The “Cult” of the Cross?

Fresco of Crucifixion at Kolossi Castle, Cyprus

I have previously posted here about the Cult of the Cross (here, here, and here).  What do we mean by cult?

We do not mean a fringe religious group or behaviour or brainwashing or heterodox community of persons.  That is an entirely different definition of cult although both come from the Latin word cultus.

For our purposes, we will consider the cult to be the devotional aspects of something, including feasts, liturgies, meditations, art, poetry, relics, legends, and other spiritual practices.  When we discuss the “Cult of the Saints”, for example, we do not mean simply the lives of the Saints or the doctrine of the Communion of Saints that there is a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us and worshipping at the foot of the Sapphire Throne in the Heavens.  The Cult of the Saints includes hagiography, prayers about and to saints, relics, art, liturgies, feasts, and so on and so forth.

The Cult of the Cross, especially, does not include what we call “theology.”  This is not because theology has nothing to say about the Cross; indeed, a large portion of the reasoned discussion of God’s Revelation to us and action in History is devoted to the Cross.  Furthermore, there is a lot interplay between the Theology of the Cross and the Cult of the Cross.  When each is operating as it should, they have blessed and beneficial interactions.  And the devotional masters, many of whom have contributed to the Cult of the Cross, are not divorced from the theologians’ task.  Many of them have been theologians.  The great liturgists, pray-ers, preachers, and ascetics of the Patristic world were also its great theologians.*

However, the Theology of the Cross is the application of the human mind with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the salvific action of God the Son on the Cross at Golgotha.  Normally, it expressly does not take the actual, True Cross and make it the focus of the discourse.  The Cult of the Cross does, the focus always being a symbolic focus, always pointing to the God-Man upon the Cross.

Often the Cult of the Cross actually manifests itself as the Cult of the Crucifixion or the Cult of the Crucified.  Here Theology and Cult will more frequently intersect.

If you think I’m way off base in terms of what cult is, let me know.

*This fact should give us pause when we consider modern academic theology.

Theology: Who Cares?

I was talking to a friend the other night who commented that it was really good to take calculus and physics at the same time — to get both the theoretical and the practical.  I commented that I wasn’t so good at Physics (and little enjoyed it) but was good at calculus (and enjoyed it).  I noted that I have generally preferred the abstract for the hard, practical, physical — I am, after all, contemplating studying the intricacies of Christology.*  She said that she’s not really one for the abstract.

And theology, as we understand it usually, is the work of armchair scholars, of people spending enormous amounts of time poring over Scriptures and scholars, and then thinking really hard about it.  According to Greta Vosper, a Torontonian United Church minister, how we live is more important than what we believe.  So does theology really matter?  To take up last post’s thoughts, does Chalcedonian Orthodoxy really matter?

I mean, Christians are followers of the Way, aren’t we?  People who live by the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, right?  This means we should have a particular lifestyle, to follow, in the words of the first-century Didache, the Way of Life, rather than the Way of Death.  How does Jesus having two natures really affect our ability to live by the following?

Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there, if you love those who love you? Do not also the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone gives you a blow upon your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes away your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one that asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). (Didache I)

I’m not entirely sure, to tell you the truth.  However, according to a Tozer quote that I recorded somewhere, what we think of when we think of God is the most important thing about us.  This is to say that “Who is God?” is a question of vital importance.  For example, when we see that God is Trinity, we discover that

personhood is tied up intimately with community, and with complementarity of Persons: the Trinity, a community of irreducible Persons in complementarity and love, is our bedrock in understanding what it is to be alive.  This leads us back to our understanding of Christian spirituality: authentic spirituality is the characteristic of a person in Christ who has enough wisdom and insight regarding self and other, and enough love and strength through the Spirit, that he or she can dare to be “ek-static” and so to enter into true intimacy with “the other”, an intimacy that will include both word and silence. (Edith M. Humphrey, Ecstasy and Intimacy, 64)

A belief in the Trinity drives us to community, intimacy, and communion.  It frees us up to enter into vulnerable communion and commingling with one another, knowing that, as persons made in the image of the triune God, we were made for this.

