Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; 31 and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 36 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Third Sunday after the Holy Cross, Feast of the Holy Cross of Varak), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
In the Armenian Church, the Season of the Cross begins with the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the Sunday nearest September 14th, and ends on the Sunday nearest November 18th. Within this season, there is a feast particular to the Armenian Church calendar: the Feast of the Holy Cross of Varak – the celebration of the discovery of a true piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
In the 3rd century, St. Hripsime and her companions brought a relic of the holy Cross to Mt. Varak when they sought refuge from persecution, and left it to the local priests for protection. The location of the relic remained unknown until the 7th century when a monk by the name of Totig had a vision of a cathedral with twelve pillars on the summit of Mt. Varak. In the midst of the cathedral was a radiating cross. The cross slowly descended down the mountain and rested over the altar of the monastery of Varak. Totig and his student Hovel rushed to the church and found that the vision revealed the location of the relic of the holy Cross that St. Hripsime entrusted to the priests centuries earlier. Catholicos St. Nersess the Builder certified its authenticity and ordered that the Armenian Church dedicate the third Sunday of the Cross to venerating the Holy Cross of Varak, although today, the location of the relic remains unknown.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
Surely, in some way Jesus is anticipating upcoming events such as his resurrection and ascension, as well as the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 AD, an event that deeply shaped and influenced the authors of the New Testament, including those of the four Gospels. But with Jesus at the center of all events and time, things tend to be complex and layered, and so this verse also points to the fulfilment of all things. “This generation,” referring not merely to those alive at the time of Christ, but to believers at all times, the generation of the Church, continues until all things are accomplished. In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Stepanos Siwnetsi writes,
The crown of good news has not yet ripened, but one sees the good things that have been promised with hope as through a mirror. But at the coming of the just judge, when the crown of good news ripens, then one will see clearly and not with hope, just as in winter the fruit of the fig tree is invisible but in summer it is visible to all.
That day and hour only the Father knows. In other words, we are to remove any concern about its date, instead living a life pleasing to God in the present as if he could return at any moment. Consider this a gift. God the Father is allowing us time for repentance before all things are accomplished, before the entire created order is healed and restored, including each one of us, to its original nature and harmony as once experienced in the Garden of Eden. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes,
For as humanity is renewed, the whole creation, which had been created for the sake of humanity, is recapitulated and restored.
St. Paul exhorts, “Now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (II Corinthians 6:2) So what are we to do? Make sure our lamps are filled with oil in preparation for the marriage feast with our Bridegroom (see Matthew 25:1-13). Be watchful for opportunities to be the light and fragrance of Christ in the world, and be watchful for any attack from the Enemy. From the hymn sung during Առաւօտեան Ժամ on the Feast of Varak, the subject and “sign” being the Cross, we sing,
You gave a sign to those who fear, and a weapon against the enemy. With it, protect those who believe in your holy name.
Who or what is the enemy? The efforts of demonic powers, our own selves, desires, addictions, our preference of earthly things over the maker of the earth. Rather than looking beyond ourselves and concerning ourselves first and foremost with eternal things, do we give our attention and priority to that which is immediate or temporal, our bodily senses, wealth and affluence, titles and legacy? In his prayer for Thursday, Hovhannes of Garni writes,
Instead of eternal glory that does not fade away, I loved the transient and the corruptible. Leave me not to my own inclinations.
What about the Cross? Where does it stand in the life of the Church? If the Cross is removed from the Church’s centrality, we risk becoming our own enemy. The Church will become institutionalized and politicized, a club for “members” that rally around something beside the Cross, rather than the Body of Christ bringing baptism, salvation, healing, and hope to the world. Without the Cross at the very center of everything we do as the Church – local, diocesan, and global – we risk losing any true encounter with Christ for ourselves and for others seeking salvation in a world that is desperate for hope and love. Thankfully, we have been given this time to repent before all things are reconciled. Thankfully, the Cross has accomplished, continues to accomplish, and will accomplish, and so we live with hope looking forward to the time when, as St. Paul writes to the Romans,
Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:21-24a)
The Sign is the Cross
Ready or not, oil lamps filled or empty, the arrival of the Son of Man will fill the sky and no one will miss it. St. John Chrysostom asks,
With what eyes then shall we behold Christ? For if any one could not bear to see his father, when conscious to himself that he had sinned against him, upon him who infinitely exceeds a father in forbearance, how shall we then look? How shall we bear it?
How will we look or bear the arrival of the Son of Man is answered by how we look and bear the sight of the Cross now. It was St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechetical Lecture 15, who interpreted the sign of the Son of Man (24:30) as the Cross:
But what is the sign of his coming? Lest a hostile power dare to counterfeit it. And then shall appear, he says, the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. Now Christ’s own true sign is the Cross; a sign of a luminous Cross shall go before the King , plainly declaring him who was formerly crucified.
