The Mystery of the Cross According to the Apostle Paul

   

The Apostle Paul’s Epistles are not just moralistic texts, but pre-eminently theological writings in which his whole ascetic life, as well as the theoria of God’s glory, can be seen. The mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ is clearly revealed. The Apostle Paul was an Apostle who beheld God, and someone who beholds God is a theologian in all his energies, behaviour and actions.

As stated above, the mystery of the Cross is the uncreated energy of God that purifies, illumines and deifies man. We shall now look at three passages from the Epistles which show how this mystery is experienced. These points are fundamental to the Apostle Paul’s teaching and enable us to interpret all his divinely-inspired doctrine.

The first passage we shall refer to speaks of the mystery and energy of the Cross, and is an extract from St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, in which he writes explicitly:

“But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:14-16).

The problem of circumcision and uncircumcision concerned the Christians of that era who had been Jews, together with the mentality of seeking a sign and, in the case of the Gentiles, looking for wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22). According to the attitudes of that time, believing in the crucified and risen Christ was offensive and foolish. Furthermore, faith in the Cross of Christ was a cause of persecution. However, for Christians united with the mystery of the Cross, which acts in the sacraments and in ecclesiastical life generally, the Cross is “a new creation”.

The twofold action of the Cross, as crucifixion of external things and as crucifixion of man’s inner state with regard to external things, makes a particular impression on the patristic interpretation.

St Nicodemus the Hagiorite uses three patristic passages to define what the Apostle Paul means by the Cross. One is from St Maximos the Confessor: “The cross is the fear of God; the remembrance of things above; dominion over the passions, particularly anger and desire; estrangement from the love of relatives and friends because of intense love for God.” Another passage comes from Abba Isaiah: “The cross is the abolition of all sin.” The third is a quotation from St Mark the Ascetic: “Every virtue is a cross.”

The whole action of the Cross, which shows how the mystery of salvation works and is called the mystery of the Cross, is also expounded by St John Chrysostom. He begins by stressing that the Apostle Paul does not use the word “world” here to mean heaven and earth, but temporal things, like praise from other people, pomp, glory, wealth, and generally every­thing that appears splendid. “To me these things are dead.” He then goes on to emphasis the second energy of the Cross as well. The first energy refers to the phrase, “the world is crucified unto me”, the second to “and I unto the world”. St John Chrysostom writes: [The Apostle Paul is] implying a double putting to death, and saying, They are dead to me, and I to them, neither can they captivate and overcome me, for they are dead once for all, nor can I desire them, for I too am dead to them. Nothing can be more blessed than this putting to death, for it is the foundation of the blessed life.” 

Putting to death, in this twofold sense and meaning of the phrase, is accomplished by the action of the mystery of the Cross and is linked with man’s regeneration and his deification by grace. It is in this sense that the Apostle Paul refers to the marks of the Lord Jesus that he bears on his body (Gal. 6:17).

We encounter this interpretative analysis by St John Chrysostom in the writings of many Fathers of the Church, but I shall refer here to the teaching of St Gregory Palamas. According to the hesychast saint, the first effect of the mystery of the Cross is flight from the world and separation from our relatives according to the flesh, though only, of course, if they are a hindrance to the life of faith. The second effect of the mystery of the Cross is when we are crucified to the world and the passions, “when they [the passions] flee from us”.

Expounding the second effect of the Cross from a more hesychastic point of view, St Gregory Palamas says that it is impossible for the passions not to act within us through thoughts unless we have attained to theoria of God. We are crucified to the world when by means of praxis we reach theoria of God and see the Kingdom of God in our inner world. When this happens warmth is produced within our heart, and this warmth stifles evil thoughts like flies, brings peace and consolation to the soul and bestows sanctification on the body. It is from this perspective that St Gregory Palamas interprets the Apostle Paul’s words, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

It is obvious that the mystery of the Cross works in us through praxis and theoria. Through praxis we distance ourselves from external factors that provoke passions, and through theoria we transform all the powers of our soul and direct them to God alone. This journey towards spiritual regeneration is not undertaken with our own abilities, but through the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son and Word of God, and the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and His Resurrection, by which sin and death, the basic causes of the world of passions and sin, were conquered.

