This past Thursday, Orthodox theologian Fr. Thomas Hopko, who was one of the most important theological influences in my life, fell asleep in the Lord. What profound sadness I have felt since then. May God grant him eternal rest. To honor him, and to reflect on Jesus’ metaphor for the Cross in today’s Lenten Gospel (“unless the grain of wheat falls to earth and dies”), I will share some transcribed excerpts of vintage Fr. Tom. His words here reflect four things I love most about his theological style — it’s starkly engaging, it’s homey, it’s really gritty and it’s centered on the Cross of Jesus as our only hope. Thank you, Fr. Tom, for being a blazing light in the darkness! Enjoy:
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The answer to all of this is God who is love, revealed in the Cross, and us taking up that Cross together with him, because what we believe about the Cross — from God’s side — is that God tells us on the Cross many things. He tells us that he loves us and loves us and loves us to the end, and our whole life is defined by his love for us. The content of our life is his love for us. That we can never escape his love for us. That even hell will be the futile attempt to even try to escape his love for us, because he chases us even into hell. He takes the hell on himself on the Cross, becoming sin, becoming curse, becoming dead—for us, not for himself. He didn’t need that. For us. So he tells us that we are loved, and that’s the foundational metaphysical reality for sane existence. We are insane if we do not know in our gut that we are loved, and we are loved by God. By God! And there’s nothing that we can do that will stop the love of God for us. That’s what the Cross tells us.
However sinful, stupid, ridiculous, criminal, I don’t know, the Auschwitzes, the gulags, the abortion centers of this world, will not stop the love of God for us. He takes it all on himself. He identifies with it all. And all we have to do is want it, say yes to it, and then it’ll become ours, and it’ll work in us. There’s nothing we can do to respond to it. We can only take it, receive it, say Amen to it. But that being-loved, boundlessly and unconditionally, this is what the Cross is telling us. As I said earlier, whether we like it or not, we are loved.
One of the hardest things to do in life, because of our human pride, because of our rebellion against God, much harder almost than loving, is to allow ourselves to be loved, to let God love us, to let godly people love us. But this love of God is what the Word of the Cross is: boundless, unconditional love from God’s side.
How is that love expressed? It’s expressed not in denying the sin of the world, not saying, “Oh, you’re nice anyway.” I heard a tape the other day of a Methodist named Stanley Hauerwas—highly recommended—and he said, “I’m a Methodist. We Methodists have deep belief in God. We believe God is nice.” Then he said, “And that has heavy implications. We should be nice, too.” But it’s not just being nice. And one of the things about being nice, people think one of the things about being nice is never to say that anything’s wrong. Never to admit that there’s real evil, real sin, real tragedy; we just kind of “pretend” it’s not there, put it away. But God doesn’t do that.
The Cross tells us that this world is stinking, rotten, evil. That’s what it tells us. That the world isn’t nice—exactly. That the world hates light, hates love, hates truth, hates justice, and when that all becomes incarnate the presence of Jesus the Messiah, they say he’s a Samaritan and has a devil and they’ve got to get rid of him. It’s not nice.
God doesn’t deny all that. He doesn’t look down and say, “Oh, you’re really nice.” He doesn’t. He says, “You’re all sinners, rotten, and there’s no, not one righteous, no, not one, but I love you anyway. And to prove that I love you anyway, I take all your rot on myself.” And that’s what love is. Love is to identify with the one who’s really bad, really evil.
One of the things that we’re going to talk about is: if we’re going to imitate God in that, we have to admit the evil that’s around. Some people have a very hard time admitting evil around, in themselves and in other people, and in other people as well as themselves, especially their family members. Other people are only too happy to admit evil around, in everybody! Sometimes even themselves: “I’m a sinner!” All right, that’s part of it. But the admission has to be there.
But then the Cross says, “You must admit it. You must say: ‘It is no good. It is not God’s way. Things are not right. There is evil. There is the devil. There is sin. There is death.” And these things have to be faced. They can’t be cosmeticized over, stuck in a corner. People get sick. People have cancer. People die. Airplanes crash. People blow them up. People get thrown out of their countries. People get victimized by other people. They get victimized by the sin of their parents. They get victimized by all kinds of stuff, and all that is real. And God on the Cross faces all that and says it’s real.
And when Jesus faces it and says it’s real, he weeps over it. He grieves over it. He is appalled by it. But he is not victimized or paralyzed by it, and he doesn’t let it poison him. So no matter how bad it is—and it’s as bad as you can get, especially if you’re crucifying the Son of glory—and according to St. Paul, any sin crucifies again the Lord of glory, because that’s why he came… So it’s as bad as it can get, but being however bad it can get, he says, “You’re forgiven.”
“Like it or not, you’re forgiven.” Proud people don’t like to be forgiven. In fact, proud people would rather burn in hell and think they deserve it than to hear, “You’re forgiven.” “Me, forgiven? For what?” But the forgiveness is there, and, more than the forgiveness, is the identification, the baring of the burden of the sin of the other, without acting in an evil way in return. This is what the Word of the Cross tells us.
The Word of God — ho logos tou theou — is always and necessarily the word of the Cross — ho logos tou stavrou. And we come to see that there is no theosis without kenosis. The almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and absolutely ruthless and relentless lover of sinners. And men and women made in His image and likeness must be the same. Thus we come to see that as there is no resurrection without crucifixion, there is also no sanctification without suffering, no glorification without humiliation; no deification without degradation; and no life without death.
And that the only way that you will redeem the other, the only way that you will help to heal the other, the only way that you can expiate the sin of the other, is to take it on yourself — but not in a sick way, not in the “Oh, I’m suffering for the other” way; but in a way of sovereign freedom, in total dignity, in an absolutely voluntary act of love, so that it’s literally impossible that the evil will be victorious. It can’t be because you don’t give it an inch. And one of the ways that you don’t give it an inch is not by denying it, but by disclosing it, by seeing evil for what it is. That’s why the Cross is the great clarification. The Cross is the great illumination of things the way they really are.