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April 22, 2011

What the Church Teaches Us On Great Friday

By Sergei V. Bulgakov

The terrible night is recreated by the morning worship service of Great Friday. The darkness of nature, the darkness of the black rage of the Judeans who were seeking to kill the Savior, the mortal grief of the Redeemer in the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane, then the extreme degree of His humiliation already betrayed by the disciple and seized by the enemies, -- all this aggravates the horror of this night. Before the mind's eye pictures in the temple were presented one after the other and replaced by another more sorrowful, by another more awful and by another more amazing.

On the one hand, the Creator and Savior of all is seen everywhere shining with heavenly light, immensely benefited everything and everyone through all His life, Who gave sight to the blind, Who healed the sick, Who raised the dead. Even now He is the one overcoming torture to grieve not only for Himself but also for His torturers, not only from His mortal wounds but also from the moral wounds of those who mock Him.

On the other hand, everywhere He now persistently improves them, they in their Hadean rage will in every possible way wound and torment Him who created them and up to the end had done much good for them: for manna they render Him bile, for water, vinegar, for all His love for them, the cross and death.

In its various hymns, the Holy Church, piercing the very heart it has embraced with its sorrow, as if cannot collect its thoughts, quietly pays attention to one or another. Where she will not pay attention in thought, she directs attention to the sight anywhere and everywhere of new and newer occasions to the wailing, to the tears, to new sources of sorrow and suffering.

That heart is indignant with the Judeans, who so recently enthusiastically shouted: "Hosanna to the Son of David"! But now with criminal perfidy franticly cry out: "Crucify, crucify Him"! That heart shudders from the memory of the black, Hadean action of one of the elite, beloved disciples of the Savior, criminally ungrateful, who despised everything, who forgot everything and sold everything for an insignificant "thirty pieces of silver". That will rise again before the mind's eye, the Divine Sufferer Himself tormented with scourging, in the shameful, ugly robe moistened with streams of immaculate blood, His head covered with wounds in a crown of thorns, unmercifully insulted, brutally beaten and, finally, tortured to death on the cross. That the prophesies of the Old Testament righteous men and the New Testament messengers of God, who prophesied or told about His suffering are remembered and by all the power of the believing heart who suffers with Him. That vision falls in the sky and on earth as witnesses of Golgotha's oblations, and they, always quiet and to all unimpassioned, could not bear: "The sky was darkened, the foundations of the earth quaked".

By this amazing display of all that was accomplished in these hours of unprecedented and most terrible sacrilege on earth, the Holy Church completely embraces the believing soul, concentrates it and directs it to the unique contemplation of the cross of Christ, trying to lead the Christian up to that beneficial estate where the divine apostle is found, who did not wish to know anything, "except Christ and Him crucified" (see 1 Cor. 2:2).

But the one, who with the living participation of his loving heart can in his mind reach such a condition, looks to the voluntary passion of the Savior of the world, lets go of everything that distracts attention from the suffering of the Lord, fills the imagination with impure images, excites the mind with vain thoughts, or pollutes the heart with evil lusts, - who truly "descends" to the suffering of the Savior, "will be pierced and destroyed for His sake by daily pleasures".

That is why the Holy Church right at the beginning of its majestic "Office of the Holy and Saving Passion" of Christ tenderly appeals to us: "Let us offer our pure senses to Christ and as His friends let us sacrifice our lives for His sake, and let us not be weighed down with earthly cares like Judas, but let us cry in the hidden chambers of our heart: Our Father, Who art in the heavens, deliver us from the evil one".

Darkened by unclean and vain thoughts the mind cannot behold the light of the divine glory revealed in the redemption of the human race through the suffering and death of the Son of God. Embroiled with passions and impure desires the spirit is not able to assume and reflect in itself the divine image of Golgotha's Sufferer. Being fattened on carnal lusts the heart will not feel again and will not embrace the majesty of the love of the Heavenly Father, who gave His Only-begotten Son over to death for our deliverance, - will not soften with dew the grace of God and will not exhale the fragrance of tearful tender prayers, connecting our soul in one spirit with the Lord. Not having sincerely turned away all that is sinful and impure the soul becomes dead and does not live with the Lord, will not be relieved from the fetters of gloom which Satan has attached to her. That is why, in order "to descend and be crucified" with Christ, it is necessary to cleanse "our senses", to expel from our hearts, from its memory and imagination, all that is evil, unclean and sinful.