Furthermore, it is only by the grace of God we can live the truly sacrificial life of love and joy that is laid out for us by the various injunctions of Christ found in the Gospels.  If we do not trust in the true, living God, we are wilfully cutting ourselves off from His grace.  As Miroslav Volf points out in Free of Charge, God showers his grace and forgiveness on us, it is our job to receive it with willing hands.  If we do not take the gift given, we cannot benefit from it.

Our theology should fuel our prayer and our worship.  What we think of God influences how we worship, how often we worship, how we pray, how often we pray.  The Arian worships a Christ who is not even God.  Thus, in his heart, he is an idolater, even though the One he worships is perfect God.  On the other hand, if we look at Christ and fall into the purported error of Eutyches, we see someone who did not taste fully of humanity, someone who had only a heavenly body.  Thus, we are praying to a distant being, a God who only humbled himself so far.

Prayer and worship are how God fuels us for his mission on Earth.  True theology brings us to a place of true worship.  May we all ponder the greatness and beauty of our God.

And so Chalcedonian orthodoxy does matter.  By the statement of faith made by the bishops in 451, we declare ourselves committed to a God who is so mighty that he was able to become one of us without diminishing his glory yet without compromising his humanity.  This is the mighty, awesome God whom we worship.  This belief should fuel us to humble ourselves, to go into the deepest, darkest, saddest corners of humanity to raise up the fallen and brokenhearted, to set captives free, and live out the Way of Life as citizens of the Kingdom of the Heavens here on earth.

Theology.  Who cares?

You, hopefully.

*Although good at musical and dancing theory, those are two of the areas where I greatly prefer the practical.  Also in worship and the Eucharist, although I enjoy the theories and theologies surrounding them, for they help deepen my mind’s engagement with the actions.

A Christmas-themed Sermon from a Year Ago, Part 1

I preached a shortened version of this sermon at Evensong at St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Ottawa, Ontario, on December 28, 2008.  The preaching began with a reading of the hymns by Ephrem the Syrian quoted in my last post.

It is Christmas.  I hope to share with you in this homily some thoughts on the ineffable mystery of Christmas.  The elusive “true meaning” of Christmas that every Christmas special seeks to hunt down is bigger than Santa, gifts, family, friends, carols, winter, snow or anything else that we human beings do.  The true meaning of Christmas, dear friends, is that of the Incarnation, as St. Ephraim says, “the God-man.”  It is this theological mystery I hope to investigate tonight.

People are often afraid of theology, and I’ll skip over a lot of jargon; I’ll use Scripture, hymns, creeds, the Fathers, etc, to bring out the beauty of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation—with the understanding that the hymns, Fathers, creeds, etc, are in accord with Scripture.  When we see the beauty and glory and magnificence of this event, I hope that we will be drawn to worship and prayer.  True worship of the true God is the ultimate goal of all proper theology.

Diadochus of Photike says, “Divine theology brings into harmony the voices of those who praise God’s majesty.”  Similarly, Evagrius Ponticus declares, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”  Worship and prayer are vitally important; both fuel us and drive us into action; may we thus also live better lives in the light of the truth of Christmas, when God came down and lived amongst us.

1. What God is Jesus?  The Creator God.

According to John 1, Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God.  And the Word is not only with God, but is God.  We read the Nicene Creed instead of the Apostle’s tonight so we could read its Christological formulae: Jesus, the Word, is “begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” (BCP)  The Word is not other than God.  God, in His fullness, is Jesus.  Anything we can say about God we can also say about Jesus.  So in Psalm 72, when the Psalmist says, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen,” (BCP) we can substitute Jesus for the Divine Name, “the LORD”, and proclaim, “Blessed be Jesus, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and blessed be the Name of his majesty for ever: and let all the earth be filled with his majesty.  Amen and Amen.”

This truth is expressed most fully in the Creed of St. Athanasius, which can be found here.  The entire thing is worth a read someday; I encourage you to do so.  Verse 30 reads, “Now the right Faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both God and Man.  He is God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and he is Man, of the Substance of his Mother, born into the world; Perfect God; perfect Man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting; Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead; less than the Father as touching his Manhood.” (BCP)

Perfect God.

