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About Holy Cross Day:

One of the earliest annual celebrations of the Church, Holy Cross Day traditionally commemorated the discovery of the original cross of Jesus on September 14, 320, in Jerusalem. The cross was found by Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. In conjunction with the dedication of a basilica at the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the festival day was made official by order of Constantine in AD 335. A devout Christian,Helena had helped locate and authenticate many sites related to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus throughout biblical lands. Holy Cross Day has remained popular in both Eastern and Western Christianity. Many Lutheran parishes have chosen to use “Holy Cross” as the name of their congregation. (From The Treasury of Daily Prayer, published by Concordia Publishing House)

The Jewish new year begins right now, September 13-15 this year (2015) with Rosh Hashanah, literally, “head of the year”.  It was at this time, acccording to their traditions, God finished creating the heavens and the earth, the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve.  The shofar, ram’s horn is sounded at this time.  Rosh Hashanah also corresponds to the beginning of the harvest time.  The Eastern Orthodox  Churches likewise begin the Church year at this time.  Let’s face it:  this is a quite appropos tradition as the year really begins when school, college and university begins anew! Ask many a Mom or Dad! New students, matriculation, studies, that is education continues.  We also celebrate today the Holy Cross.  In school,  minds and hopefully even souls are educated in this change of season.  We give thanks to the Lord for the harvest.  Needless to say, we urbanites and suburbanites, are insensible to the rhythms of seed-time and  then harvest. But Holy Cross can remind us the Lord will bring in His Harvest by His Sacrifice upon the cross:  hearing, learning and growing in the good news of forgiveness once and for all. Jesus Christ is the grain of wheat planted, dead and alive (See  John 12:24 ) The cross is like a shepherd’s staff by which He gathers us to Himself.  (See John 12:31-33).

In the 13th century,  when St Bonaventure was in great repute, teaching theology in Paris, and attracting a general esteem and admiration by his works, St Thomas Aquinas went one day to see him, and requested him to show him what books he used for his studies.

Then Bonaventure, conducting him to his little chamber, showed him some very common books that were on his table. But Thomas gave him to understand that he desired to see the other books from which he derived so many marvelous things.

Bonaventure  then showed him a small prayer chapel, with nothing in it but a crucifix: “There, Father,” said he, “is all my other books; this is the principal one from which I draw all I teach, and all I write.”  If my tongue does not teach and preach according to Christ and His Cross, and the Law of God, then the tongue is like rudder steering the ship in the wrong direction, like a bit that does not guide the horse, like a spark that simply inflames with fire, all heat and no light.  No human being can control the tongue, James wrote.  He knew Who controls the tongue to teach whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8) and finally and fully the center of all human history:  the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah for Jew and Gentile. We need education not merely to know but to serve as we have been served.  He teaches us to pray ever in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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The Sundays during the Pentecost cycle develop three great themes.

  1. The first is Baptism and its graces. We are baptized and grounded in the graces of Baptism. Every Sunday is a reminder of Baptism and a small Easter.
  2. The second theme is preparation for the second advent of the Lord. It is treated in detail on the final Sundays of the season.
  3. The remaining theme, the burden of the Sundays midway after Pentecost, may be summarized as the conflict between the two camps. Although we are placed in the kingdom of God, we remain surrounded by the kingdom of the world. Our souls are laboring under Adam’s wretched legacy and waver continually to and fro between two allegiances.

By these three great themes the liturgy covers the whole range of Christian life. In Baptism the precious treasure of the Spirit was conferred. Through it we are God’s children and may call God Father. Through it we have become temples of the Holy Spirit, heirs and brothers of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Baptism has not translated us to a paradise without toil or trouble. Rather, we are sent out into a troubled world to work and struggle. We must guard the holy land of our souls against hostile attack. We must learn to know and conquer the enemy, and such is the task that will continue until we have taken our final breaths.

The Church serves as both the heroine, who teaches us the art of warfare, and our strong fortress and shield in the conflict. Through Holy Communion, she bestows aid that repeatedly frees the soul from the entanglements of temptation. How does she do this? Courage and strength and perseverance flow from the Word of God in the Service of the Word, and they flow in even fuller measure from Holy Communion. Of ourselves we are helpless creatures, wholly unable to withstand the attack, but in Holy commuion Another battles for us.  The Mightier, Christ, vanquishes the mighty.  By means of Holy Communion, we are enrolled in our  Captain’s forces.  And thus Christ’s battle becomes our battle and His triumph our triumph, and His wondrous strength renders us invincible.

(From  The Church’s Year of Grace by Fr. Pius Parsch-May 18, 1884 – March 11, 1954, quoted in The Treasury of Daily Prayer for 15 June)

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“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.

