering prepares the human person for glorification.

But, there is a bit of history and theology which needs to be brought to the fore. In the 7th Century, a theological battle arose which would pit Emperors against monks, princes against popes, bishops against bishops.

The battle centers upon the definition of the Council of Chalcedon, which stated clearly the following:

“Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.”

This has been referred to through the ages as the Definition of Hypostatic Union. Hypostasis in Greek means “person.” Thus, it is the teaching of the Council that the two natures in Christ are united in one Person. Both natures are complete and full.

Now, this was in the year 451. Any controversy which there had been had seemingly disappeared. Yet, in the years following, the debate turned hot.

The debate, in fact centered upon Christ’s agony in the garden. And this is where the question of suffering comes to the fore.

Jesus is kneeling in the garden, sweat dripping from His brow, and he says: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine be done.”

The Church Fathers had long struggled for an apology on this question: how can there be two wills in Christ, both a human and divine, when one seems to be opposed to the other?”

Cyril of Alexandria had answered the question in this way. Here, I quote from Robert Louis Wilken in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Cyril represents a shift in exegesis:

“”Now is the Son of Man glorified.” This text was perplexing because it identified Christ’s suffering with glory. Jesus had said “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” How can this be? According to the Scriptures, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, is encompassed by glory. If the Son of God is already crowned with glory, how can he be said to be glorified now? Texts of this sort received little attention in earlier commentators, and Athanasius seems to have avoided them. Cyril, however, does not balk at the identification of suffering with glory, and in his commentary on John plunges ahead to meet the challenge presented by the words of the gospel. When Saint John uses the term glory [or doxa] in this context, says Cyril, it can only mean that Christ is glorified as man, which, he adds, is something different from being eternally glorified as the Son of God. Further, the evangelist indicates that this glory is greater than the glory associated with his miracles. Armed with this insight Cyril turns to the heart of the matter, that the significance of the passage is that Christ’s glory is found in his suffering.”

Thus, suffering for Cyril is not merely an unfortunate element of the life of Christ, but is instead the “necessary fulfillment of the Incarnation.” In essence, it is the human nature of Christ which makes him unique, and his triumph over death is made possible by simply the sort of human being He was.

Cyril sums it up: “If he conquered as God, to us it is nothing; but if he conquered as man we conquered in Him.”

Yet, many were saying in those days that Christ could not have a human will, but rather the divine will “trumps” the human. Of course, this brings up the question: “How could the teaching of the Chalcedonian Council be true, that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully divine if his human will is secondary or subjugated to the divine will, or if his human will simply does not exist?”

Many attempts were made to answer the question.

But, it wasn’t until a lowly Byzantine Monk named Maximus came to the fore that the problem was lent any clarity.

Maximus was born in Constantinople in 580 and educated in the same city. By age 30, he had become secretary to the Emperor. He was an intellectual force to be reckoned with, but he found the imperial court dissatisfying. In 614, he resigned to enter the monastery at Chrysopolis. In the Eastern monastic tradition, it is not unusual for a monastic to move from monastery to monastery, unlike in the West, where the Benedictine Rule prescribes life-long stability. Thus, Maximus moves around a bit, first to the Monastery of St. George and later to other monasteries.

614 is a year of some note, however. It is the same year in which Jerusalem was dominated by the Persians, a precursor to the Crusades in later centuries. In the following decades, the Persian army made its way toward Constantinople, demolishing the ancient churches as it went. Maximus was thus forced to abandon the monastic foundations surrounding the Bosporus and head to Carthage in North Africa by way of Cyprus.

Maximus is perhaps the first to make an effective apology and exegesis of Our Lord’s request that the cup pass from his lips. Most of the Church Fathers had, up to this point, understood the words to be hypothetical. Yet Maximus asks the question, do the words “Not my will, but thine…” make sense without “let this cup pass from me.” He says that, in fact, Christ did drink the cup in perfect obedience. For Maximus, the words “let this cup pass from me” express perfect obedience and assent to the Divine Will of the Father, that in His person, He conforms his human will wholly to God’s will. It is thus his conclusion that there is not “one energy” or “one working” in the Son, but two without contrariety between them, while the distinction is preserved.

Thus, the suffering of Christ only can make sense in that His human will is conformed to the will of the Godhead in complete obedience, accepting the suffering, accepting the shame. We ought not be confused on this point, though it may seem to be picayune.

If the wholeness of Christian theology hinges on an iota, that found in the heretical homoiousios as opposed to the orthodox homoousios, then we as orthodox catholic Christians cannot be confused either. Since the Reformation, it has been opined by many that God the Father submitted His Son to the pain and suffering of the Cross. No human will there. Yet the Church Fathers, especially Maximus issue the call to us to know and understand that Jesus wills his own suffering in His human nature and will just as much as His divine corollaries.