God.  Jesus is fully God.  He is not some lesser being, some semi-divine creature, or an angelic being.  He is God Himself.  This is a mystery.  We cannot penetrate into the fullness of its glory.  Indeed, it boggles the mind to think on it:  God in the flesh!  There is so much that could be said about the God Who Jesus is—he is the God of the Old Testament, He set the people of Israel free from Egypt, He spoke by the prophets, He gave the law, He showed Moses a glimpse of His glory.  Let’s reflect for a moment on the fact that He is the Creator God.

a. The Creator God

God, according to Genesis 1, created everything.  He spoke, and it happened.  God said, “Let light come into being, and there was light.”  Since God created using speech, it comes as no surprise that we read in John 1, “All things were made through [the Word], and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (NKJV)  Jesus, the Word, created.  He is the living Word of God the Father, and He brought all things into existence.  He is the One Who creates out of nothing.  Before we rush off into these heights of glorious truth, let us recall the title of a book I once read, Jesus with Dirty Feet.  This Jesus we read of in the Gospels, the One with dirty feet, Who walked the shores of Galilee, Who threw the moneychangers from the Temple, Who wept at Lazarus’ death, Who told stories, Who was born a Babe in Bethlehem and laid in a manger by His mother—this Jesus happens also to be the Creator of the Universe.

Creator.  Of.  The.  Universe.

This is who Jesus is: the Creator of the Stars of Night; the Creator of nebulae and galaxies and comets and solar systems and suns and planets and asteroids and all stellar phenomena; the Creator of ants and whales and bacteria and diatoms and hair and mountains and goats and birch trees and mighty oaks and Niagara Falls and you and me.  As Creator of humanity, He gave unto us a certain creative faculty.  Therefore, all the works of beauty created by humans are traceable back to the Creator God: the architecture of this Church, beautiful poetry, paintings, stained-glass windows, fabulous novels, true philosophy—all because of Jesus.  He is the Creator of the Universe.  He made stuff by talking.  His Word went forth and made all that was, all that is, and all that ever shall be.  As we sing in the fourth-century hymn of Prudentius:

At his word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and Evermore.

This Creator God took on flesh at Christmas.  He was born of a Virgin as an infant.  The mind that hung the Pleiades in the sky was incapable of expressing itself in words and lived off the very milk of a woman whom He created.  Mindblowing.

b.  The God of the Old Testament

Briefly, let us remember that the Creator God has a specific character and history as revealed in the Old Testament; and Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, is that God.  In fact, some of the early Church Fathers taught that the Word of God, Jesus, is the God who speaks in the Old Testament.  I’m not sure I agree, but the implications are that the Second Person of the Trinity is the One Who once on Sinai’s height did “give the Law in cloud and majesty and awe”;  He spoke to Elijah in the still small voice on Mt. Carmel;  He visited Abraham and Sarah; He spoke to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets.

This God we worship in Jesus is not just a speaker and Creator.  He doesn’t just order the cosmos and talk to us every once in a while.  He acts.  Remember our Sunday School Bible stories: He brought Noah’s flood, He led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land, He caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, He gave Samson superhuman strength, He gave Solomon wisdom, He consumed the offerings that Elijah gave on the altar with a mighty flame, He saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  The holy God of Israel, Who meets Moses in the burning bush and declares His Divine Name, “I am that I am,” manifests Himself as Jesus.

He is just, righteous, jealous for His holy Name, compassionate and merciful.  Anything we can say about Almighty God we can say about Jesus.  This means also that, in the New Testament, when John says that God is Love, the same applies to Jesus.  That God is Love helps unlock the mystery of why this God of power and might would choose to humble Himself as a poor infant, born into this world not into the halls of kings or emperors but into a manger of all places!

A thought on theology

Anthony B. Robinson, in, “Teaching Theology in the Church“, writes:

If theology is a way of life and a lens through which life is perceived and not simply a set of propositional statements, then teaching theology in the church should involve reflection on the life of the church–on worship and sacraments, ministry (ordained and lay) and mission. How are these elements of a way of life? What aspects of the gospel do they express? Are these practices forming or transforming us in the image and mind of Christ? What happens to us as we participate in them?

Something for all of us committed to the endeavour of theology and the Church to think on.