On this Sunday before the Cross, we are reminded of the crucifixion. We are reminded of the true scope and purpose of the crucifixion in the arena of this world. This passage, or at least part of it, John 3:16, is well known thanks to the efforts of some groups of Christians who recognize it as a summary of the work of Christ. But as we hear today, this one verse does not stand alone but fits into a context that illumines and explains the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross.
“No one has ascended into heaven but he who has descended.” This play on words seems, at first hearing to be a bit obscure and difficult to understand – but it is no less than the declaration of the divinity of Jesus Christ. In order for Him to ascend into heaven He must have first descended from heaven. Only God originates in Heaven and thus for Jesus to have descended from heaven, He must be “true God of true God”. He descended to this world by His incarnation, was born in a miraculous manner of a Virgin, and assumed every aspect of our life, including death, that in the end He might again ascend into heaven and take us with Him. This simple statement then sets the stage for Who it is we are talking about. This is not just some superman or demigod (as the Arians would have it) nor is this an angel or other creature – but this is God Himself Who had descended from Heaven and Who having assumed flesh will ascend again, taking with Himself those of us in the flesh who embrace Him.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…” And here we are reminded that Jesus Christ has come to fulfill all of the law and the prophets. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so Jesus Christ is lifted up. When the Hebrew people were wandering in the wilderness leaving behind Egypt and traveling to the promised land, they were attacked by a horde of venomous snakes. Many were bitten and fell sick and even died from the venom of these snakes. God instructed Moses to make a brass serpent and lift it up on a pole so that those who were bitten could lift up their eyes and look upon this brass serpent and so be healed. This Old Testament miracle, just like the miracles of the Gospel, serves to teach us about our spiritual lives. The serpents that afflicted the people in the desert are the same as our own passions which war against us. We are “bitten” by our passions and so fall sick and some even die due to the venom of sin that affects us when we fall under the power of our passions. The healing from the effects of the passions is beyond us and so we must look to the One Who is without that venom – to the One Who is without sin. In looking to the God/man Jesus Christ and placing our hope and faith in Him, we are delivered from the deadly effects of our sins and are healed from the bite of the serpent. Just as the brass serpent was lifted up for the healing of the people in the wilderness – so is the Son of Man, that is Jesus Christ, lifted up on the Cross for our healing.
When Jesus began His teaching, showing Himself as God to the world, teaching the apostles (and through them teaching us) the path of salvation and the way into the Kingdom of God, at first He was tempted by the evil one. At that time, on the Mount of Temptation, Jesus rejected the temptations of the devil which were linked to the passions of pride and love of pleasure. But the devil does not just go away when we reject him once, but continues to tempt us in various ways and with various passions. In causing Jesus to be lifted up upon the Cross the devil was tempting Him, this time with the passions of grief and anger. But again Jesus rebuffed the tempter and rather than despair and turn in anger towards those who had tortured Him and would kill Him, Jesus forgave them. The temptation of the Cross which had been meant as the means of Jesus’ defeat was instead conquered by Christ and became not the means of defeat, but the means and symbol of His victory – the victory over sin, death and the devil which He in turn bestows upon those who believe and put their hope in Him.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that those who believe on Him should have eternal life.” This is the crown on the previous two verses which remind us Who Jesus Christ is (i.e. the incarnate God) and what He came to do (to fulfill the law and the prophets, to ascend the cross and so defeat sin, death and the devil and open the way for us to enter into the Kingdom of God) The reason that God became man and dwelt among us and assumed our flesh as His own; and the reason that He then ascended the Cross and suffered death for our salvation; is summed up here for us. God loves us – that is the reason for all that has gone before. God loves us to such a degree that He Himself descended from heaven and came into the world. He Himself was afflicted with our passions and being without sin Himself took on the venom of our sins that we might be healed. He Himself suffered death on the Cross and by doing so destroyed death making the Cross the symbol of our victory that He won for us and making the Cross the key that opens the path to the Kingdom of Heaven.
