St. John Maximovitch
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy
“In the midst, between two thieves, was Thy Cross found the balance-beam of
for while the one was led down to hades by the burden of his blaspheming;
the other was lightened of his sins, unto the knowledge of things divine.
O Christ our God, glory be to Thee.” *
(Hymn on the Glory of Ninth Hour for Great Lent)
This Is what is said about the Cross of the Lord. A balance of justice was found between two thieves. Pilate erected three crosses on Golgotha – two thieves and one Life-giver. But only the Cross of the Saviour provided salvation for all mankind, that Cross which stood in the center; it is a weapon of peace, an invincible victory – victory over the devil and victory over death. As for the two remaining crosses, one was soul-saving for the one who hung on it, while the other was for the second thief a ladder to hades.
Two thieves hung on crosses next to the Lord Jesus Christ; one never stopped reviling Him; the other began by reviling but then came to his senses and, becoming aware of his sins, cried out to the Lord: Remember me, O Lord, when Thou contest into Thy Kingdom! And the Lord replied, This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise! So it was that through the Cross, through suffering, the wise thief came to believe in the crucified Christ; he believed, as it is said, “to the knowledge of theology.” But when the Lord forgave him his sins, he recognized Him to be the Very Son of God; he understood that the Man hanging in disgrace and dishonor was the glorious King of Glory; he understood that He, Who at that moment appeared weak and powerless, was the Very omnipotent Creator and Ruler of the entire universe. Through repentance, through humility, the thief who hung on the right side came to understanding; the eyes of his mind, the eyes of his soul were opened. Christ abased Himself more than all men, He abased Himself in order to wipe out, to annihilate the sin of Adam’s pride. So too, the thief, humbly acknowledging his sins, asked the Lord’s forgiveness, and through this the Lord appeared to him in all His glory. But that other thief, hanging on the left, constantly mocked Him; he mocked Him because he realized that he was a sinner, that he was a criminal, that he had violated the laws of both man and God, but he did not want to repent, he did not want to humble himself, and he reviled those very laws which he had transgressed; he reviled the Lawgiver Himself, Who had given the laws of nature, Who had endowed men with a conscience, according to which they write their own human laws, although they do not always agree with it; and he continued reviling Him until his soul went down to hades.
Here are two paths placed before man. Before us lies the Life-creating Cross of the Lord. The Lord said, If any man will come after Me, let him. . . take up his cross and follow Me. Follow where? At first through sufferings, just as Christ also suffered; then he will also enter with Christ into the Eternal Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ sits on His throne. There is no other path except to follow the Lord. The thief who hung on the right recognized Him to be God and, in his soul, followed after Him. He could not, of course, become miraculously transformed, and this was not necessary; he followed Christ in his soul, recognizing Him to be God Who had humbled Himself for the sake of saving mankind. The thief humbled himself likewise, acknowledged his transgressions, and went with Christ into Paradise.
Before us lie the paths of the two thieves. Which path shall we take? Mankind has always taken one or the other path. The Cross of the Lord was to the Jews a stumblingblock; to the Greeks – that is, to the pagans – it was foolishness: how could anyone bow down before an instrument of humiliation, an instrument of torture? They did not understand that by means of this instrument the Lord saved all of mankind from the dominion of the devil, from the dominion of sin, from eternal perdition.
For the Jews also, the Cross of the Lord was an offense; they wanted to see their messiah as a king of glory, as an earthly king who would exalt the Jewish race. The Cross on which Christ was crucified was for them a stumblingblock; Christ’s crucifixion was perceived as an offense, as something senseless, and yet, as the holy Apostle Paul tells us, this stumblingblock unto the Jews, this foolishness unto the Greeks is for us Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24). What for some spelled perdition, for others became a source of salvation.
The Cross of the Lord separates men into two parts. We see that some believed in Christ, while others stumbled at that stumblingstone (Rom. 9:32) and persecuted Christ’s Church, the Body of Christ, whose Head is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The Church of Christ is the Body of Christ; He Himself is its Head, and with His Divine Body and Blood He nourishes the faithful, He nourishes the children of His Church, making us one with Himself. And we should be one with Christ, bodily and spiritually. We unite ourselves with Christ in body through Divine Communion; spiritually we must also join with Him and eagerly follow His commandments.
