Delivered at Chapel of the Resurrection
November 26, 2018
I was 24 years old and trying to figure out who I wanted to become, and struggling through the process when I took a call and learned that my 52-year old uncle had died suddenly from a heart attack. It was hard enough to be the one to break the news to my parents, but we were extremely tense as we drove to St Paul to tell my grandparents that the oldest of their three children died suddenly. You see, they had already endured the sudden death of their youngest child in 1981; we could not imagine how they could endure this blow. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair, and we were frightened for them.
After we told them, my grandfather made the sign of the cross and said, совершилось – it is finished. He knew these words well because he chanted them when, as an Orthodox priest, he read the Gospel on Good Friday every year.
I stood there, holding back tears, and wondered at this witness. Of all the people I knew, this man had a right to protest, to declare his righteous anger, but in hearing the news – in that ripe moment when you hear something that makes you lose your balance and struggle to respond – he said, it is finished.
His response continued into the next day when he insisted that he had to preside at the Eucharist – we urged him to take the day off to mourn, and even his bishop told him to stay home, but he insisted, “no – strength comes from the Lord at the Divine Liturgy.”
I’m sharing this story with you because I got a rare glimpse that day on how the most holy word of all, the one we hear at our liturgy, as connected to both human suffering and the fundamental problem of death. And I think it is especially relevant as we prepare for Christmas, to remind hearers of the Gospel that they are called to witness, to worship a crucified Lord, one whose work performed for us includes dying in the body.
Some people have to handle more death than others – a priest at a neighboring parish wrote in his card to my grandparents that they have been given an enormously heavy cross, one that no one should have to bear. What was remarkable to me that afternoon was my grandfather’s willingness to carry that cross when he could have rejected it.
I have reflected on that episode for many years, as my own life has also been touched too often by the sting of death. When we think about formation and vocation, it is convenient to confuse a resume or a CV with a living biography, as if education, service, scholarship, and a list of accomplishments alone define the person. My grandfather’s witness helped prepare me for the rest of my life and I have come to realize that crosses simply come to us. There is no need to devote a period of time to weigh whether or not one should carry their cross, or to consult with others on how many crosses might accompany any given task or vocation – they’re going to come, whether we like them or not, and often we have no choice but to carry them, even if we delay it.
I have long been intrigued by the Mystagogical Catecheses attributed to the 4th century bishop of Jerusalem, Cyril. He depicts Baptism as the Christian’s partaking of, or fellowship in Christ’s death and resurrection. And I think that is what my grandfather was both saying and doing on that fateful day when he quoted Jesus by saying, it is finished. Not only was he acknowledging that my uncle was partaking of Christ’s death – and had entered Christ’s saving Pascha – but that he was partaking of Christ’s Pascha by bearing this enormously heavy cross, one that was given to him and my grandmother without asking for permission.
I can’t think of a more appropriate introduction to the meaning of Christmas – God sends the only-begotten Son into the world, the Word becoming flesh, to bear his cross and die. Perhaps one of the more subtle messages of Christmas given to us is that one embraces this season and responds to it by proclaiming thanks to God for the privilege of being made worthy to partake of his suffering – and therefore to understand that the unplanned and unwanted challenges, events, illnesses, and tribulations that come to us are not merely annoying interruptions of our work – they become our work, and carrying those crosses, even if they are unjust and too heavy, manifest us as true partakers of Christ’s Pascha. His Incarnation beckons us to await the resurrection and hope in his second coming – we, too, can rise to new life by receiving the invitation to finish carrying the crosses given to us.