Today is the feast of Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church. The readings are texts that would warm most any Protestant heart. For instance, the epistle is 1 Cor. 1:18-24 which contains these beloved words. “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved it is the power of God.… For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
When I was in Kansas I was vaguely aware of Orthodoxy – it was an OCA bishop, after all, who prior to being called to my first church in Kansas, had rebuked a Roman Catholic theologian at a conference and claimed that the great divide in modern Christendom was not between Orthodox/Catholic vs Protestant but rather between Catholic/Lutheran vs Orthodox/Reformed. That got my attention because I had many issues with the Roman Catholic Church. But from what I could tell Orthodoxy was an amorphous group of in-fighting and in-bred denominations that originated in different ethnic soil than the western churches.
At this stage the closest “Orthodox” group I was aware of was a monastery in Geneva, Nebraska. I went to visit them and found a bunch of dope smoking hippies that marketed beautiful “icons.” For you Orthodox in the know, you’ve probably figured out that this was the infamous “Monastery Icons” group that were thoroughly new age and only vaguely Orthodox. Their Orthodox connection was through a very questionable bishop. Their “iconography” was market driven. Along with all the traditional subjects they had icons of Protestant saints such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and John Wesley. Based on this experience I had no great desire to become Orthodox.
Back in the 1980s a fairly large percentage of Presbyterian pastors spent their continuing education and personal retreat time and money at Roman Catholic monasteries. The most popular venue was Benedictine monasteries. Their emphasis on the Psalter and quiet contemplation allowed Protestants to avoid many of the potential theological problems that might prove difficult to overcome. For pastors in my Presbytery (Northern Kansas) and the two presbyteries to the north of us (Prospect Hill and Central Nebraska), the Crozier monastery in Hastings, NE was also a popular destination. There were many continuing education events at Hastings College (a Presbyterian institution) and we would often extend our time by going down the street to the Crozier monastery for some period of reflection and quiet. (I don’t think this monastery exists any longer as a men’s monastery in the Crozier [Vallumbrosan] order.)
The Croziers had one big advantage for Protestants. They seemed to downplay Mariology and the Sacred Heart cult (which was very big at some of the other area monasteries) while emphasizing the Cross, Jesus, and the epistles of St. Paul. (Don’t take this description too literally. It does not reflect their actual beliefs, only how we Presbyterians perceived them.) In short, the Croziers seemed far more Protestant than other Roman Catholics, so it was a relatively seamless transition into their rule of prayer and listening to the scriptures being read (lectio divina).
If you have been paying attention to my critiques of Protestantism on this web site for the last few years you will realize that this is one of the problems with Protestant sensibilities. We Protestants (and I use the inclusive plural at his point because I was a Protestant at this stage) almost always pick and choose our theology. I know of no Presbyterian pastor (either from the conservative PCA or the more liberal PCUSA) who embraces their denomination’s theology and ecclesiology without reservation. When Lutherans give up the good fight for their foundering denomination and become Roman Catholic the ones I know embrace the RC church with an asterisk. They agree to the whole of Roman Catholicism with “fine print” exceptions for issues that are particularly problematic.
We Protestants chose our Roman Catholic monastic retreats in the same way: embrace the Croziers and the Benedictines, avoid the Marianites.
When I purchased my first set of festal icons (from Monastery Icons, no less) I did this same pick and choose thing: I got the Christological icons (birth, death, resurrection, transfiguration, etc) and the icons from what are often called the “theological feasts” in Protestant circles (Holy Cross, etc.), but I didn’t purchase the icons from the Mariological feasts (Nativity and Presentation of the Theotokos, Dormition, etc.).
And there is a certain correct logic in this. The feasts all present a slightly different angle on the meaning of salvation. Certain feasts stir our cultural memories even if they have no other meaning for us (Christmas, Easter), certain feasts emphasize what might be called Protestant doctrines (Holy Cross). But while the logic is correct, this angle of vision is skewed. It would be better to say that certain feasts emphasize that salvation is God’s doing (Easter, Holy Cross), and certain feasts emphasize the cosmic extent of salvation (Transfiguration, Theophany), and certain feasts emphasize focus on what we need to do in relation to our salvation (Annunciation), while other feasts focus on what the Church (ie other humans, and specifically other human Christians) do as part of our salvation, reminding us that we don’t do this on our own (Presentation, and the Synaxis events immediately following several feasts).
And more basic than the truth that each feast presents a different angle of salvation, it is the feasts as a whole that offer us a picture of salvation. When we begin to pick and choose from among the feasts we begin to chop off facets of our salvation: It’s the gnostic problem broadly applied. The Christian heresies that grew out of classic Gnosticism declared that Jesus was not fully human and fully divine. The wholeness of creation could not be held together in Christ because creation itself was flawed and therefore had to be disgarded. Similarly, the Protestant rejection of certain of the cycle of feasts is essentially a declaration that salvation is less than what it was historically understood to be. The Marian feasts, for instance, emphasize the human side and corporate nature of salvation. Without those feasts salvation can easily be reduced to something that occurs privately within my own heart by faith alone even though James clearly says that man is not justified by faith alone (2:24 – the only place in the NT where the phrase “faith alone” is used, by the way).
This is what comes to mind every Sept 14 when the Feast of Holy Cross (or “The Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross” as it is officially referred to within Orthodoxy) rolls around. I love the theme of this feast, but after two decades of close association with Orthodoxy, I no longer love this feast more than I love other feasts. I love this feast in the same way that I love a particular facet of a gemstone: one can’t have the facet without the gemstone; chip one facet out and it’s suddenly a pretty ugly gemstone.
One might say Holy Cross was my gateway drug into the other so-called minor Orthodox feasts. There is a lot more to say about salvation than just Christmas and Easter. Among those wonderful salvation truths is that crucifixion –the ultimate humiliation – is the path to salvation. But at the same time, this is only the beginning of the salvation story and not the end. Praise be to God.