Taking Up Our Cross
by David Barrett
Then, Jesus told His disciples, “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me!” (Matthew 16: 24, and parallels.)
It seems obvious to most people who have followed this crisis in our Orthodox Church in America the last few years, that we stand at a crossroads in the history of our Church on this continent.
Week after week, we are greeted with new revelations, both positive (the release of the SIC Report to the Synod of Bishops, the Metropolitan Council, and the Church at large) and negative (the news of our retired Metropolitan’s loan from the Honesdale Bank, with the property at St. Tikhon’s as collateral). These are accompanied by movements, shifts, misrepresented news reports, and utter confusion (a case in point, the jurisdictional dance being played between members of the ROEA and the ROAA, regarding Romanian “unity” in America). All throughout this crisis, some have called for more information and greater clarification, while others prefer that everybody just shut up about the whole thing, “get over it”, and “move on”.
While recognizing and sympathizing with the emotional turbulence and increased stress levels that this crisis has engendered, it seems that the latter approach is not only unhealthy, but it is also unscriptural and dangerously betrays our Orthodox Faith. In fact, it not only betrays our Faith, it betrays the very aspects of our Church history that are held up as examples and lauded in our hagiography and our liturgical services. Holy examples such as St Maximus the Confessor, who continued to communicate the truth even after his hand was cut off and his tongue cut out, are glossed over as incidents that happened during those previous “holy” centuries. What is forgotten is that not only were those centuries not “holy”, but that Maximus was posthumously recognized as a saint of the Church, while his opponents, primarily patriarchs, were posthumously condemned! St Maximus is praised as a saint both for speaking the truth, and for steadfastly continuing to speak the truth, even after being shut up, tortured, and mutilated bodily! Every other saint in our Church calendar with the title “Confessor” also suffered similar mistreatment for speaking the truth and refusing to back down.
This is confirmed by examples and admonitions given to us by the Apostles of our Lord, in the writings of Scripture. St Paul states that “His gifts were that some should be Apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him Who is the Head, into Christ, from Whom the whole Body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.” (Ephesians 4: 11-16) St Paul here identifies being tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men and their craftiness in deceitful wiles, as being spiritually immature (“so that we may no longer be children”). He further identifies speaking the truth in love with spiritual maturity (“until we all attain…to mature manhood”, “we are to grow up in every way into Him Who is the Head, into Christ”). Elsewhere, he says that we in the Church “have the mind of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:16).
The Epistle of Jude, the final scriptural Letter of the New Testament before the Book of Revelation, has precisely this idea in mind. In fact, its central theme is this speaking the truth in love: “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3) This word, “contend”, in the Greek, “επαγωνιζεσθαι”, has, as its root word, “αγωνιζομαι”, which means “to struggle” or “to contend” in the same sense that a contender or prizefighter in the boxing ring would struggle (Pocket Oxford Greek Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 3). This type of courageous struggle, of speaking the truth in extremely adverse conditions, is what we praise our saints for and what we celebrate on the Sunday of Orthodoxy during Great Lent.
Structures and Behaviors of the Fallen World
However, though we annually laud the fact that we have the right Faith, “the Faith of the universe” proclaimed by those in our history who fought for and spoke the truth, we, sadly, do not “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”. Moreover, we put stumbling blocks in the way of those who do speak the truth. Gag orders and admonitions to not talk about these things are the way of life currently in many of our parishes. Some priests have even failed to acknowledge the existence of this crisis in their parishes, and have not even invited the members of their flock to pray for those involved in the crisis. This level of silence and denial is part of the “good old boys” network of “don’t ask, don’t tell” that still permeates the structures of our Church, from the top on down. In fact, priests who have allowed their parish members to openly discuss the crisis, or whose parish memberships have voted to withhold their national assessments until things are further resolved, are ostracized by their fellow clergy and bishops. They are rebuked for the fact that they have not followed the “old guard”, Soviet-style manner of dealing with their flock, where the priest “rules” by intimidation, threats, overturning of votes and resolutions, and the preaching of “fire and brimstone” to those who dare to question and go against the grain of the “party line”.
Recognizing that Orthodox Christians who embrace the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), the Gospel, who take seriously their life of repentance, as being people who are free in Christ to speak the truth as they perceive it, and, further, allowing these people to act freely by following the Holy Spirit, “Who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4: 6), are branded as “rabble-rousers”, “troublemakers”, “zealots”, and are told repeatedly and ad nauseum that they are causing grief to their fellow clergy and neighboring brothers and sisters in Christ.
This way, though, is not the way of the Gospel!
In fact, the Evangelists show how this “way” is a stumbling block to Christ! One example of this is the story of the blind men, outside of Jericho, who approached Christ for healing. When they cried out to the Lord, “The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent; but, they cried out the more, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David’!” (Matthew 20: 31, and parallels.) Through their insistence, Jesus stopped, called them, and healed them. The result was that “immediately their received their sight and followed Him!” (Matthew 20: 34) These men had the courage to stand fast in their quest for the Lord, as St Joseph of Arimathea had the courage to ask for the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion (Mark 15: 43). It is quite telling that, in the Book of Revelation, when the Lord enumerates the list of those who will be thrust out of the Kingdom, the first group listed, before the murderers, fornicators, and idolaters, is the cowardly (Revelation 21: 8).
Speaking the Truth in Love
This, then, is the “way” of the Gospel: to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4: 15), contending for the Faith through all adversities, hardships, rebukes, judgments, and intimidations. May the Lord grant all of us the courage to follow this narrow path, to take up our cross, uniting it to His Cross, and following Him (Matthew 16: 24)