The second passage that we shall consider comes from the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. There he writes:

“(For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.) For our conversation [citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself” (Phil. 3:18-21).

A distinction is made here between the enemies and friends of the Cross. The enemies are those who are concerned with worldly matters, whereas the friends of Christ’s Cross are those who have their citizenship in heaven. The expectation of heaven is not something abstract motivated by ideology or ascetic practice. It results from the coming of Christ, Who transforms the human body, which now consists of corruption and mortality, into an incorrupt and immortal body. This regeneration of the human body begins to take place in this life, depending on the extent and manner of a person’s deification.

The friends of the Cross start preparing now by taking part in the process by which the “old man” is crucified with his actions and desires. According to St Gregory Palamas, “Crucifying the flesh with the passions and desires means becoming inactive with regard to every­thing displeasing to God. Even if the body drags us down and exerts force, we should struggle to lift it up to the height of the Cross.”  St Gregory then goes on to analyse in detail how someone can experience the mystery of the Cross and so become a friend of the Cross of Christ. This comes about when thoughts of riches, impurity and love of praise are healed.

The mystery of the Cross is the mystery of the transforming power that leads human beings to deification. All those who of their own free will allow this mystery to work in them are friends of the Cross. On the other hand, all those who are worldly-minded and are not lifted up to the height of Cross, which means they are not transformed by God’s energy as expressed through the power of the crucified and risen Christ, are actually enemies of the Cross of Christ.

The third passage we shall mention in this analysis of the mystery of the Cross is taken from the Epistle to the Hebrews. It refers to Christ’s Passion, especially the prayer in Gethsemane. The Apostle Paul writes:

“So also Christ glorified not Himself to be made an high priest; but He that said unto Him, Thou art My Son, to day have I begotten Thee. As He saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. Who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard in that He feared; though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered; and being made perfect, He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him; called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 5:5-10).

Through the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane and His obedience to the Father unto death, even death on the Cross, Christ became a great High Priest and the cause of salvation for those who obey Him. Through His sacrifice on the Cross and His Resurrection, He was perfected, that is to say, His human nature was glorified and cast off the mortality and corruption that He had taken upon Himself through becoming man.

Christ lived the Cross in His life, not just because He was crucified, but mainly because He assumed this body subject to death and suffering, and lived without sin in all the circumstances of our lives. In this way He became an example to us.

Within the limits of his own life, the Apostle Paul experienced this whole mystery of the Cross of Christ as an energy that transformed his entire being and lifted it up to theoria of God. Before knowing Christ, he was an enemy of the crucified Christ, because, as a true Jew, he could not conceive of the Messiah as a suffering servant of God, especially a crucified servant. However, when Christ was revealed to him and in the vision he identified the crucified and risen Christ as the Messiah, the Son and Word of God, he gave himself over to repentance and weeping, and for the rest of his life he spoke about Christ crucified.

As we study the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, we can identify many passages that reveal this energy of the Cross, which acts through praxis and theoria. He himself lived repentance and had many visionary experiences of God’s glory.

In his Epistle to the Galatians he writes:

“But when it pleased God, Who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days” (Gal. 1:15-18).

We see here that Christ was revealed to the Apostle Paul, who went into the Arabian desert and later up to Jerusalem.

Commenting on this passage through his own experience, Elder Sophrony Sakharov of blessed memory writes,

“St Paul secluded himself in the Arabian desert soon after Christ’s appearance to him (cf. Gal 1:16), and there in a transport of all-consuming repentance for his past was found worthy of many mighty revelations, including the confirm­ation that Jesus Christ is God. I do not seek logical proofs here below; but in my penitential weeping that exceeded my strength, that consumed me with fire, I too was convinced [of this].” 

It is from this perspective, and through the energy of the mystery of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection, that we should interpret the Apostle Paul’s profound repentance, which accompanied him throughout his life; his continual revelational visions and experiences of God, through which he acquired participation in the uncreated grace and energy of God; and his intense and ardent quest for eschatological hope.

The mystery of Christ’s Cross consists in sharing and living the experience of deification in Christ Jesus, and man’s journey from praxis to theoria. It is not a matter of externally commemorating Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, but of living the mystery of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection.

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