If any one has enmity with his neighbor, he should expel it from his heart for the sake of Him Who taught "Let us reproach against reproaching, let us be vigilant not threatening”, - one should forgive from the whole heart any reviling, offence and animosity for the sake of Him Who did not name the betrayer as His friend at the moment of betrayal and prayed for those who crucified Him.

If the spirit of pride, conceit, exaltation of oneself and vanity possesses anyone, he should eradicate it from his heart, humble and abase himself as a useless servant, worthy of every dishonor and humiliation for the sake of Him, Who being in essence the Lord of glory, "belittled Himself, receiving the image of a servant", "humbled Himself, being obedient even unto death, the very death on the cross", humbly underwent all humiliations, spitting, ridicule and the most shameful death with evildoers.

If one torments any one with the spirit of cupidity, covetousness or usury, then one should extract it from his heart for the sake of the Lord, Who for our salvation was born in a manger and lived, "not having a place to lay His head", and died on the cross, of Whom they crucified they were not even ashamed to deprive Him of His last chiton (robe).

If one's mouth is accustomed to be opened for idle talk and malignant gossip, condemnation and slander, for murmur and indignation, then one should block this out with silence like the One Who "like a sheep that is led to the slaughter, and like a lamb that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth (Is. 54:7)".
If one confronts any one with the spirit of voluptuousness and sensuality, if one inflames any one with the fire of fleshly lusts and passions, then one should extinguish this unclean fire in view of the One Who for our sake hungered and thirsted, partook of vinegar and gall, Who turned over His immaculate body to suffering and crucifixion, to scourging and wounds, to torture and nailing to the cross.

If any one's soul is embraced with earthly cares, excessive and vain, unnecessary and useless, then one should be released from them in order to not profane the holy days only with business but also from profanity, in order to not distract the mind and heart from holy thoughts and reverent feelings, in order to not become like Judas who could not be parted from his money chest, who only thought about purchases and sales in the midst of the Mystical Supper.

For this reason our Lord took up his voluntary passion and death to cleanse us from all sin, to Himself create for us a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a renewed people. Vainly some wish that "the cross of Christ be emptied" (1 Cor. 1:17) and think that they may "comprehend the power of His resurrection" without "sharing His sufferings" (Phil. 3:10).

If Christ alone is both the "life" and the "way" (Jn. 14, 6) to the life, then how can they achieve the "life" of Christ by not going by His "way"? Can these members be knitted together in union with the body, whose "head" is crowned with thorns (Eph. 4:15, 16)? Is it possible for members to be in repose and without care when the Head is in labor, and in both wounds and animosity; to be immersed in noisy pleasures when He is grasped by illness; to revel in the full cup of temporal pleasures when He thirsts and partakes vinegar; to be praised when He is bowed; to not want to be ill even for a minute with one's own sins and iniquities when He guards the stranger and dies? Would it be offensive to our Redeemer if we were shown to be in old impure sins before His cross and tomb, in the sackcloth of passionate lusts and everyday pleasures: if all the deeds of His unexampled love and condescension to us as poor and condemned sinners; all His suffering and ills have remained barren in us?