“God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but that through Him the world might be saved.” We know that any encounter with God is a small judgment. Whenever we enter into His presence, whenever we see His hand in our lives, we are made aware of our own sinfulness and our own unworthiness before Him. And so in order for Him Who is All-Holy to come into the world and not immediately bring judgment required a great measure of gentleness and meekness. He had to become like us so that we could approach Him without fear. He had to lower Himself and assume our flesh so that He could then walk the path of life with us and show us how to avoid the pitfalls of sin and how to be healed of those times when we did fall. He joined Himself to us, even though we were still sinners, and assuming our sins, He pulled the poison of sin from us that we might be healed. He joined Himself to us that we might join ourselves to Him. Having joined ourselves to Himself, then, when He ascends to heaven, He takes us with Himself so that we might live in His eternal presence.
The Gospels tell us that God is love. They also tell us that God is an all-consuming fire. Thus to experience God’s love is to be in the midst of an all-consuming fire. See how gentle is the coming of God to us in His incarnation. He has set aside His nature as an all-consuming fire, and taken instead our nature as His own so that we might approach Him and be joined to Him. The only way that we can survive the encounter with the all-consuming fire of God’s love is if we have ourselves taken on the same nature as the fire. By joining Himself to us that we might be joined to Him, Jesus Christ has made this possible. By becoming man like us, He has made it possible that we might become like Him. Thus when we enter the fire of His love, we are not consumed but as the bush of old burned and was not consumed so we also have become like the fire Himself and so burn but are not burnt. How great is love of God, but also how great is His gentleness, His meekness and His compassion.
Because of His great love for us, so that we might approach Him, He descended from Heaven and became like us, taking on our flesh. And finding us filled with the venom of sin, He was lifted up on the Cross that we might be healed and delivered from that venom. Defeating sin, death and devil through the Cross He has turned our mourning into dancing and that which was meant for our defeat has become the symbol of our victory. He has joined Himself to us and so opened the way into the Kingdom of Heaven so that we who join ourselves to Him might in turn ascend with Him into Heaven. Therefore, this is the great love of God for us; He has given us the Cross, the key which opens the way to the kingdom of God, that we might not perish, but have eternal life and live with Him in His love throughout eternity.
This morning, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Right-believing Prince Peter and Princess Febronia of Murom and ask their intercessions as an example of pious marriage and intercessors for married life. This year, their feast coincides with the gospel lesson of the Lord’s parable of the marriage feast. We ought, then, to consider what marriage is in the life of the Christian.
In his epistle to the Ephesians, the Holy Apostle Paul writes: “For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bone. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:29-32) In these words, we see that marriage is far more than a contract or arrangement between two people, it is a joining of two people into one flesh so that each of them might begin to learn perfect love.
Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop in the third century, whose memory we also celebrate on this day, wrote that "God is one, and Christ is one, and His Church is one, and the faith is one, and the people is joined into a substantial unity of body by the cement of concord." The unity accomplished in marriage comes from the perfect unity of the All Holy Trinity. Husbands and wives are one, not because they choose to live together, or share possessions with one another, or act in concert with one another. They are one because God has joined them together. God who is one, Christ who is One, the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church joins two people together. The unity does not depend on them for perfection, the perfection comes from God. But if they want to benefit from this union, if they wish to be saved by this perfect union, they must live in cooperation with the grace given to them. Wives must submit to their husbands, and husbands must love their wives as Christ loves the Church.
Saint Peter, prince of Murom was afflicted with incurable sores and ulcers all over his body which brought him to the brink of death. Hearing that Saint Febronia had said that he could be healed, Saint Peter sent a servant to her saying: “Tell me, maiden, who is the man who can cure me? Let him cure me, and he will receive a large part of my wealth. But Saint Febronia responded: “I am the physician who is able to cure your prince, but I do not desire any part of his wealth. However, If I do not become his wife, I shall have no reason to cure him.” Despite the fact that Saint Febronia was from a very poor family, she did not desire riches in return for healing the Prince. One might think that she wanted to marry the prince because she would then have access to all his wealth, but this was not the truth. The marriage was so that she might love her husband as her own flesh, that she might nourish it and cherish it as her own, and as Christ does for the Church. And indeed while we might not be the source of miraculous physical healing for our spouses, we are called to be sources of healing for each other. We are called through our love for one another to bring each other along the path of salvation.