― H. Richard Niebuhr

Jesus prophesies His suffering, crucifixion and Resurrection three times.  In The Gospel According to St. Mark, the three prophecies begin at 8:31, 9:31 and 10: 34, almost exactly a chapter apart.  This is noteworthy because the addition of chapters and verses was well after the completion of  the Scriptures.  The three prophecies are like the tolling of the death knell.  They are yet another pointer to the utter centrality of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Bible.  The Cross of Christ as symbol and the proclamation of “Christ and Him crucified” ( 1 Corinthians 1:23 ) with the Church Year is centered on Holy Week and Easter (or Pascha). This clearly reflects the Word of God, the Bible.  We see, though, so many times, beginning in the narrative of  the Scripture, flights from the crucifixion:

  • This Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday in Lent (Year B) includes the third Passion prophecy and immediately after that James and John request Jesus that they sit on His right and left hands in glory. It was as if they had not heard the prophecy of the crucifixion at all.
  • Earlier, after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus proclaims His first Passion prophecy, and Peter says basically, God forbid and Jesus calls Peter Satan for tempting Him away from Golgotha.(Matthew 16:22-24)
  • The Apostle Paul wrote to the spiritual Corinthians, who were thinking they were standing so tall as the saved that sins involving their bodies could not affect them, they forgot crucial preaching of the Crucified by which the Holy Spirit made faith in them, 1 Corinthians 2:  “ And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.       

We see all around us in our time both explicit and implicit flights from the Crucifixion:

  • Many denominations do not observe Holy Week or only in part.  Near Holy Week,several years back a devout Baptist told me that he loves the preaching of Christ in his church but he could not figure how they could just ignore Good Friday.
  • Many Lutherans, and other Christians skip on Good Friday and hasten to the sweet smelling lilies of Easter Sunday.
  • Too many Lutherans and many Protestants disdain the sign of a crucifex in a sanctuary as “too Catholic”.  Too many for that same reason do not make the sign of the Cross. We preach the Crucified, we are baptized into His death and resurrection, the four Gospels are all about His death and resurrection, then the Crucifixion is “too catholic”?!  Yes, it is! Amen!  The word, “Catholic” and its origin is Greek: “kata holos”, that is, according to the whole…the whole of salvation history, that is, “universal”: again, Amen!
  • When I see photos or videos of or from mega-churches, there is no cross in sight, let alone a crucifix.  Furthermore, there is no Altar and no Scriptural literalism, which is the foundation of His Presence, “This is My Body”, “This is My Blood” (see 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26), for the Supper on an Altar that is not there to begin with!   The Scriptures are clear about the Lord’s Supper, “For as often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes”. The Divine Service proclaims the death of Jesus for our salvation. They practice the divine absence.
  • But all of the above pales in comparison to what is preached, literally, “what”, not “Who” is preached.  Morals are preached. “Your best life now” with Jesus as a kind of positive thinking coach is the lecture.  The Christian is put back on to himself, not pointed to the Lord.  They preach the Christian, not the Christ.  

Holy Week is about proclaiming, preaching and teaching Christ.  Attend the Church which proclaims Jesus as Lord, in which the Sacraments are administered according to the Gospel, and there are a people who know they are sinners saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and that faith is “not their doing”,and neither are their good works, see Ephesians 2: 4-10.  Don’t flee the crucified and risen Lord, but flee for refuge to His infinite mercy to the Lord’s Church.

“For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.” 2 Corinthians 2: 17

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” 2 Corinthians 4: 5

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Intro:   Polycarp’s martyrdom on this date around AD 156 deeply impressed the nascent Church and can not be glossed over.   Polycarp was a link between the time of the Apostles and post-apostolic era.  He was martyred when he was 86 years of age by being burned,and when the flames did not hurt him, he was stabbed in the heart.  Eyewitness accounts said the smell was of baking bread.  His name means, “much fruit”.  Below is a short bio from The Apostolic Fathers edited by Jack Sparks of the Eastern Orthodox Church:

“Take the oath and I will let you go,” said the proconsul. “Revile Christ.”

“I have served Him eighty-six years,” replied Polycarp, “and in no way has He dealt unjustly with me; so how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

Thus the aged and much revered bishop spoke, in full knowl­edge of the outcome. His martyrdom was sealed. His life had stretched from the days of the apostles till the middle of the second century, and on a February day in about 156 he moved on with honor to the church enrolled in heaven.

We first meet Polycarp as the relatively young bishop of Smyrna when the aging Ignatius of Antioch was on his way to mar­tyrdom. It was in Smyrna that Ignatius made that famous rest stop on his final journey, and Polycarp was the only individual on record to whom the great martyr ever addressed a personal letter. In the years that followed, Polycarp gathered Ignatius’ letters and passed them on to others.

Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyons in the latter half of the second century, tells us that Polycarp was a disciple of the apos­tle John and indeed knew others who had seen the Lord in the flesh. The witness of Irenaeus is important because he appar­ently grew up in Smyrna. What he says of Polycarp indicates that the bishop of Smyrna was most concerned about the pres­ervation of the orthodox faith. One incident he reports demon­strates the severity of Polycarp’s attitude toward heresies and heretics. Polycarp, says Irenaeus, once met the heretic Marcion on the streets. “Do you recognize me?” asked Marcion. “In­deed,” replied Polycarp, “I recognize you as the firstborn of Satan!” (Adv. haer 3:3,4).

