When I was a protestant lad, one of the songs we sang on Sunday morning went like this:
“In the cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time; All the light of sacred story Gathers round its head sublime.”
St Maximus the Confessor went further. Not only does the Cross shine the light of “sacred story,” but all stories. He wrote that “the one who has known the mystery of the Cross and the Tomb, knows the essential reasons for all things ... and the one who is initiated into the mystery of the resurrection, knows the end ...” (First Century on Theology, 66).
This means that the Orthodox Christian can only see life and all reality from the place of the Cross. Trying to look at things from any other point of view will make the picture go out of focus, or even turn the lights completely off.
The Cross is the bottom line, the only way to look straight.
Don’t be afraid of this fact. You might be thinking that Maximus is recommending a depressing point of view, where the only way to be “realistic” is to be tragic or pessimistic.
Obviously, the Confessor is talking about something else entirely. St Paul held on to this truth with open arms: “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6.14).
To St Paul the Apostle, and to St Maximus the Confessor -- and really, to all the Apostles and the Fathers -- the Cross is a beautiful, not ugly, thing.
In fact, it is the thing by which all things are are shown to be truly beautiful.
Because the Cross is really a Beautiful Tree, and it has always been that way.
* * * * * *
Do you remember the Garden of Eden?
Well, you actually do, just by virtue of the fact that you can tell if something is beautiful. No, beauty is certainly not merely something “in the eye of the beholder.” There is a reality of beauty: it is not just opinion or taste.
We should know this clearly, if only in our hearts. You do not need to go to school to understand this truth. The reason why God planted the Garden of Eden was to establish, once and for all, the form of beauty in human nature.
And of course, the whole meaning of beauty is summed up and perfected in the presence of Jesus Christ, God the Word, Who visited Adam and Eve every evening in the Garden. He did so before He took on human nature and became incarnate in the womb of the Theotokos. He appeared to humanity in Paradise before the Fall so that we might get to know Him and never forget.
Because -- and you must know this -- the reason why Eden was Paradise was simply because of the Presence of Christ. Paradise is the nearness, the communion of Jesus.
But you know what happened next. There was a dangerous Tree that grew in the middle. It was called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you ate the fruit of this Tree, whatever it was, you were announcing to the universe that you had elected yourself as your own authority ... that you were going to decide what was real or important in your own opinions and feelings ... that you were going to define your own values and priorities and goals ...
... that you were going to choose your own god, and that god would be you.
So the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was really a declaration of independence ... from the real God, that is, the Holy Trinity.
The problem is that it worked. Exactly as advertised.
At the precise moment of sin, I became a lonely god. And so did you.
We became independent and left the Presence of Christ. We ate from our own little gardens of self and ego, and thus we had to leave the beautiful real Garden, and no longer walked in the evening with the God Who wanted to be our Friend.
No matter how much we try to forget that story, we can’t help but miss the Garden of Eden. The memory of our real home remains in our heart.
That is why in this life there is always a touch of sweet sadness every time we see something truly beautiful. For a moment, in a glance of sunlight on the sea, we see things as they were meant to be. In the wafting incense at Liturgy and the amber glow of candlelight, we feel the evenings, and glad fellowship, of Paradise.
And in the summer nights, when the breezes sigh through the trees like a distant waterfall, we can still hear the whisper of Eden, “come home.”
* * * * * *
Don’t you wish things could be different? I do. I don’t understand people who say “I have no regrets.” I have a lot of them. There are many things in the past I wish I could change. It is like every mistake, every wrong decision, every selfish thought and action seems to dig a hole that gets deeper and deeper, where cries of impossibility and condemnation echo in the great cavern of the smoggy darkness.
And just think. I made that cave. Maybe you did, too.
And that abyss is so deep, so hard to climb out of. It lingers in the way of you and me getting back home, back to Eden.
That ugly abyss can get very, very deep. It goes by different names. Doubt. Atheism. Grudge. Despair. Freedom to do instead of freedom to be. Alienation. Enmity. Bitterness. Did I say despair? Cold forgetfulness.
The oldest son of Adam and Eve, Cain who slew Abel, built his city in this darkness, and so did everyone else.
We tied our thoughts and feelings like chains in that cavern. That is why we think we cannot remember the voice of our Friend in Eden.
So we couldn’t go back to Eden, because we made our way impossible, we were in too deep. If sin is falling, death is the hole.
* * * * * *
Someone once said, however, that “With man things are impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19.26).
So, when God the Word became Incarnate, for the sake of deifying all humanity and radiating His Light into all Creation through man, He also came to bring man back to Eden.
He brought Eden to man. He planted the Tree of Paradise -- the Tree of Life -- at the extremity of sin, death and darkness. Right where humanity was.
If you and I could not get back to Eden, Eden came to us in the shade of this Beautiful Tree. Jesus Christ, in His Passion, took every sin and failure, every selfish thought and act, the entire past of despair, resolved it all in the infinity of His love and filled the abyss with His peace. Our friend Maximus wrote that “Christ’s death upon the Cross is a judgment of judgment” (Questions to Thalassius, 48) -- that is, it is a condemnation of all condemnation.
No judgment, no condemnation, exists at all except in the psychotic mind of the devil, and in the mind of anyone else who wants to linger in the hole, like him.
That Tree, which is the Paradise and Presence of Christ, replaced the withered tree of self-deification and independence. “For me,” wrote St Hippolytus (we think), “this tree is a plant of eternal health. I feed on it; by its roots I am rooted; by its braches I spread myself; I rejoice in its dew; the rustling of its leaves invigorates me … This tree of celestial dimensions rises up from the earth to heaven, an eternal plant deeply rooted in heaven and earth, the foundation of the universe, assembling together all the diversity of humankind, fastened by invisible nails of the Spirit, so that its links with the divine power may never again be broken …” (Easter Homily, Treatise on Easter 50, as cited in Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Tradition).
Paradise is God giving Himself to you, to me, and to everyone and everything in beauty, through and on this very Tree.
It sure is a far, far better thing. I don’t want to be a lonely god anymore, and I think you are tired of that too.
So listen to the leaves. Breathe the air of Resurrection. Feel the Presence of freedom, liberation from the hole of regret.
Take a look. Everything is beautiful. Because we know in Christ what everything will become. That’s what the Cross and the Empty Tomb say.
And here, take the fruit. Eat and drink. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
It is Eden.