On this path to salvation, comfort, material possessions, or financial security can be a detriment to our marriages. Saint Cyprian calls these things “gilded torments” to which we are often enslaved. Marriages don’t fail because of financial problems, people forsake their marriages because they are more concerned with money than with the salvation of their family. If we are enslaved to money, to financial security, to houses, cars, and retirement plans we will grow lax about our spiritual lives and the spiritual health of our marriage and family. If however, we seek the Kingdom of God together we will be provided for in this life, and will have even greater riches in the Kingdom to come. When the boyars of Murom and their wives wanted to be rid of Saint Febronia they offered her whatever she wanted to leave her husband, but she would not do so, and Saint Peter, rather than setting aside his wife in order to keep his status and position, willingly went with her into exile.
Marriage is not intended for comfort, for fulfillment or desires or happiness. If we believe these things, and then don’t find them in our marriage, we will be more tempted to seek these things outside of our marriage. When Saints Peter and Febronia were being taken away from the city of Murom by boat, one of the passengers of the boat whose wife was with him, looked on her with lust in his heart. Perceiving this, she asked him to drink from the water of the river, first from one side, and then from the other. She asked him if one side tasted better than the other. When he said that they tasted the same, she told him that it is the same with women. Why seek another woman when you have already been joined to a wife? If the perfection of marriage is not our own doing, but exists in marriage by the grace of God, the fulfillment that we seek outside of marriage is not toward salvation and will not really grant us lasting fulfillment, joy, or comfort.
Unfortunately, we are sinners living in a fallen world, and we often find that we bring pain and suffering to one another. Marriages are constantly under attack from the evil one. So what can be done when there is infidelity, fighting and arguing, or when one spouse doesn’t seek to cooperate with the grace of marriage? The world will tell us that it should end, that two people who have become one should be torn apart. Such a remedy applied to the wounds or illnesses of an infirmed person would be regarded as extreme and only a last resort. But it also does us no good to simply apply a bandage over a severe wound. We must instead cut open the wound and treat the wound. We may need to make deep cuts, even into the good tissue in order to remove the diseased portions of the wound so that they can’t become infected and fester. We must also continue to tend to the wound over time, changing the bandages and applying new medicine when needed so that the wound can heal. A marriage requires this constant tending to, it requires proper medicine, and careful attention in order to bring us to the perfect health of salvation. But we must be willing to suffer not just from our spouse, but for them. We must be willing to do what is best for the other even if it is not what we might want for ourselves. For some marriage is generally happy and joyful, for others there are many trials and tribulations, but the end we seek is the same -- salvation from our sins and passions, and enjoyment of the heavenly Kingdom.
We are all called to a wedding feast, a Heavenly Banquet hosted by God. Those of us in the Church are ones who have responded by coming to the wedding feast. In Baptism we are given a festal robe to wear to the Feast. As we live out our lives in the Church, we are called to constantly renew our festal robe where we have soiled it or torn it, so that when the Bridegroom comes He does not find us dressed in rags and cast us out of the banquet. For those who have been joined to another in the great mystery of marriage, there is much to be done to keep this garment pure and undefiled, but there is also great grace to be found in marriage which enables us to undertake such tasks profitably.
For those who are not married, pray for those of us who are. Even strong marriages are made stronger by your prayers. And by prayer even damaged and wounded marriages can be made well again. But for those unmarried, remember that marriage is a means for achieving the goals of the Christian life to which we are all called. Even without marriage we are called to love God, our neighbors, and our enemies with godly love. We are all called to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times. We are called to the humility that puts others before ourselves. We are called to obedience to those in authority over us. We are called to set aside the comforts, possessions, and worldly attachments that keep us from seeking the Kingdom above all else. And there is grace in the Church for all these things. The love and sacrifice in Christian marriage, especially a marriage like that of Saints Peter and Febronia, can be an inspiration to any of us seeking to take seriously the care of our wedding garments as we await the coming of the Bridegroom.
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