Ephrem the Syrian for Orthodox Good Friday

Today is Good Friday for the Orthodox Church. In honour of that commemoration, I present a passage from Archimandrite Ephrem Lash’s translation of one of the Greek works attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, “On the Passion,” — this one may actually be by St Ephrem, given that it seems to have originated in Syriac.

Mosaic from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)

Draw near all of you,
children of the Church,
bought with the precious
and holy blood
of the most pure Master.

Come, let us meditate
on his sufferings with tears,
thinking on fear,
meditating with trembling,
saying to ourselves,
‘Christ our Saviour
for us the impious
was given over to death’.

Learn well, brother,
what it is you hear:
God who is without sin,
Son of the Most High,
for you was given up.

Open your heart,
learn in detail
his sufferings
and say to yourself:
God who is without sin
today was given up,
today was mocked,
today was abused,
today was struck,
today was scourged,
today wore
a crown of thorns,
today was crucified,
he, the heavenly Lamb.

Your heart will tremble,
your soul will shudder.

Shed tears every day
by this meditation
on the Master’s sufferings.

Tears become sweet,
the soul is enlightened
that always meditates
on Christ’s sufferings.

Always meditating thus,
shedding tears every day,
giving thanks to the Master
for the sufferings
that he suffered for you,
so that in the day
of his Coming
your tears may become
your boast and exaltation
before the judgement seat.

Endure as you meditate
on the loving Master’s
sufferings,
endure temptations,
give thanks from your soul.

Blessed is the one
who has before his eyes
the heavenly Master
and his sufferings,
and has crucified himself
from all the passions
and earthly deeds,
who has become an imitator
of his own Master.

This is understanding,
this is the attitude
of servants who love God,
when they become ever
imitators of their Master
by good works.

Shameless man, do you watch
the most pure Master
hanging on the Cross,
while you pass the time
that you have to live on earth
in pleasure and laughter?

Don’t you know, miserable wretch,
that the crucified Lord
will demand an account
of all your disdainful deeds,
for which, when you hear of them, you show no concern,
and as you take your pleasure
you laugh
and enjoy yourself with indifference?

The day will come,
that fearful day,
for you to weep unceasingly
and cry out in the fire
from your pains,
and there will be no one at all
to answer
and have mercy on your soul.

I worship you, Master,
I bless you, O Good One,
I entreat you, O Holy One,
I fall down before you, Lover of humankind,
and I glorify you, O Christ,
because you, only-begotten
Master of all,
alone without sin,
for me the unworthy sinner
were given over to death,
death on a Cross,
that you might free
the sinner’s soul
from the bonds of sins.

The Cult of the Cross 1

A while ago, I posted a blog about the origins of the sign of the Cross here.  The post was fairly innocuous — a few quotations from the Fathers about making the sign of the Cross and the power that the Cross has over demons with another from Martin Luther thrown in for good measure (if Protestants don’t trust the Fathers, they might trust Luther).  At the close, I remarked upon the lack of popularity the sign of the Cross has with Protestants.

The version imported to Facebook received the following comment:

It has likely lost favour with Protestants because the act of signing yourself with the cross has no biblical basis. Venerating wooden crosses and believing that the sign of the cross holds ‘magic power’ is dishonouring to Christ. It is by the shedding of Christ’s blood that we are saved, by his death and resurrection that the penalty for our sins is paid – it is not by the piece of wood that Christ was nailed to. The cross as an object holds no power and to worship it is idolatry. We should look to Jesus, the person, not to the object upon which he was killed.

When done properly, veneration of the Cross operates in a manner similar to all symbolic action, even more similar to the use of icons (but Protestants aren’t often fond of those, either).*  When I look upon a cross, or make the shape of one over my body, I am not thinking, “This t-shape will save me,” or “That piece of wood/bronze/silver/stone is worthy of my worship.”  Rather, the Cross becomes a window to a great spiritual truth.  It is a vehicle for the imagination and the reason and emotions to be drawn back through history to the great moment of Time when the timeless, deathless One entered Time and died.

A cross is a kind of recapitulation of the one, unrepeatable historical event of the Crucifixion of the King of Glory.  The death of Christ my God is made real to me as I contemplate the Cross.  The benefits of his passion are brought to me as I behold the crossed bits of wood hanging in my prayer area, the ornamented fragment of silver I wear around my neck, the shining brass at so many Anglican churches, the stained glass at St. Alban’s in Ottawa.

These benefits are not made real simply by the presence of a piece of wood, but through receiving the benefits of the historical Crucifixion through the contemplation of the object before me by faith in Christ our God.  Faith is the key ingredient, and that Faith lies in the One Who hung and died, the One Who loves me most.

It strikes me as a natural event that Christian worship would include veneration of the Cross, art of the Crucifixion, Crucifixes on necks and walls, bare crosses on necks and walls, films of the Passion, plays of the Passion, poetry about the Cross, and what ultimately could be called the “cult” of the Cross.

Given what I’ve said above, I do not believe that a cult (cultus) of the Cross is a bad thing.  Kissing crosses, parading crosses, meditating with crosses, kneeling before crosses, prayers recalling the Cross — these are not bad things.  They are a reminder not of a piece of wood that may or may not have been found by St. Helena in the fourth century but of the salvation of the world wrought upon one such Cross by our Saviour and Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.

“All this is well and good,” you may say, thoroughly unconvinced, no doubt.  “What about the Bible?”  We’ll get to that next time.

*Amusing slip of the tongue from a friend referring to the statue of St. Alban the Martyr of which I am fond, “So, you really like the idols, don’t you?”