Translation – Homily 31 of St Severus of Antioch

On the dedication of the Holy Cross and on the anniversary of the earthquake that took place.

If, the elders celebrated the feast of the first dedication for the temple of Jerusalem, that which the wise Solomon built and which the Holy Spirit, speaking through the prophet David, had prefigured, according to the account which is made of it in the book of Paralipomena, how, more properly, could we not celebrate this celebration in honour of the venerable cross of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ, by whom every temple is consecrated, every sacrifice and every spiritual mystery accomplished. Even more, to speak in a more divine way, this, through which we have become the temples of God. For we know, according to Paul, that by baptism our old man was crucified with Christ, since the body of sin on the one hand was reduced to helplessness so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin, our earthly members being mortified, and on the other hand, it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. This is why a spiritual commemoration is made of it, as if it were in truth the cross itself. It is supremely legitimate to call it a renewal, the feast made in connection with which this (word) is fulfilled: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away, now everything is new.

So, it is not as if the venerable memory of the cross had grown old in us, and that we are renewed by it today, she who is the mystery which is continually rejuvenated, and which does not grow old.  But we expose it and we present it to you as the beginning of a new life, so that you come to this commemoration to which he calls us with love, and that by turning away from all the old leaven of malice, you will walk in an evangelical and new way, preparing for the restoration to come, which takes place at all times, which renews itself and does not grow old. This renewal of today is that of our souls and not that of the cross. But we speak of the cross, because we attribute to it the cause of our renewal. To speak of it is at the same time to celebrate our renewal, because it has been granted to us through the intermediary of the cross.

In fact, when I speak of the cross, I am speaking of the tree, of the first as well as of the new; the former, on the one hand, in the prediction in the divine book originally made about him. The new, on the other hand, in the revelation at the end of time of the knowledge of God, which made the sun of righteousness to shine in us, who was incarnated for us without undergoing change and was crucified in his flesh.

This is the tree that was planted in the middle of paradise, which it was not possible for Adam to taste without harm, for his intellect was not yet exercised and not yet applied to the cultivation and contemplation of other plants, from which he was allowed to eat. From this tree, in due course, we tasted, but previously we had been educated by the law and the prophets and by the natural contemplation of visible creatures: these are the spiritual plants of paradise: they have a fruit which, for those which are simple, is edible and safe. We clearly know that it is the tree of the knowledge what is right and what is wrong.

When, in fact, the cross made the teaching of evangelical preaching shine upon us, we, on the one hand, ran towards the good: – the profession of faith without error, and faith in the Holy Trinity – and, on the other hand, we have fled and we have turned our backs on evil, that is, on the slavery of the Slanderer and on the error of the worship of demons and the worship of creatures.

Indeed, only the knowledge of the cross made it possible to discern what is good from what is bad and allowed us to avoid confusing them, something that neither the law nor the teachings of the prophets could do. We know indeed from the account of Scripture that those who worshiped the universal God also worshiped Baal and were mad with the intoxication of polytheism. The knowledge of the tree of good and evil, which was to know him who is God and on the contrary to reject those who are not gods, was also the knowledge of the seductive words of the serpent, those which he presents to Eve advising her to eat from the tree which was forbidden and which as not appropriate for her at the time. What does he say to her? No, you certainly will not die, because God knows that the day you eat it your eyes will open, and you will be like gods who know good and evil.

You see, in this mention of gods in the plural, the serpent showed the abyss coming from polytheism, which the taste for transgression of the law and inappropriate action was to generate; and, because Adam tasted of the fruit before the right time, he was defeated, submitted to the power of the Evil One and transmitted this subjection to his children, precisely those who fell into idolatry, even though he himself escaped the oppression which resulted from it, because he himself was recently established and settled, and a short time before he had heard divine threats, when he was warned of a new sentence of death. For, to approach theology, which contains in itself a taste for the tree, when one has not first been instructed by the contemplation of created things, is imprudence.

For it is to the perfect that solid food belongs, as Paul said, to those who, through the habit of their minds, have the senses trained in the discernment of good and evil. But, as for us, when we had first been instructed and educated, not by dwelling in Paradise, nor by the cultivation and the education of certain plants, but, as I have said, by the law and the prophets, Emmanuel, the wise physician and teacher of our souls, granted us at the proper time to taste the tree, that is, when we knew that he was, himself, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

On the one hand, we are attentive to the good and retain it, on the other hand, we spit on the evil, we push it back and we reject it far from us, applying ourselves, not only to the knowledge of God, but indeed to all virtue. Besides knowing God as it is appropriate to know him – knowledge which contains in itself all the good things – the same tree has also become for us the tree of life. For there existed in paradise two trees which prevailed over these other plantations, as the record of the Holy Scriptures made it known, saying: And God made all kinds of trees still grow from the ground, beautiful to behold and tasty to eat, and the tree of life in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

And, of one of these two trees, Adam had the temporary prohibition on tasting according to the command. As for the other, I mean the tree of life, he had to consider it as venerable, observing the ordinance, without letting himself be carried away by the taste of what is taken out of time. Now these two trees contained the symbol of the venerable cross, and whereas he granted us to taste there in its own time the knowledge of the careful distinction between good and evil. But by the resurrection he sends us to the delights of eternal life, which Isaiah also, resounding trumpet of the prophets, proclaimed in advance concerning those who were to believe in Christ, saying: For the days of my people will be like the days of this tree of life.

