Where He Leads

img_10071The journey to Pascha is nearly complete. This weekend the Orthodox celebrate Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, marking the beginning of Holy Week. I sat in the tomb of Lazarus last year, located in Bethany. It is not a very long journey from there to Jerusalem.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of Holy Week and Jerusalem is simply how small everything is. All the events that mark that make up Holy Week took place within a very small walking-distance. The salvation of the world – on the stage of this world – was quite intimate and compact. This is fitting. For the point at which our salvation itself occurred is small indeed – the Hades into which our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ entered is infinitesimally small.

Very striking is the relatively short distance between Golgotha and the tomb of Christ. We are told in Scripture that the tomb was nearby. Today, Golgotha and the tomb are under the same roof, with Golgotha situated high in a corner of the Church, and the Sepulchre standing in what would pass for a Narthex in most Orthodox Churches. 

Standing before the altar built over the very place of our Lord’s crucifixion, I was stuck by the fact that there is an icon beneath the altar. It is the icon of Christ the Bridegroom which will be placed in the center of Orthodox Churches at Matins on the evening of Palm Sunday. I took it to be a “road sign.”

There is a path from Golgotha to Pascha – Pascha cannot be reached other than by this path. The Bridegroom icon marks the direction of the path (thus the road sign). In the architecture of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dictated by the actual historical sites located under its roof, one must travel down from the Cross (it was in the corner of a quarry in a place called ‘the place of the skull’ (Golgotha). I would estimate the Cross to be nearly two stories above where the tomb stands and at a distance of perhaps 200 yards (my guess). In the Church, the pilgrim descends stairs back into the main body of the Church in order to approach the tomb.

In life the path is similar – but the icon indicates the way. The journey from the Cross to Pascha (Pascha being marked by the emptiness of the tomb and the fullness of our existence) goes through the Bridegroom. In that icon we see Christ in His humiliation. “Like a lamb who before his shearers is mute so He uttered not a word.”

129963405_301bb0765b2To reach Pascha from the Cross, we must go through the Cross and follow the Bridegroom to Hades and in His resurrection, follow Him out of that dark place into the brilliant light of the brightness of Pascha.

St. Paul instructs us to “empty ourselves” by having among us the “mind of Christ” – but the “mind of Christ” precisely in His humility (Philippians 2:5-11). And so the journey of Holy Week has its path clearly marked. 

The services are long. The weakness that eventually threatens to overcome us all (“I don’t think I could stand up for another minute”) is itself a physical union with the sufferings of Christ. Holy Week is exhausting. So was the work accomplished on the cross – exhaustion to the point of death. Thus in Holy Week we are conformed to the image of Christ on the cross – including His weakness.

It is time again to forgive one another. If I stand with the humble Bridegroom and hear His words of humility: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (he offers no blame), how can I not with Him readily forgive all who have reason to hate me, or who hate me for no reason at all, or whom I hate (sinner that I am) even though their sins against me justly invite my wrath? Do I even dare to think of justice when the judgment of God looms so near? No, forgiveness can and must be given now! Rush to forgive – tell them quickly that their debt has been reduced or even taken away.

The coins with which we must purchase oil for our lamps as we follow the Bridegroom into His bridal

_44604810_0cfa7112-54f0-4015-a9b0-29f58a4fab29chamber, can only be obtained by giving away the currency of our self-righteousness and the wealth of our grudges.

As Fr. Sophrony would note – we can only follow Christ to His Pascha by traveling downwards.

 The journey up is made by going down. We go down to His death and His humility so that we may rise with Him in the glory of His compassion.

Behold, the Bridegroom comes. Blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching!

21 Responses to “Where He Leads”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    In the first photo, a woman makes a prostration at Golgotha. By looking carefully you can barely make out the Bridegroom icon (see the second picture) beneath the altar. The third photo is of the tomb at Pascha, with candles burning with the miraculous light of Pascha.

  2. Laura Says:

    Thank you, Father.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    I should thank God and the readers of the Blog. Without both, there would be no book interest. I trust that God will take care of its details (if it is to be).

  4. mic Says:

    Fr…that was Golgotha???

    i feel a little jipped. i was there walking all around the Church, even stood in front of that particular altar (snapped some photos too) but had no idea what i was looking at. the only thing that i knew was there at the Church was the Tomb. i wonder what else i missed?

    anyway, please pray for me Fr. (servant of God michael) i feel beat up from the feet up during this Lent, and i am trying not to loose heart, especially being sooo close to Pascha.

    peace
    mic-

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Indeed, that is Golgotha. Beneath the Altar is a star on the floor with an opening in the center (similar to the one at Bethlehem Church). You can reach through the opening and touch the rock of Golgotha itself. I blessed my cross on it.

    The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is full of many things under one roof.

    I will certainly be glad to hold you in my prayers. May God give you a good Pascha!

