May 3, 2011

St. John Chrysostom's Homily On the Cemetery and the Cross (Excerpts)

On Tuesday of St. Thomas week we remember those Orthodox Christians from all ages who have died in faith, and in the hope of resurrection. In the Slavic Churches this day is known as Radonitsa.

One remarkable sermon that has yet to be translated into the English language is a homily by St. John Chrysostom which bears the curious name, "On the Cemetery's Name and the Cross." The actual title of the sermon could be something like, "Why A Cemetery Is Named Thus." This homily is traditionally read during the services for the Tuesday of St. Thomas because it was originally delivered on this day. In this particular homily, Saint John explains why the place where we bury our brothers and sisters who have reposed is called a cemetery, a place of sleep, a dormitory, (koimĂȘtĂȘrion in Greek), and not as it was formerly, a necropolis, that is, a city of the dead, or a graveyard.

Below are a few excerpts from this homily of St. John:

- "For what cause did our fathers, leaving their houses of prayer in the city, establish the practice of assembling outside the city on this day and in this very place? In as much as here rests a multitude of the departed, today Jesus Christ went down to the dead; thus we also gather here. Why, this very place is called a place of sleep (cemetery), that you might know that they [who] have died and lie here have not died, but rest and sleep."

- "I will tell you something even more remarkable. Learn now [how Christ triumphed over the devil] and you will be even more amazed, for using the very weapons that the devil used to conquer us, Christ vanquished him! Once He seized his weapons, He triumphed over him, and listen now to how He did it: A virgin, wood, and death were the symbols of our defeat. The virgin was Eve, for she knew not man. The wood was the tree [in Paradise], and death was Adam's epitimion [penance]. But behold, a virgin, wood and death ― the symbols of our defeat ― became the symbols of our victory. For instead of Eve, we have Mary; instead of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we have the tree of the Cross; instead of Adam's death, we have Christ's death. Do you see how the devil is vanquished by the very weapons wherewith he vanquished us? By the tree, the devil vanquished Adam; by the Cross Christ conquered the devil. That tree led to Hades, whereas the Cross led back from thence those that had been led there. And again, that tree hid the captive's nakedness, whereas the Cross revealed to all the naked Victor from on high. Adam's death condemned his descendants, whereas Christ's death raised all that had preceded Him. 'Who shall tell of the mighty acts of the Lord' [Ps. 105:2]? Out of death, to which we were subject, we became immortal. These are the accomplishments of the Cross!

Have you learned what manner of victory this was? Have you learned how the victory was won? Learn also that this achievement was painless. We did not stain our weapons with blood. We did not stand in battle array. We received no wounds. We saw not war and yet we gained the victory. The battle was the Lord's, yet the crown was ours. Since, therefore, the victory is ours, let us shout jubilantly, exactly as soldiers do, and let us all chant the hymn of victory today, praising the Master: 'Death is swallowed up in victory! O death, where is thy victory? O Hades, where is thy sting?' [I Cor. 15:54].

These things has the Cross accomplished for us! The Cross is the trophy of victory against the demons, the sword against sin, the blade wherewith Christ smote the serpent. The Cross is the goodwill of the Father, the glory of the Only-begotten Son, the joy of the Holy Spirit, the ornament of the Angels, the safeguard of the Church, the boast of the Apostle Paul, the rampart of the Saints, the light of the whole world!"

- "By His death, Christ bound the chief of robbers and the prison guard, that is, the devil and death, and transferred their treasures, that is, the entire human race, to the royal treasury. ... The King Himself came to the prisoners ... and broke the doors, crushed the bars, vanquished Hades, and stripped the prison."