BOASTING IS NOT SOMETHING we expect to find promoted in religious writing. We see it s very definitely something of this world, of egos and the very worldly habit of stroking them. Yet in both Old and New Testaments, believers are encouraged to specific kinds of boasting.
Several centuries before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength, or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know Me” (Jeremiah 9:23, 24). Knowing God was the greatest pride of the Israelite people, something of which they boasted before the other nations. They knew the only true God, who had revealed Himself to them.
Centuries later, the Israelites’ boast of intimacy with God had been transformed by many into pride in keeping the Law. Christ’s parable of the publican and the Pharisee demonstrates that boasting about one’s love for God can easily become a reason to glorify oneself. In that story the Pharisee seems to be thanking God: “God, I thank You…” he begins, but quickly moves to boasting of his religious observance: he is not “like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get“ (Luke 18:11, 12). Although the Pharisee seems to be talking to God, he is actually talking to himself, congratulating himself on his spirit of piety.
It is difficult to avoid the Pharisee’s boasting, when we start cataloging our acts of devotion. When we decide to go to church twice a week, for example, we may find ourselves feeling superior to those who only go once a week or less. When we commit ourselves to a Prayer Rule, we may begin to look down on those who have not done so. When we count the number of times we say the Jesus Prayer or make prostrations, we may take pride in how our proficiency at these practices has grown. There was a time, not too long ago, when such spiritual arithmetic was encouraged, particularly in the West. That is generally not the case today; nevertheless the temptation to engage in self-praise is there.
Like Jeremiah, St Paul seems to say “Let not the pious boast of their piety, but boast instead about the saving power of the cross.” It is, after all, not our acts of religious devotion that bring us life, but the gift of Christ’s life, offered for us on the cross.
St Paul was especially disturbed by those among the early Christians who were insisting on one particular Jewish practice, as if accepting the saving death of Christ was not enough. Some believers were insisting that converts needed to be circumcised according to the Law of Moses to be numbered among the Christians. Paul strenuously denied this, insisting that these Old Testament practices had lost their obligatory character because Christ’s self-offering was sufficient to unite us to God.
Boasting in the Cross
Still, boasting is not the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the cross of Christ. Some people are no doubt saddened by the thought of it, grieving at the sight of Christ suffering His passion. Some will be thankful that the Son of God offered Himself for us. But what does it mean to “boast” in the cross?
When we think of people boasting of their accomplishments, their children, or their vacations, we know that, first of all, these aspects of their lives are frequently in their thoughts and in their conversation. It may seem that they talk of nothing else. A person first boasts in his heart, then publicly for all to hear. No one can doubt how proud the boaster is of his life’s joys.
How often are our thoughts focused on the cross? Our almost incessant making of the sign of the cross suggests that the cross is often on our Church’s mind. There are other indicators as well. Every Wednesday and Friday, in the hymns appointed for the daily services, our Church “boasts” liturgically about the cross in words such as these: “The precious cross of the Savior is our unshakable wall, for all of us who put our hope in it will be saved” (Tone One Vespers).
The Church encourages us to fast on most Wednesdays and Fridays precisely because Christ was betrayed on a Wednesday and crucified on a Friday. Participating in these fasts is another opportunity to “boast” in the cross, acknowledging that Christ’s death on the cross witnesses to an unparalleled display of divine love.
The Divine Liturgy is our opportunity to be mystically present at the cross. While the deacon lifts up the holy gifts crosswise, the priest prays, “Remembering … everything that was done for our sake: the cross, the tomb… we offer You Your own…” By joining Christ in this offering we are exalting the saving power of His cross.
If these traditions are central to our personal spirituality, we would find it natural to boast about the cross in other ways as well. Publicly boasting about the cross can take many forms. The easiest is to publicly display the cross on our person or in our homes. Many people do this, however, without thinking about the meaning of the cross they are exhibiting. The cross witnesses that the death of the Son of God was a victory, not a defeat. By the cross Christ triumphed over death
Unlike certain Evangelicals, Eastern Christians are reluctant to speak publicly about the faith or even invite acquaintances to their church. One notable exception seems to be at the annual Food Festival, when church tours are often organized for Festival visitors. Those parishes which have made the church tours the highpoint of the Festival report that these opportunities for “boasting” have often been a source of new parishioners. The arrangement of our church is not haphazard; rather it has developed over the centuries as a graphic proclamation of Christ – crucified, buried, risen and living in His Body, the Church. Participating in developing a church tour (and appropriate follow-ups) is a way for any of us to boast publicly in the Christ whom we revere in our hearts.
Our Liturgy Boasts of the Cross
The cross was planted upon the place of the skull and from the everlasting spring that flowed from the side of the Savior, it brought forth immortality for us.
By Your cross, O Christ, angels and men have formed a single assembly and a single flock. Heaven and earth exult with joy – O Lord, glory to You!
Just as the enemy made Adam captive by the fruit of the tree, so You made the enemy captive by the tree of the cross and Your suffering. For this purpose You came as the second Adam to seek out the lost and bring life to the dead. O Lord, glory to You!
The cross was planted in the earth, yet it touched the heavens; not because it reached the full stature of a tree, but because on it You fulfilled all things. O Lord, glory to You!
Great is the power of Your cross, O Lord, for though it was set in one place, it acts throughout the world. It made apostles of fishermen and martyrs of the Gentiles. We beg them to intercede for our souls.