This homily was preached on Friday afternoon, April 18, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.
Immediately after this homily, Fr. Michael and the congregation commemorated the Stations of the Cross.
Today is the oddly named day, “Good Friday” – good for us, a bit of a downer for our Lord. Today, all the Church’s vision turns to the Cross. Last night we commemorated the Last Supper and all that goes with it, the Institution of the Eucharist. Tomorrow night will be the Vigil, in which we see how the Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in Christ. But today we focus on one thing, and one thing only, and that is the Cross – and Jesus’ death on that Cross.
The Stations of the Cross probably – I don’t know that it’s been documented very well – is probably one of the oldest traditions of the Church. The first couple of centuries, Christians weren’t particularly interested in history, because they assumed on their reading of Scripture that the Lord was gonna come back, and judgment would happen, and they would be in Paradise and in Heaven. And of course that didn’t happen on their timetable.
And so by the third century, especially after Constantine – the Roman Emperor who tolerated Christianity, and then joined it later on – had a mother who was much more gung-ho. And Helena, whose own background was kind of mixed, really converted. And having an Emperor for a son, she apparently had a fairly large travel budget, and she went everywhere she could go.
And so she went to Jerusalem and began trying to find the sites that are mentioned in the Bible and in tradition about Jesus’ experiences, and where things happened. And it is to her, of course, that the finding of the actual Cross, and actual site of Golgotha, are attributed. And given the fact that this was a living memory, people passed it down – and it hadn’t been that long since our Lord’s death – they probably got it right, I would assume.
Had there been tourist agents, then they would have gone nuts booking tours, because Christians began flocking to the Holy Land to such an extent that St. Eusebius – who was a bit of a grump anyway – complained that they were ruining the place. You know, you go there, and there’s nothing but tourists. You know, it’s become one big tourist trap. And it is even to this day, frankly. If you’ve ever been there, there’s a lot of people there with cameras, and you know, Japanese tourists there with three cameras, and . . . you don’t know how many of them are there for piety’s sake. But during Lent and Holy Week you do.
And it’s almost like what happened when Jesus went in for his Passover. It was the hope of every faithful Jew, to spend at least one Passover in Jerusalem. And it’s estimated that the population of Jerusalem might have swelled to something like 100,000 to 200,000 people. Now, Jerusalem is a small town by our standards, maybe the population of Eldorado and Harrisburg combined . . . it was not a big place.
And what the Sanhedrin would do – the Sanhedrin was both religious council and city council – they would . . . pass legislation that would, for Passover, extend the boundaries of Jerusalem out about 10 miles. That included Bethany, by the way. So when Jesus stops to be with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, technically he is keeping Passover in Jerusalem. And he would just go in, come back, go in, come back, until the time to be at rest. So that way everybody could keep Passover in Jerusalem, and everybody was happy.
Well, then of course the Christians started to come. There went the neighborhood! They came up, looking for all kinds of places and things, and eventually pretty much nailed down where everything was that is mentioned in the Gospels, and also within the traditions that developed afterwards.
And that became a fairly normal thing to go from place, to place, to place, not necessarily with cameras, but with Bibles, and with prayer beads. And this was a religious pilgrimage, not a tour. And they would pray, from place, to place, to place. And there are even accounts by the 4th or 5th century, of people spending all night on Golgotha, or in the Garden in Gethsemane, to share that with the Lord.
Now, it is important to remember that when we do something like Holy Week, where every day we hear something different about what happened, and we really get cranked up on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, we are not doing these services so we can pretend we are with Jesus. We are with Jesus – and it’s not like we are watching a movie; we are not extras in a film – because God is completely outside of time. God created time, but he himself is not bound by time. For him, there is no tomorrow. For him, there is no yesterday. In God’s life, and eyes, and existence, it’s all now.
When he looks at human history, he sees all of human history in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, in a nanosecond. He sees it and understands it all.
So we are with him, because for him, the Last Supper is still going on. The cross is still going on. The empty tomb, the Resurrection, are still going on. For him, these are present realities. And since the Church – his body – transcends both time and space, we are outside of time as well. And therefore we are experiencing this now, just as God did – just as Jesus did.
It’s important, I think, to remember that, because sometimes we can get so wrapped up in the pageantry and the presentation, that we forget that – that it’s not a play we are watching – that we are there, we are in the crowd, we are shouting, “Give us Barabbas. Crucify Him!” We are doing everything those people are doing, because we are with them.
And so eventually a whole service develops, which gets called “The Stations of the Cross”. And if you go to Jerusalem even today, Israeli soldiers are out in the forest to protect the crowds that will wander through Jerusalem carrying a cross, usually accompanied by monks – the Franciscans are really big about this. But you have all kinds: you got Roman Catholics, you got Orthodox, you got Anglicans (because there is an Anglican presence in Jerusalem), and you probably got Moslems. Remember the Moslems regard Jesus as the greatest prophet next to Mohammed. They accept the virginal conception. They commemorate some of the same saints we do. They commemorate Elijah. They commemorate George. They commemorate Moses.
And then they go to our monasteries and pray. So you’ve got this entire mixture which goes from site, to site, to site, praying and trying to experience that with our Lord.
So when somebody says to you, “Hey, why do you do that? This is some kind of Roman Catholic devotion,” just smile sweetly and realize they are idiots. You know, this has been going on since probably the late 300s, in some form or another. And all Christians in Jerusalem have taken part in this, and probably a few who were not. So as we go around, from icon, to icon, to icon, listen carefully to what the prayers say.
I told you last night about the service we had in Eustis last Friday, where all of the Orthodox clergy, regardless of background, regardless of rite, came to us to celebrate the Stations of the Cross. Most of them had never seen this before in their lives. And I was deeply moved when an old Greek priest spoke, not just through accent but tears, as he read the prayer at the station where Christ dies on the Cross. It’s all one experience, it’s all one salvation, regardless of what our individual personal backgrounds are. Some of us may work in mines, some of us may fly around the country talking to people about God, some people get retired, but it’s all one God and one salvation and one experience, that makes us as close to each other as we are to our families, and as close to Christ, who of course is called our “elder brother”.
When it says that he is the “firstborn of many brethren”, it mean’s he’s the oldest son in the family. He’s there naturally. We’re there by adoption. But if you’re an adopted child, you’re legally a member of the family that adopted you. So God has adopted us into his family, Christ is the older brother, and we are the younger brothers and sisters. But it’s all one family. And we share, now, with his family back then, in this present reality of Christ allowing himself to be offered on the first altar for Christians – that’s the Cross – and taking onto himself not your sin, not my sin, not your sin, but every sin that has ever been committed, every sin that is being committed, and every sin that will ever be committed, from the creation of the world to the end of created time. That’s the burden he takes on himself.
Our salvation has been won. We just need to have sense enough to embrace it, and to accept it.
This homily was preached on Friday afternoon, April 18, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser. Immediately after this homily, Fr. Michael and the congregation commemorated the Stations of the Cross.