Along with St. Gregory the Enlightener in his catechetical work The Teaching, and St. Gregory of Narek in his Encomium on the Holy Cross, St. John Chrysostom also adopts the interpretation of St. Cyril in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew when he writes, “Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in Heaven; that is, the cross being brighter than the sun,” but this time the Cross is empty, as Jesus is no longer on it, rather having dominion over the world he already has and will restore and return the world back to his saints, a Kingdom in holy communion with its Creator. (see Daniel 7:13-14, Romans 4:13).
Jesus was crucified on a cross that stood on Golgotha. On May 7, 351 for several hours a cross appeared in the sky over Jerusalem extending from Golgotha to the Mount of Olives; a span of almost two miles. A radiating cross pointing to a true relic appeared at the Monastery of Varak. When we look around us on a daily basis, the shape of the Cross appears in the most unexpected places. What is the message of the Cross, what the Armenian Church repeatedly refers to as a նշան (“sign”), about which we continually need to be reminded?
What was once looked upon as a torture device and instrument of death is now gazed upon as the source of healing and life. If our daily faith ever seems counterintuitive, consider the core of the Gospel. Through the eyes of faith, the mystery of the Cross transforms our tragedies into blessing. Out of death, comes life. The pain that Jesus willingly embraced on the Cross, he asks us to also bear, but as a source of joy!? Following the model and example of Jesus on the Cross, it is self-denial, self-emptying, putting our egos and false selves to death on the Cross that is the way to life (see Philippians 2:6-8). St. Gregory of Narek prays,
And also by being spread upon the tree of death
you spread us upon it as well,
and thanks to this great mystery
united us with the tree of life. (93B)
When we have been and are continually crucified with Jesus (see Galatians 2:20), we experience the freedom that is dying to this life, no longer bound by meaningless pain or suffering without God. We still see pain around us, but by way of the Cross and what Jesus accomplished on it we are able to suffer with him, knowing true forgiveness and compassion. Jesus didn’t come to eliminate suffering (that time is coming), but to fill it with his presence, so that we can encounter him through it, perhaps even more directly than when we are free from suffering.
The Cross is the gate back to the Garden, the Tree of Life from which we eat the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. As we share Holy Communion we become nourished to forgive and sacrificially give up ourselves for one another, because through the Cross Jesus shares himself with us, his divine gifts and blessings, who he is – i.e. life, forgiveness, hope, and liberating love. Because we were forgiven, we are able to forgive others and thus commune not only with our Savior but with one another. We experience true freedom, which is not license to do as we please, but freedom from being bound by sin and spiritual decay, that which brings death to our communion with God. Through the Cross, we are freed to live as a community, the Body of Christ. The priest prays during Badarak:
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, great in mercy and abounding in the gifts of your beneficence, you, who of your own will did endure at this hour the sufferings of the cross and of death on account of our sins, and did abundantly bestow the gifts of your Holy Spirit on the blessed apostles; make us also, Lord, we beseech you, sharers in your divine gifts, in the forgiveness of sins and in the reception of the Holy Spirit… (21)
Again, from the hymn sung during Առաւօտեան Ժամ on the Feast of Varak, we sing,
You made known today the appearance of your awe-inspiring second coming, By the sign of your Cross, beaming it on earth. He adorned today the sign of the Cross, With a heavenly light brighter than the sun. (trans. Bp. Daniel Findikyan)
With what eyes do we see Christ? How will we bear the Cross today? In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Is the message of the Cross, and all that it has accomplished, foolishness to us? This is something we really need to ask ourselves by examining our own lives and the life of our parish community. Or is the Cross the power of God by which we are marked as individuals, families, and a parish community? From our epistle reading for Sunday, St. Paul writes to the Galatians,
But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world…for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. (Galatians 6:14, 17b)
Do we as a Church glory in anything except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or is the Cross just one item on the menu of what the Armenian Church glories in or rallies around, catering to the spectrum of interest among her members? In other words, does our lived experience of the Cross today, reflect that of our Church throughout history, or have we been distracted from the one vision, mission, and purpose given to us by Jesus Christ himself? Do we bear the marks of our Savior on our bodies, on the body of our community? Are we, this very moment, as individuals, as parish communities, as the global Armenian Church characterized by the Cross, by our fervent, martyric faith and sacrificial love as a sign (nshan) to those in our neighborhood, at work, at school, to the world? Live well in the time that we have been given, take up the sign, the Cross of Jesus Christ and follow him, and as a test to determine whether or not we are fit for the Kingdom of God, don’t turn back (see Luke 9:62).