September 10, 2023

Homily for the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Honorable and Life-Giving Cross (Theophanes Kerameus)

 By Theophanes Kerameus (+ 1152)

Come today, O God-loving assembly, let us celebrate the forefeast of the elevation of the life-giving Cross. The divinely-sweet voice of the Gospel echoes in my hearing, which addresses the mystery of the crucifixion, setting as an example the bronze serpent that the Israelites had hung on the wooden staff. And for me the readings become precursors and foretellings of the veneration of the Cross. So let us carefully turn our gaze to the all-illumined words of the Gospel using them as a projection of the royal scepter.

The Lord said: "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven." It is good that He said that. Indeed, this Gospel passage, looking to the purpose of the day, suppressed what had preceded it. So when that disciple of the night came to the Lord - you surely understand that I mean the Pharisee Nikodemos - and the Savior taught him about the "born from above", he, because his mind was still possessed by Jewish thickness, automatically came to thoughts of the womb imagining carnal birth. So when the Lord saw him not following Him at the height of this doctrine, He said to him: "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven;" as if to say: You, Nikodemos, are not amenable to heavenly mystagogy and are trying to find some human explanation; but "no one has ascended to heaven" to introduce these things there, or "came down from heaven", except He who came down from heaven and teaches these things there, "the Son of Man who is in heaven".

But one might say, since, when He said these things, He had not yet departed to heaven with the assumed nature, as He did after His resurrection from the world of the dead, which prevented the God-bearing Magdalene from touching Him, and sending her to the Apostles, He said to her "I have not yet ascended to My Father", how then does He say here that no one has ascended to heaven, except He Himself who came down from heaven to earth? Here He manifests the doctrine of the unutterable union of the Word of God with us, that the two natures were unmistakably united in one hypostasis. Therefore, when you hear "no one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven", it means the Divinity of the Word; that is why He added "who is in heaven". It is truly naive here to mean the flesh, that He was also in heaven while conversing with Nikodemos, at that moment having three dimensions and was confined to one place. While the unquestionably godly thing is to believe that here we are talking about the supreme Deity, who is completely within everything and above everything. Rather the "I have not yet ascended to My Father" which was said to rebuke the Myrrhbearer, indicated the physical ascent. Then he foretells about the Passion and the Cross. That is to say: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up". It is, I think, clear to most people the story He is talking about here, but in order to make the image more understandable for us, I will briefly try to interpret it powerfully and in a few words.

When the people of Israel were led by Moses through the desert, because their servile pleasure excited the desire of gluttony, and they dreamily fantasized about the Egyptian satiety like naughty youths, they were disciplined with more severe plagues; they were attacked by serpents creeping into the camp, which poured deadly poison to those they wounded with their teeth. And as Moses saw them succumbing one after another to the wounds of the beasts, following divine advice he made a bronze statue of a snake and thus neutralized the power of the real snakes. And after hanging the bronze serpent on a high place for all to see, he stopped the annihilation of the people by these beasts. Indeed, whoever beheld the image of the serpent, by some secret reaction the sight of the serpent neutralized the poison.

That the brazen serpent was a type of Christ Himself is clearly declared in the Gospel, and let the lovers of Christ not be disturbed by the association of the mystery with this repulsive animal. Even if the father of sin was called by Holy Scripture a snake, and that which was born from the snake, namely sin, is certainly a snake, synonymous with that which gave birth to it. And in fact the Apostle testifies that the Lord became sin for our sake, after taking on our sinful nature: "Him who knew no sin" he says "to be sin for us". The enigma is thus adapted by analogy to the Lord. Indeed, because the vile serpents were scattered creeping throughout the human race and killed our nature with the wounds of sin, for this reason God takes the image of sin, "in the image of sinful flesh," as Paul says, " being born," and thus man is freed from sin through Him who took the form of sin and came to us who had been given over to the serpent; by Him the death caused by the wounds is prevented, and the snakes perish with the Passion of the Cross. And the death that comes from the serpents has been abolished, that is, impiety, but the wounds have not stopped. For the desire that is in the flesh against the spirit has not entirely disappeared; and the wounds of desire are often inflicted on the virtuous. But he who looks to Him who was raised on the tree, repels passion and neutralizes the poison with the fear of God as with some medicine. For someone to look towards the Cross is this: to become in his whole life as one who is dead to the world and crucified, to remain motionless towards every sin and fix his carnal mind on the fear of God, according to the Psalmist. Temperance must be the rule that will bind the flesh.

