Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Extracts from a talk at Essex University

14 March 1996

I have taken the subject of the Way of the Cross partly because it is an essential part of our Christian faith and partly because it is a very appropriate time for us to think of Christ and His ascent to the Cross, His gift of Himself and of His life for our salvation as we are moving gradually step by step towards the Resurrection and the final victory of God. I would like to take up a certain number of points because I am not going to do either a total survey of the problem or indeed even less a pious discourse.

In the Incarnation, when God becomes man in the Babe of Bethlehem, God delivers Himself into the power of man totally vulnerable, totally helpless, totally defenseless. He is given and He can not even resist whatever may be done to Him. At that moment it is a one-sided act of God, in a sense: in His humanity the Babe of Bethlehem cannot take upon Himself this divine act by which God delivers Himself into the power of man. What happens then? Then something very important happens. We always think with the sense of slight bewilderment, at least I do, you may be wiser but I do, about the event of the Jordan and the Baptism of Christ.

We may say to ourselves, Why does Christ come to John? Why does He say that all must be fulfilled in His baptism? What is the point of His being baptised? We can understand very well what happened to the Jews or others who came to be baptised of John: they proclaimed their sinfulness, they confessed their sins, they renounced their sins, and then as an act of symbolic cleansing they plunged themselves into the water of Jordan that to them was an image of being washed clean, and come out into newness of life. But what about Christ? We know of Christ that He was sinless. Why did He need go into these waters of Jordan? I got the answer many years ago from a Presbyterian pastor of France. He was the minister of a small village which to me has got as though a prophetic name - the place was Dieu-le-Fоt which in French means “God has made it”, and there was this man - a very simple ordinary minister with whom we discussed that. And he said, “Don’t you realise what happened? All these people came to Jordan with all their sins in their flesh, in their soul, in their mind, in their will, in their hearts. They proclaimed their rejection of all they had been, and John said to them, ‘Merge into these waters, wash yourself clean, let all the filth of your sinfulness be washed into the waters, and you will come out clean.” And to use the imagery of so many Russian and, I think, other folk stories, these waters became heavy with sin, heavy with mortality, heavy with evil, which these people washed away but which stayed in these waters. And when Christ came, said this pastor to me, what happened is that He merged Himself into these waters of death heavy with the mortality and the damnation of all these people, heavy with the sins of all these people, in the way in which we can plunge into dye a clean sheet of wool: we plunge it white, it emerges out of it coloured with the dye. And Christ merging into these waters of death comes out of them carrying the mortality and all the consequences of the sin of mankind. He is ready to die, because, to use the words of St. Maxim the Confessor, even in His humanity before that He was immortal because a human body, a human being can not be submitted to death when it is pervaded, filled with divinity which is life itself. Here is the death of mankind that He assumes upon Himself and this happens when He reaches full human maturity, at thirty years of age He is ready to make this decision, not as God but as man because in Christ the two natures coincide. His humanity is true and real as much as His divinity is true and real. And this is the moment when He starts as of His own choice the Way of the Cross.

I will not mention the temptations in the desert when He rejects all the attempts which the power of evil makes to conquer Him at that moment on a threshold of the Way of the Cross. He rejects to prove His divinity by working a miracle, to prove His divinity by casting Himself down from the pinnacle, and He refused to renounce His divinity for the sake of power by worshipping Satan. Later another temptation will come upon Him. Here He is tempted, as it were, by power. He has come out of Jordan and the Spirit of God has descended upon Him, filled His humanity, now He feels, all things are possible unto Me. But later will come a moment when on the way from Caesarea Philippi another temptation will come. He speaks with His disciples of His coming crucifixion, death, and Peter says, “Don’t allow that to happen to You. Have mercy on Yourself.” And Christ answers him exactly in the words He used for Satan, “Get away, Satan, thou thinks of things which are human but of the things divine.”

And so there He begins his Way of the Cross, His ministry. And where does it culminate? It culminates in Jerusalem and on Golgotha. And what happens there? What happens there is that Christ finds Himself ultimately at one with fallen mankind that needs salvation. As St. Athanasius the Great says, “What He has not taken upon Himself He has not saved.” So He takes all that is the predicament of mankind, not only the ordinary things like hunger and thirst, and tiredness, and rejection, and being misunderstood, and being betrayed by Judas, and being renounced by Peter, and so on. No, the ultimate tragedy of mankind is not even death, it is the loss of God, which is death, because God is the only ultimate and eternal source of eternal life. And so He takes upon Himself all that is man in total solidarity with us, and He stands before God saying, “I am one of them.” But at the same time He stands before men and saying, “I stand for God, for all that is God’s, for God’s truth, for God’s ways, for all that God stands for.” And the result is that He is rejected by man. He dies, as an Anglican hymn has it, on the little hill outside the walls. He can not die in the midst of the city of man, He is an alien to the city of men because the city of men does not wish to become the city of God at the cost of the message, which Christ has brought - love unto death, sacrificial, total gift of self.

And on the other hand, He dies as a man with all the consequences of His solidarity with man. He is crucified as a criminal. And there is a moment when in order to die and indeed in order through His death to participate in everything, which is the tragedy of man, and assume it and conquer it He must experience within His humanity what everyone of us knows more or less - the loss of God. He could not die otherwise. And His words, “My God, My God why hast Thou forsaken Me?” are probably the most tragic words, which the world has heard, which mankind has brought to God because it is the One who was at one with God from whom God retires for Him to experience what it means to be without and to die of this loss of God.

And this has got an immense importance for us not only in Christian terms as we use them always but in another way. So often, going to Russia, meeting there atheists that are of quite different stamp than the vague atheism one meets in the West - people who have never met God, who have no notion of God, for whom God doesn’t exist, I have felt an agony about them: what about them? And then the thought came to me that when Christ died God-less on the cross, He plumbed the depth of Godlessness as not one atheist has ever experienced or known it, and even an atheist is not outside of the mystery of the saving God in Christ. This is something which to me is the Way of the Cross.

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