Though Irenaeus hints at several letters by Polycarp, only  one has come down to us. That letter is to the church at Philippi and reflects the same concern for truth and orthodoxy we have already mentioned. His letter is filled with, indeed almost made up of, quotes from the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles of the New Testament, as well as the letters of Clement and Ignatius. Some critics have sneered at Polycarp because he is so uncreative and offers no new theological insight. We can be glad he was the way he was. Through Polycarp we have not only a link with the ear­liest days of Christianity, but a faithful transmission of apostolic doctrine as well. No, he was not creative. He was a loyal disci­ple of Christ and the apostles.

Near the end of his life Polycarp made a visit to Rome to dis­cuss with Bishop Anicetus a number of church matters, appar­ently including the date of Easter. The Eastern churches were still celebrating Easter on the exact date of Jewish Passover, while Rome was using a specified Sunday each year. Neither agreed to change, but their fellowship was not disturbed. Before he left Rome, Polycarp, at the invitation of Anicetus, led in the celebration of the Eucharist. The two men parted in full agree­ment to leave their respective traditions as they were.

Last of all we have an eyewitness account of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Perhaps by request, the church at Smyrna pre­pared a full account, to be sent to the church at Philomelium and other places. This clear and simple testimony of the martyrdom of an aged saint should bring tears to the eyes of any believer. Some have questioned the record because of the miraculous ac­count of the means of his death. But there is great danger in rejecting a miracle on the grounds that “such things just don’t happen.” Some have done so and thus have rejected the mira­cles of the Scriptures.

Polycarp’s last prayer is characteristic of the man and a clear testimony of his faith. He concluded with, “I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly high priest Jesus Christ your beloved Son through whom to you with Him and the Holy Spirit be glory now and forever. Amen.”

Below is a selection from The Martyrdom of Polycarp.  Please note that the first Christians were accused of “atheism” because they would not sacrifice to the false god of Caesar, and so they were considered as not believing and thus imperiling the ‘divine’ order of the Empire and the Emperor.

“…the police captain, Herod, and his father, Nicetes, met (Polycarp); they transferred him to their carriage and sitting down beside him tried to persuade him, saying: “Why, what is wrong with saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and sacrificing, and so forth, and thus being saved?” At first he did not answer them, but when they persisted, he said: “I am not going to do what you advise me.”  Since they had failed to persuade him, they uttered threats and hurriedly pulled him off so that as he was descending from the carriage he scraped his shin. And without turning around, he walked along briskly as though he had suffered no injury. As he was led into the stadium with the uproar so great that it [the announcement of Polycarp’s apprehension] was not heard by many….

 Now a voice from heaven came to Polycarp as he was entering the stadium: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man!” (Josh. 1:6,7,9.) No one saw the speaker, but many of ours heard the voice. And then as he was brought forward, there was a great uproar now that they heard that Polycarp had been apprehended. So when he was brought forward the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp; and when he admitted it, he tried to persuade him to deny, saying: “Respect your age” and all the other things they usually say: “Swear by the Genius of Caesar, change your mind, say, ‘Away with the atheists.’ ” Polycarp looked sternly at the whole crowd of lawless heathen in the stadium, indicating them with a wave of the hand, groaned and looked up to heaven, and said: “Away with the atheists!” When the proconsul persevered and said: “Take the oath and I will let you go; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied: “I have served him eighty-six years and in no way has he dealt unjustly with me; so how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”

 Since he persisted and said: “Swear by Caesar’s Genius,” he answered: “If you vainly expect that I will swear by Caesar’s Genius, as you suggest, and pretend to be ignorant who I am, listen (to what I say) openly: I am a Christian. If you want to learn the teaching of Christianity, name the day and hear (about it).”  The proconsul said: “Persuade the people.” Polycarp replied: “To you indeed I have considered myself accountable; for we have been taught to render fit honor to rulers and authorities appointed by God in so far as it is not injurious to us [cf. Rom. 13:1,7;1 Pet. 2:13ff]; as for these, I do not consider myself bound to make my defense before them.”

Comment:  Note that what the Christians were asked to do, burn a little incense to Caesar and swear by him is really a ‘small thing’, as it was pitched toward the Church.  As the proconsul said, what is wrong with saying, Caesar is Lord?  Indeed!  It might seem such a small thing to “go with the flow”, do what others are doing which seems so much fun and the like.  But it’s not a ‘small thing’ and Polycarp knew what it meant:  denying Jesus Christ who saved him.  

I like Fr. Sparks’ comment that Polycarp’s one letter shows he was not creative.  He quoted the Bible. No, he was not creative. He was a loyal disci­ple of Christ and the apostles.”   I took a course in seminary, “Creative Ministry”.   We make ministry ‘creative’?  No, the Lord does.  He re-creates us through His Ministry of Word and Sacraments through His called pastors and bishops.  Polycarp was not creative:   he was faithful.  He was a faithful servant of Jesus.  Satis est.  That is enough and Christ will fill us by His grace for us sinners.

Let us pray:  O God, the maker of heaven and earth, who gave to Your venerable servant, the holy and gentle Polycarp, boldness to confess Jesus Christ as King and Savior, and steadfastness to die for the Faith, give us grace, following his example, to share the cup of Christ and rise to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

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