In fact, concerning Adam, once he fell under corruption by the transgression of the commandment and was condemned to death, the universal God said: And now, as long as he does not stretch out his hand, take from the tree of life, eat and live forever, so that these elements of corruption do not remain immortal and endless. But, to us who have despoiled the old man, the one who has been corrupted by deceitful lusts, and who by the washing of regeneration and by the Spirit have been renewed, and thus have tasted of the knowledge of tree, he says quite rightly: For the days of my people will be like the days of this tree of life, so as to preserve to these elements, spiritual recovery and eternal youth, which they have of reality and which is immutable.

This is why, in fact, after the transgression of the commandment by Adam, God instituted and placed a cherub and a flaming and turning spear to keep the way of the tree of life: the cherub on the one hand, so that we learn that the tree of the cross is the tree of God. Before God alone, in fact, the cherubim stand and celebrate ineffable praise. For also ineffable is the word of the cross, which surpasses our understanding and whose praise alone suits the adorable God.

On the other hand, the flaming and turning spear recalls the words predicted by the prophets, those which showed us as a symbol the way of the cross and guaranteed this time which has arrived. Because, by the flaming spear, appears to me, as in reality and without changing anything, this prophetic word which blazes like fire; on the other hand it is more incisive than a sharp sword, according to the word of the prophet Jeremiah saying: No, behold, my words are like a blazing fire, saith the Lord, and like an axe that splits a rock; this flaming spear is the tongue of the prophet: it came and went without stopping, it was in motion and it announced in advance the coming of Christ in the flesh. Emmanuel established it (this spear), when he entered Heaven, and he took it out, when he also brought in this thief with him, – indeed it was shown that Christ was the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. Of those prophets who were his, John the Baptist was the last, which Our Saviour also made evident in the Gospels by saying: For all the prophets and the law up to John prophesied.

It is also this wood of the venerated cross that put an end to the flood, for a time, in the days of Noah. For the dove, taken as the figure of the Holy Spirit, returned to the ark at the evening hour, carrying a branch of the olive tree and making it understood that the earth was dry. Because for us too, as in reality, the cross has become the wood of mercy and charity, the one that because of his mercy for us, Emmanuel took upon himself, the one by which the Holy Spirit, preaching by the mouth of the apostles, dried up the unclean lusts that were spread over the earth, and appeased and annihilated the flood of sin.

It is this wood which, in Egypt against Pharaoh, performed wonders and miracles and delivered Israel from slavery. For Moses was commanded to bring a staff and to show through it the power of miracles, so that we might learn that this staff produced them by no other power than by the symbol of the venerated cross which was hidden there.

Moreover, it is by the sign of the cross that the divine Moses performed miracles. When in fact Amalek or his people refused the passage of the army and – something more painful – set themselves against Israel, obstructed and forbade their passage, Joshua, son of Nun, head of the army, stood on one side, on the battlefield, and Moses stood on the mountain. And when he stretched out his hands and thereby fulfilled the symbol of the cross, he came to the aid of the people of his country and routed those who opposed them. But it is good to present the very words of the divine book, so that we may see better and more clearly, after it has been portrayed as in the shadows, the action of the power of the cross, thus: And it happened that when Moses lifted up his hands, Israel was victorious, but when he lowered his hands, Amalek was victorious. But Moses’ hands were heavy. Having taken a stone, they put it under him, he sat on it and Aaron and Hour lifted his hands, one on one side, the other on the other, and Moses’ hands were thus held up until sunset. And Joshua defeated Amalek and all his people with death and destruction.

You see clearly that the sign of the cross was signified by the hands of Moses, and that Joshua, who stood in front of the lines of the army, crushed, and put to flight, the warriors; so therefore, we too, like Moses on the mountain, when we trace the seal of the cross on our foreheads, and when we first name at the beginning of the formula our Saviour Jesus Christ, we crush and we exterminate the spiritual fighters, I mean the demons, and the Slanderer, their leader. This sign, the prophet Ezekiel also saw it in a symbol: It was a formidable armour and a protective seal for those who feared the Lord.