Maximus writes:

“If the Word made felsh does not himself will naturally as a human being and accomplish things in accordance with his human nature, how can he willingly undergo hunger and thirst, labor and weariness, sleep and everything else common to man? For the Word does not simply will and accomplish these things in accordance with the transcendent and infinite nature he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit… For if it is only as God that he wills these things, and not as himself being a human being, then either the body has become divine by nature, or the Word has changed its nature and become flesh by abandoning its own divinity, or the flesh is not all in itself endowed with a rational soul, but in itself completely lifeless and irrational.”

We are often fond of saying that the God’s plan of salvation was dependent upon Mary’s utterance of the words: “fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” or “be it unto me according to thy word.” This fiat makes possible the Incarnation of the Word, the Word made flesh. This “yes” of Mary is worthy of our genuflexion, yet it is not wholly indicative of merely God’s initiative in salvation, but also of man’s cooperation. Might I argue, however, that this is not supremely so in Mary, Our Blessed Mother, but that it is rather supremely true in Our Lord Jesus, who says “not my will, but thine?”

In this one phrase, Christ wills the salvation of mankind, not merely as the Divine Son of God, co-eternal with the Father, but as a man also!

In this, He has shown us a new way of being human – new life to the fullest!

If we wish to be perfect, as He bids us to be, we must indeed follow Him in His suffering. St. Augustine says “we can recognise this cup on the lips of Christ, when he says, Father, if it can be so, let this cup pass from me. It is about this cup that the martyrs said, I will receive the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

Another notable bishop, closer to our own day, Robert Terwilliger wrote: “Martyrdom is theology with blood on it.” We must suffer, dear friends, because Our Lord suffered. We must suffer because of the same dissenting theological conviction which He had. We must follow Him to the Cross!

Maximus most certainly knew this, for he is known not as a theologian, but as a Confessor and Martyr. In AD 640, the authorities in Constantinople, including the Patriarch issued a decree entitled the Ekthesis which stated that the two natures in Christ were united in a single will, representing the monothelite heresy. The emperor Heraclius died in 641, and was succeeded by Constans II, who “not only accepted [the Ekthesis] but also began to impose the teaching on the empire.” Thus, in the Eastern Church, the official teaching was monothelite.

But, in the Western Church, the Bishops of Rome had taught, with Maximus, the two wills in Christ, and in 649, the Church elected Martin I to the Chair of Peter. Four months after his enthronement, Martin called a council at the Lateran basilica to discuss the monothelite controversy, and Maximus came to Rome as a key figure.

Important to note is the fact that Maximus was never ordained to any order – he was a layman. Yet, he rose to authority in the council, which issued a decree defending the Chalcedonian Definition and defending also the doctrine of two wills. The decree was then sent to the Emperor in Constantinople. He was not amused.

He immediately sent soldiers to Rome to arrest Pope Martin, but the Roman guard held. Several more years later, and the Imperial soldiers penetrated the guards of Rome and arrested Martin, now laying ill in St. John Lateran. They came in with lances and swords and spears and handed Martin an imperial order that he had been deposed. He was taken to Constantinople in chains. After being held for three months, he was tried for treason against the Emperor. They took him to the courtyard, where they tore the pallium from his neck and led him through the streets in chains to exile in Crimea. Meanwhile, the Church in Rome gave him the ultimate humiliation, electing his successor while he was still alive, and in 655, Martin died a martyr from starvation, cold and mistreatment, the last Pope to be named “martyr.”

Maximus suffered a worse fate. He was imprisoned and tried for treason. The authorities had his right hand cut off and his tongue ripped out, sending him to exile on the shores of the Black Sea where he died. At his trial, he said “I have no teaching of my own, only the common teaching of the Catholic Church. For I did not promote any formula that could be considered my own teaching.”

Thus, the how of suffering. I daresay that we, as Catholics, once cozy members of the Episcopal Church, left alone to do as we please, will not be allowed to do so any longer. We will lead lives of exile, we will lead lives of persecution. The all-encompassing “they” may seek to cut out our tongues for proclamation of the truth as found in the Catholic Faith. Not only this, but we suffer the sufferings common to all mankind. We suffer the uncertainty of global economies. We suffer the ever-growing list of ailments – cancers, heart diseases, airborne viruses. We suffer from chronic depressions, from want, from broken checking accounts, from marginalization. And yet, if we follow the example set before us by Our Lord Jesus, we will find glory in these sufferings.

We are to say with Him: “not my will, but thine.”

If we are to make sense of suffering, so integral to the Christian life, we need look no further than the Cross. In this, we might say from the hospital bed, or the depths of chemotherapy, or common ridicule, we might say with St. Paul, that these sufferings are nothing compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us.

For we await the glory, the doxa of Heaven, for which the God-Man suffered and died to bring us. He did so, not as God only, but as God and Man, made manifest.


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