  6. Gene B Says:

    Dear Father Stephen,
    I have just finished listening to all of your podcasts (66 of them in a row, over 2 weeks). I have felt for a long time that the Orthodox Church in the American lands has not yet developed a successful dialog to use when speaking with other Christians, particularly those with a protestant background. We use the same words but attach completely different meanings to them, making effective communication nearly impossible. Unless one has a complete grasp of both sides, which takes years to develop, one walks away confused and irritated. I think there’s a lot of work ahead of us as a Church to develop this. After listening and reading so many of your observations and reflections, I think you have done a lot to start bridging this gap, particularly with your “two storey universe” analogy. The Orthodox will not be successful in this country until we come up with a simple way of describing ourselves that 1) every member is able to use and 2) our audience can understand. There is such a hunger for what we have to offer, and yet such a communication barrier to be overcome. I hope you get that book deal! Have a blessed Pascha!

  7. mic Says:

    well…i guess i will just have to go back there and (knowingly) check it out for myself!

    thanks for your prayers Fr., they are greatly appreciated.

    i am not really a guy who cares to sit down and listen to podcasts, i just have a hard time focusing. however i can sit down and read for hours. with that being said, a friend of mine had a link to a couple of podcasts on his website.

    they happened to be the illumined heart podcast with you as the guest speaker. i was greatly encouraged by what was said.

    peace
    mic-

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Gene,

    I think that if I have any usefulness it is in translating Orthodoxy into terms that are understandable in our culture. It’s a primary missionary task. I should add that as a convert myself, I have had to work over the years to translate Orthodox writings into something I understood. It’s the reason my subject matter remains restricted. If I don’t understand it then there’s no chance of being useful to anyone else. Thus I limit myself to things I understand on some level. I’ve found, however, that the more I write, the less I seem to know. Fr. Hopko says that if I keep it up, some day I’ll know nothing – then I’ll be holy! There’s a goal I can surely aim for!

    There have been 66 of the podcasts? You must be a very patient man. I am honored.

  9. Darla Says:

    Father, speaking of forgiveness: I’ve often thought of the prayer you posted back a bit that says something like, “Lord at the dread day of judgment may they not be condemned because of me.” This is very powerful. Now in this post you speak of people who have truly wronged you and forgiving them. This is my situation. If I tell them I forgive them they will be even more offended for they do not believe they’ve done anything wrong.

    I’ve also apologized for my part in the conflict and their response was “You’re just sorry you got caught” which is actually not true.

    Is forgiveness in place if you’ve asked and it wasn’t given? If you want to offer it but it’s not being requested (and will offend if you give it with words)?

    What do I do? I guess after a several years of living under this terrible thing I’m at a loss as to whether or not there is anything further to do really. If you have any thoughts on the matter, I’d value them.

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Often when we tell someone we’ve forgiven them they are offended because they do not see themselves to have done wrong. Our forgiveness of them does not have to be shared unless asked for. We can forgive even those who have not asked (by God’s grace). It’s sort of the point of the prayer you mentioned.

    I generally make it a practice not to tell someone I’ve forgiven them unless they ask for forgiveness for the very reasons you have stated. Our forgiving of others is real and true regardless of whether they know or don’t know.

    Christ’s forgiveness of us is just this way. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” We didn’t ask for forgiveness, He simply forgave us. Whether we accept it is the crux of things for us.

    There is a power and reality in forgiveness (just as there is an emptiness in grudges and the like) that changes things. When I forgive someone (from my heart) the world is changed and I am changed. There is a freedom that is birthed in the giving of forgiveness – both for us and for the other, even if the other is not aware. It is ultimately the freedom of love.

  11. Darla Says:

    Father, thank you. I will ponder your words and appreciate you writing them. How does one, in this situation, handle the Scripture that says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Can I assume that if one has attempted reconciliation and its been rejected that they can then return to the altar with their gift so to speak.

    I’d ask our priest but we’re just beginning this Orthodox journey and haven’t met with the priest of our mission yet.🙂

  12. Darla Says:

    BTW, please forgive me from moving this thread away from the purpose of your post. I will admit that I have in the past thought to myself, “Oh, come on, how can anyone say they know where Golgotha and the tomb are? And the actual cross? That too?”

    Is this what the Orthodox have, Father? The real, true actual tomb and cross? Now that I’ve realized that the church never disappeared in those first 1000 years as I think I’d always sort of believed, I can certainly fathom that the Apostles certainly would have been aware of these locations and so the apostles after them, and after them, and after them, etc.

    Please forgive my questions if wide-eyed and inappropriate!