That the snake is a symbol of the mystery of the Cross is also shown by another story. When Moses was sent by God to bring out Israel who were in bondage to the Egyptians, he said to God: "What if they do not believe me, do not listen to my voice, what am I to them?" And God said to him: "What is that in your hand?" He answered: "A staff." And He said: "Throw it on the ground." And he cast it down, and it became a serpent. And the Lord said to Moses: "Stretch out your hand and take hold of the the tail. And it became a staff in his hand." Observe just here, that He who is truly by nature the Son of God is like some staff of the Father; for the staff is a sign of kingship and power. And indeed David says: "Your staff of righteousness is the staff of your kingdom". But when He cast it down with the incarnation and surrounded it with an earthly body, then He took the form of our wickedness. A symbol of wickedness is the snake. And as the staff of Moses, when it was made into a beast, devoured the staffs with which the Egyptian magicians worked their charms, and then again, when he took it again into his hands, it became what it was before, so also the staff of God the Father, which is the Son, by whom He rules over all things, He was made in our likeness for the purpose of destroying the spiritual serpents, so that the demons would no longer be the gods of the nations. Therefore, when He had completed the economy, He returned to heaven as in the hand of the Father and became again the staff of righteousness and royalty; and He has sat at the right hand of His begetter, even in the flesh.

There is also another way the snake represented the Savior; just as he appeared to be a snake, but in reality he was not, so also the Lord "committed no sin"; and it was not just that the One who is good by nature should experience evil. But to the corrupt He appeared to be a sinner; indeed, to the blind man who was healed, they said: "Give glory to God; this man is a sinner." But both a glutton and a drunkard they called Him with their gaping mouths.

And in another way the Savior is likened to the serpent: for the serpent has not only deadly poison, but also a special medicine which neutralizes the deadly poison. That is why doctors from the flesh of snakes make an antidote for those who have been bitten by snakes. So also the Word of God fashioned from Adam's mortal nature His body, which abolished death. Gregory the Theologian even says that the serpent must be taken not as a type of the Lord, but as a copy; that is, he says "the brazen serpent is suspended against the biting snakes, not as a type of the One who suffered for us, but as a copy; because the bronze snake, by neutralizing the poison of its kind, saved the afflicted people; and our Savior, when He was suspended on the Cross, destroyed the power of foreign demons, and saved the people familiar and similar to Him". So the holy father reasonably says that it is perceived as a copy. And according to the most wise Maximus, the hanging serpent was a symbol of death, of which the serpent had become a consul. And the banner on which it was raised represented the Cross, while the sight of those wounded by snakes towards it is the confession of believers. Therefore, whoever confesses the death of Christ in a divinely-proper manner, has eternal life.

"So shall the Son of man be lifted up." The "Son of man be lifted up" has a double meaning; on the one hand, His fixation on a high tree, which He accepted for our sake; because He had to, since the earth was sanctified by His unholy feet with his walking and the sea with His walking on the waves, thus may the air also be sanctified by His elevation to the Cross; on the other hand, He declares the glory with which He was humanly glorified through the Cross. For while it appeared that He was condemned, with it He condemns the devil, the ruler of the world, since He proved to be superior to the passions to which man had been enslaved, that is, sorrow and pleasure. Of these, He overcame pleasure on the mountain, because He neither changed the stones into bread, nor was He persuaded by the other counsels of the tempter; and He appeared superior to sorrow, especially during the time of the Passion, when the adversary incited them all against Him. A disciple was a traitor, the disciples were runaways, Peter was a denier, there were knives and torches and swords, punching in th jaw, wounded backs, false witnesses, ungodly criteria, inhuman decisions, soldiers who amused themselves after the sad decision with taunts and mockings and insults and blows, with the reed, nails, gall and vinegar and finally the Cross. So what was the defense against the perpetrators? "Father, forgive them, for know not what they do." Thus, having conquered sorrow with longsuffering, He overcomes the adversary, showing us the way of victory against him. For by abstinence from pleasures and by meekness towards those who trouble us and longsuffering, we become imitators of the Master and we gain for the victory against the evil one the prize of the Kingdom of Heaven; may we all achieve this by the grace of the superluminous Trinity, "to Whom belongs all glory unto the ages of ages". Amen.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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