ONE OF THE FIRST CONTROVERSIES in which the Apostolic Church engaged concerned the continuing importance of the old Law, and in particular the need to be circumcised. Many Jewish believers or converts to Judaism wrestled with this question: did one need to be circumcised as well as to be baptized to be a member of God’s new community, the Church.
St Paul’s position, set forth in his Epistle to the Galatians, was clear. If a believer required physical marks as evidence of his faith, it was to be “the marks of the Lord Jesus” (v. 17): the imprint of the cross.
Some Christians had experienced physical torture for their faith; St Paul was one of them. But as St Paul grew in his union with Christ, he came to believe that the “marks of the Lord” applied to more than any scars of physical torture, because the Christian understanding of God and His relationship to His creation was bound up with the cross. Paul did not proclaim Christ’s submission to death simply as a historical event; nor did he see it simply as a dogma to be accepted intellectually. Acceptance of the cross as a way of life was to be the mark of the authentic Christian.
To Be Crucified to the World
In the Epistle to the Galatians St Paul uses the image of dying to the world as the mark of the cross in a believer’s life: “… the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). By this he means that the values of the world – what people prize and strive to obtain – were dead for him. We value possessions and focus on acquiring bigger and better ones. We thrive on the status and respect such possessions gain for us in the eyes of others and may be devastated when we lose them. St Paul’s witness is that attachment to these values cannot co-exist with imitation of Christ, who described them as “the deceitfulness of riches” (Mark 4:19).
In their teaching and practice, the first Christians often returned to this theme that “the world” is opposed to the way of Christ. We find the same imagery used in the First Epistle of John, for example: “For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the vainglory of
life – is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16). By the “lust of the flesh” is meant the inordinate pursuit of physical satisfaction of any kind through food, drink, exercise, or any means. By the “lust of the eyes” is meant the deep-seated pursuit of acquiring more of the world’s goods: “the most toys,” of the popular saying. “The vainglory of life” refers to the quest for titles, office and status that every society employs.
People may attach themselves to a specific parish or group of parishioners as a way to recognition in the community or even advancement in business. St Paul, on the other hand, was not cultivating his hearers for his own ends; as he wrote to the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Corinthians 2:2).
Detachment from the values of the world would later become the hallmark of monasticism. Monks and nuns embrace poverty, chastity, stability of life or obedience to a superior for the sake of the community. Some of these traits, such as simplicity of life, have been adopted by people in the world as well.
Kenosis: the Mark of the Cross
In his Epistle to the Philippians St Paul focuses on the mind of Christ, which brought Him to the cross and the tomb, as the key to our understanding of the cross. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and
coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and of those on earth and of those under the earth, and
that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
St Paul teaches that the willingness to empty oneself – kenosis in Greek – is what identifies Christ and marks us as His followers. But the way we are to empty ourselves cannot be identical to Christ’s kenosis. The Word emptied Himself of the divine glory, which was His by right, to identify with us. This led to the cross and to the exaltation of Christ as Lord. Of what are we to empty ourselves in imitation of Him? It would be our “glory,” or what we think of as our glory, which we would give up to identify with Him. As Christ became a “bondservant” for our sake, the Christian is called to become a servant of others also. This is what Christ depicted graphically when He washed His disciples’ feet at the Supper then told them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14, 15).
Our Church’s traditional disciplines are based on these teachings. By fasting we learn to distance ourselves from physical pleasures, dying to the world through abstinence from food, drink, entertainment and the rest. In almsgiving we learn to dispose of our resources rather than to hoard them. By joining others in common prayer and ascetic exercises we become servants of one another, helping others to grow in the Christian life as well. It has been said that others will believe in Christ when they see His crucifixion displayed in the lives of His followers. By practicing these traditional disciplines we show that we, like St Paul, attempt to live the cross.
As the “Holiday Season” approaches, so does the Nativity Fast, giving us an opportunity to deepen our practice of these disciplines and to explore new ways of serving others as Christ has served us. In this way we prepare for the Feast – rather than just jumping into it – by putting on the “marks of the Lord Jesus” in our hearts.
On Boasting in the Cross
“Now indeed [the cross] appears to be a reprehensible thing, but only to the world and to unbelievers. In heaven and for believers it is the highest glory. For poverty too is reprehensible, yet it is a cause of boasting to us. Many mock simplicity, but we are disciplined by it. Paul did not say, ‘I do not boast’ or ‘I do not wish to boast’ but God forbid, as though he were deprecating something absurd and calling on the aid of God to set this right. But what is this boasting in the cross? That on my behalf Christ took the form of a slave and suffered what He suffered on account of me the slave, the enemy, the ingrate” (St John Chrysostom, Homily on Galatians 6,14).