We all sin, but some sin and repent, while others mock the laws which they violate. So it was in ancient times, when Arius and other heretics repudiated the dogmas of the Holy Church. And then the faithful often suffered. They suffered when there were impious rulers who sent them into banishment. Saint Athanasius the Great spent twenty of his forty-seven years as a hierarch in exile. And other hierarchs suffered similarly for the truth, as did many of the faithful. But within the purity of Orthodoxy they found salvation and opened the gates of eternal life, the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven. There were times when the unbelievers triumphed, when they trampled the Church of Christ; but then came their demise, and their souls were sent – not to the Kingdom of Heaven but into everlasting torments in the nethermost depths, just as Christ once sent to hades the soul of Herod and others who had sought His life.
We have before us the path of salvation, or the path of perdition. Even to some Christians the Cross proved a stumblingblock during the iconoclast period, when they began to persecute holy icons, when they began to defame other sacred objects, including the Cross of the Lord. And these were those who called themselves “right-believing,” who considered themselves to be Orthodox. The iconoclast heresy prevailed for a hundred and fifty years before it was finally eradicated.
On the day of the Triumph of Orthodoxy we celebrate Christ’s victory over iconoclasm and over all demons. The Cross of the Lord separated believers from unbelievers, those who followed the path of salvation from those who followed the path of perdition. Today’s iconoclasts – Protestants and others who reject holy icons – likewise reject the Cross of the Lord. They allow pretty pictures of various biblical events to hang in their homes, but they repudiate the veneration of icons, which remind us that salvation is attained by following a difficult path, a narrow path, such as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself followed, a path of battling one’s sins and vices, a path of fasting and prayer. Those who want to see Christianity only as something rosy and attractive, who think it possible to enter the blessedness of eternity without any particular effort, without forcing themselves, without warring with their passions – they deny all this. They follow the path taken by the thief who hung on the left: they reject all the laws which the Lord Himself delivered and which He sent the Apostles to preach throughout the world; they reject those statutes and writings which are sacredly preserved by the holy Orthodox Church.
And so, through the Cross some are being saved unto the knowledge of theology, the knowledge of eternal Truth, while others are being pulled down by the weight of blasphemy into the torments of hades. Such a broad path lies before us Orthodox, and here are temptations which separate believers if they desire to follow that path which Christ has indicated to them.
We all sin, we all transgress Christ’s commandments and the laws of the holy Church, but some acknowledge themselves to be sinners and repent of their transgressions, while others, instead, reject the very laws and do not want to submit to them; they say that these laws are out-dated, that they are no longer needed; as if we are smarter than those who gave us the Church laws, which the Lord Himself gave through His Apostles and hierarchs. Here before you are two paths: the path of the wise thief, and the path of the one who was pulled down to hades by the weight of his blasphemy.
We also have here before us eternal [iconographic] creations. Some are prepared to recognize icons if they are well executed, if they are aesthetic and pleasing to the eye. Others venerate those icons in which saints are depicted in their sufferings, where their martyric exploits are reflected, their fasts and vigils; these sacred depictions portray an inner nobility rather than any external comeliness. Here, brethren, is the path of the two thieves. Some desire salvation, others desire only enjoyment in this world, and when they do not succeed in obtaining it they blaspheme those laws which are given for our salvation.
Even today various divisions can spring up among us. The laws of Christ’s Church are immutable; a Christian must submit to them irrespective of what others think, of how society regards these laws – whether favorably or unfavorably. Those faithful to Christ follow after Him along the path of those laws, those ordinances which the holy Church sacredly preserves. Those who desire unnecessary comforts and pleasures in this temporal world – which sooner or later will perish – these people prefer other laws, not the laws of the Church but those which allow them to live as they want, to think what they want, to place their own will above the spirit of the Church, that spirit given by the Lord God Himself; and they invite others to follow this same path.
It may be, brethren, that soon you will again experience a time of turmoil, and some of you will be called to take the path of denying those sacred laws and to submit to laws established by mere human authority. Beware of such a path! Beware of the path taken by the thief on the left, for by the weight of blasphemy, by the weight of reviling Christ he went to his eternal perdition. Those who revile the laws of the Church revile Christ Himself, Who is the Head of the Church, for the laws of the Church were given by the Holy Spirit through the Apostles. And the laws of local Churches are based on those same laws and canons of the Church. Let us not consider ourselves wiser than those saints and hierarchs who established the canons of the Church; let us not imagine ourselves to be great sages. Rather, let us humbly call out together with the wise thief. Remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom!
Pray for the forgiveness of sins. If we transgress the laws of the Church, if we constantly violate them, pray that the Lord have mercy and lead us together with the wise thief into the Kingdom of Heaven. Then we will not follow the path taken by the ungodly thief, who remained ungodly to the end and descended into the nethermost depths. From which may the Lord deliver us all. Amen.
* Hapgood, Divine Services, page 56.
Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York -- 1974
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