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Darla,

    On the first question: note that the Scripture says, “If you remember that your brother has something against you” meaning that you have done something wrong (not the brother). In that case you should ask for forgiveness (be reconciled). Of course if they will not forgive you, then you have done what you could. In the other case, you have something against your brother (he did something wrong), we should just forgive them, though going to them to tell them we forgive them in some cases would just be wrong, causing hurt, or setting ourselves in the position of judge over them. Two different cases.

    Yes, I believe the cross and the tomb are real, though making the historical case for why I think so would take far longer than I would want to write. When you are in Jerusalem and have the Scripture in hand – everything fits. This is the place. But what the Orthodox have is the fullness of the faith – a depth unimaginable to many Christians (and neglected by too many Orthodox). The tomb is important historically, but what took place there transcends history. Death is overcome (death being the “ultimate” historical experience). Pascha is the beginning of all things the end of all things – it reveals the fullness of Christ to us (Who is the Alpha and the Omega), and invites us to become partakers of that fullness.

    May God bless you in all things – particularly as you have begun this wonderful journey. May God carry you into the depths of His love.

  14. Yudi Kris Says:

    Thank you, father. Please pray for me for the humility!

  15. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    Hades is small?

    I thought it would have to be large–though really crowded with all those people–not physically big, but whatever the spiritual equivalent would be…

    How very interesting…

  16. mrh Says:

    Darla, have a look at
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_Holy_Sepulchre#Authenticity

    for some neutral commentary on the subject.

  17. Damaris Says:

    Anonymousgodblogger — Have you read The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis? He makes the point there that hell is so small that only God can go through it. If evil is nothingness, the negation of all the good of God’s creation, then what could there be to fill hell? And this nothingness , this shriveledness is what we so often choose over God!

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Damaris,

    Quite. Could not have said it better.

    Only God expands the human heart and offers us the fullness of existence in Him. Hell is so close to nothing because it is that state in which we are opposing God Who alone makes things have true existence. He does not begrudge existence to any – but those who refuse it will find not significance, but insignificance. Evil itself is not anything, but simply a perversion of good things. Those who prefer darkness to the Light will have chosen something close to nothing.

    People need to quit thinking of hell as the equal and opposing thing to heaven. It is not even heaven’s opposite – for heaven has no opposite. Hell is just a movement away from heaven, from God, a striving for non-being.

    While those who love the light, in the end will not even be able to be contained by the universe.

  19. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    “. . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His death. . .” (Phil. 3:10)

    “For if we have been united together in the likeness of this death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him . . . ” (Romans 6:5-8)

    May God make it so.

    Darla, I can relate to your comments about the location of Golgotha and the Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Last Sunday before the Liturgy, one of my Priests, who is an iconographer, blessed a new icon of the Cross/crucifixion he had just completed for the iconostasis of our church. He mentioned that it also contains a relic of the true Cross, which he had been blessed to receive from a monk at one of the monasteries he visited where a portion of the true Cross is preserved and venerated. The true Cross still exists?! For me, just a short time ago when I was protestant, I thought this was just the stuff of religious fiction, long disappeared in the dust of history. Of course, now being Orthodox mostly I felt very humbled and grateful that the Lord through His Church has preserved for us vessels of clay, bits of holy “clay” like this related to the saving events and people of our spiritual history to reinforce our connection with Him and the soundness of our perception of the reality of those events and people. But the modern skeptical voice in my head said, “A piece of the true Cross in my parish of all places? I wonder if all the pieces of the true Cross claimed throughout Christendom were assembled into one how impossibly big that Cross might become?!” The voice of faith (again in my thoughts) countered with, “Well, if the Lord chose to multiply the wood of the true Cross as He once did the loaves and the fish, why shouldn’t He do so for the benefit of the faithful?” I’m grateful the Orthodox Church preserves the childlike trust in the reality of its relics and holy places. It has enabled me to perceive that indeed we do live in a one-storey universe where God is wholly present and leaves abundant evidence of the same. This has restored my sense of personal and spiritual wholeness. The Reality of Christ’s Presence in the Liturgy and the Eucharist is something I now experience all the time (in a very quiet and unassuming way) thanks to Orthodoxy’s preservation of the fullness of the faith. Jesus could do very few miracles in His home town where superficial familiarity with the earthly realities of His humanity (“Is this not the carpenter’s son?”) blinded those who thought they knew Him to His Divinity. Yet the gospel accounts show that where faith is present (and even when all that remains is Christ’s faith alone!) all things are possible with God–the Resurrection is the evidence. Glory be to God!

  20. Michael BAuman Says:

    On the subject of communicating with our culture I keep coming back to icons. In our world where we are becoming post-literate, icons may be the only way to communicate with folks.

    We have many of our own people who do not take the time to understand the words of the Divine Liturgy unless they are in the current newspeak vernacular.

  21. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    THANK YOU for the responses, Fr. Stephen and Damaris.

    Heaven has no opposite…that’s jaw-droppingly, mind-bogglingly glorious.

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