Let us not be the cause of new suffering for our Savior and Lord, lest for His sake, being slaughtered for our sins, we should not want to slaughter and destroy any passion possessing us. What are we doing sinning after Baptism, after everything our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us and has revealed to us? According to the words of the Holy Apostle Paul: "we crucify the Son of God on our own account a second time" (Heb. 6:4-6). A second time we change before the Lord, we deny Him, we betray Him, we condemn Him every time when, knowing His Holy will, we break it, we reject His voice which calls to repentance, we trample on our conscience and we betray it in the offering of passions and carnal lusts. A second time we crown Him with thorns when we take great interest in criminal musings, when we are charmed by proud and vain, ambitious and covetous, mad and blasphemous thoughts. A second time we nail His hands to the cross when we extend our unclean hands for bribery and extortion, for plundering and unrighteousness. A second time we give Him vinegar and gall to drink, when our shameless tongue pours forth idle and rotten words; malevolent and carping, sarcastic and reproachful speech. A second time we sneer at the crucified Lord when we scoff and sneer, when we reproach and condemn, when we scold and revile our neighbor. A second time we pierce his heart when we defile our heart with impure cravings and lusts, covetous desires, stinking and shameful sensations. A second time we wound, torture and tear open His immaculate flesh, when we are insatiably turned to carnal pleasures and lusts. In a word: a second time changes for the Lord, we deny Him, we judge Him, we crucify Him every time when knowing His Holy will, we break and reject His holy commandments, we do not listen to His voice which called us to repentance, we trample on our conscience and we betray it in the oblation of passions and lusts.

What will be our sin? What will our stony (hard) heart feel when the Omniscient will judge our secret? Of what will our evil conscience be absolved before the all-scrutinizing Judge? Truly, "then many call to the mountains and the hills, fall on us: hide us from the face of Him who is seated on the throne!” (Rev. 6:16).

But then none and nothing will hide us from His omnipresent presence if we shall not now be covered in these very wounds, which through our sins we have imposed on our Lord. From His impartial judgment none and nothing will protect us if we do not now turn ourselves to the protection of this same cross on which we crucified the Lord through our unrighteousness. Bitter crying for our sins, sorrowful destruction of our ingratitude before our Redeemer and Lord, united by firm resolve to no more go the way of iniquity, to love cleanliness of conscience and to amend our life, - here is what is more becoming to us during the holy days of the Lord's passion when we stand before His cross and tomb! On this cross of the Only-begotten the Son of God have we uplifted our sins, but on this same cross is nailed the handwriting of all our sins in the presence of the truth of God. In this tomb the Son of God has minimized the condemnation of death laying upon us, but in the same tomb death was destroyed and from it a new life was sent up to us. The cross of Christ will judge us if we remain unrepentant and insensitive, but the cross of Christ will also absolve us if we resort to Him crucified on it with faith and repentance, with tears and compunction of heart. The tomb of the Lord will judge us if we remain dead in transgressions, but this tomb will both give life to and raise us if we begin to repent and renew our life. (See details in the Complete Collection of the Sermons of Demetrius, Archbishop of Chersonese, Vol.4, pp. 383-419).

St. Ephraim the Syrian teaches: "Come, all children of the Church, bought by the precious and holy blood of the All-pure Master. Come, let us reflect on His suffering with tears and lamentations, with fear and trembling, saying to ourselves: 'Christ our Savior is given over to death on the cross for us unrighteous ones'. Think deeply on this, brother, that you now hear that the sinless God, the Son of the Most High, was betrayed for you. Open your heart, consider His suffering, and tell yourself: ‘Today the sinless God is betrayed, today He is mocked, today He is insulted, today His ears are boxed, today He bore scourging, today He carried a crown of thorns, today the Heavenly Lamb is crucified. Let my heart tremble, let my soul be terrified! Every day I should shed tears with reflection on the Master's suffering. The soul is enlightened by these delightful tears by continually reflecting on the suffering of Christ’. So reflecting always, crying daily, and thanking the Lord who endured suffering for you so that in the day of His coming your tears will have turned into praise and glorification before His judgment seat. Guard against evil, reflecting on the suffering of the Good Master. Endure temptations, thanking God from the heart for them. Blessed is the man who has the heavenly Master and His suffering before him, who has crucified himself for all of the passions and for all earthly things, and became an imitator of his Lord. Here is prudence; here is the position of God-loving servants, if they always are imitators of the Master in good deeds".

The Holy Church appeals to us in its hymns: "Come therefore, let us go with cleansed thoughts" to the Lord, "having adorned our way of life with chastity and having preserved our faith with wisdom, let us seek moral truths that we may courageously follow and be crucified with Christ", and "let us destroy the life of pleasures in us for His sake that we may be made alive in Him"; "let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement and let us pray in purity: Arise, O Lord, save us; for Thou lovest mankind".