For when the God of the universe had given a decree of ruin for Jerusalem, he gave a command, saying thus: Go through the midst of the city, into the midst of Jerusalem: give a sign on the forehead of these men who are groaning and those who are afflicted and tormented about all these iniquities which have been committed within her, and he said to them these things which I heard: Go into the city behind him, and destroy; may your eyes have no pity or mercy on the old man, the young man, the virgin, the children and the women; kill them all; but all those on which there is a sign, do not touch them.

For this reason, in celebrating today the anniversary of the terror that occurred and of the earthquake that shook and unsettled more or less the whole city, we have joined at the same time the feast of the venerated cross and we have displayed to everyone this celestial sign, so that in memory of this dread event we might come to the meaning of the faults that were committed and lament over these people of all ages. By the manifestation of the cross, as a universal mark for the crowd, which we all practice, let us place it on the face of the people of the city; and thus, thanks to us, the God who comes forth in his mercy and in his love, will speak to his angels, the servants of his anger: Do not touch all those who have the sign on them.

For you all remember, at least those who are advanced in years, that terrible and lamentable sight, which was then placed before everyone’s eyes, of the spectacle of old people as well as young people and children and of infants, not having completed their time, who suddenly and altogether were killed; the women who were buried dying, while their still living children sought under their breasts to take their milk and suckle it, without having any awareness of death hanging over their heads. And the men! Once the collapsed house knocked them to the ground, those outside thought they had escaped danger, but, like runners who do not see in front of them, they fell again under another avalanche, and they experienced the same death they had fled.

Others had remained on the roof, which was soon after to fall, and they could not flee because of old age or some other infirmity, or else faced death as a decree from God and said as the prophet: Where will I go far from your mind? And, far from your face, where will I flee?  They were miraculously saved: locked up in a fold and placed under a crevice: we begged them to show themselves and to come out: by their cries only, we knew that they were not dead.

For still others, even while they remained standing and unscathed, the walls here and there crumbled, so that we know that there is a word of God, for their past, for their present, and for their future (?): two sparrows are sold for an ass, but none of them fall without your Heavenly Father; and: The hairs of the hair of our head are all numbered, texts which show the terms fixed by Providence, the sovereign love of God and his mercy towards us.

Then we saw a man appear who had his shoulder, or his leg broken, another whose hand was cut off, or who, by a large stone, had been wounded and crushed in the cheek, his face disfigured and pitiful: we no longer knew who he was, and the man lay half-dead; and if he had been able to recover his health, he had no one to save him: he was like someone whose soul has disappeared. Another, who still numbered most of his limbs, was, beside an avalanche, caught by each of the extremities of his limbs, like a bird in a trap; others, by the houses, along with their inhabitants, had been overturned and were lying, and it was not even left for one of those who remained to be able to utter a cry.

But, these (houses) having been shaken, their walls collapsed and their roofs gutted, they were threatened with death, to the point that those who were inside complained with groans and lamentations, of being deprived of air; and so, being mourned by themselves, not with tears at the time of their burial, but with tears preceding their tomb, they received the stones which were suspended over their heads and were crushed by the tiles, the joists and planks.

This city was then deserted by its inhabitants, because all ran towards the tops of the mountains and the most distant places of the region, and especially towards those which were uninhabited. For there was no place where you would have had assured salvation, a wall or a roof, because all had been shaken and terribly disturbed. For even now the one who made the earth tremble looks upon it and the spectacle of violence has not ceased; but the Lord was attentive to our iniquities, as the prophet Jeremiah says: His countenance was not turned away from our sins, until he mixed the cup of his anger, not yet mixed, with that of his charity, by leaning from side to side, so that, the dregs of his anger being exhausted, all do not perish as a whole. Then with violence he determined the earthquake, he who had thrown upon it the corner stone, that is to say his Word, the one who at the end of days was incarnated, and still became for us the corner stone; and he bound together those of the circumcision and those of the Gentiles in one gospel proclamation.

But when the earthquake had ceased, each of those who had fled regained confidence, setting their foot confidently on the earth, to go back to the city. But all were terrified and full of fear; and when they walked they were terrified, like those who have just crossed wide seas, disembarked from a ship and are still trembling and timid. But, going through the houses, they wept inconsolably, not bearing this sight: for one, it is his father who has disappeared, for the other, his brother, for this one, a son, and this one laments for her friend. For there is not a single bond of affection that death has not broken.

There was even somewhere a mother, full of affection for her children, who had lost the whole line of her family, suddenly and all at once: she, against all hope, was saved: she comes to realize her suffering and she is consumed by her love. When, running, she arrived at the demolished house, loosening her hair and tearing her cheeks, she moans aloud, kneels on the heap of collapsed rubble, fixes her tearful gaze like a sword through the holes between the stones: of her dear children, she sees none; she resolves to help them, she imagined to herself, making herself heard: with difficulty, she leans her ear (on the ground), calling each of her children by name, with loud lamentations, if somewhere a soft voice could be heard by them. Because suffering made her lose her mind, and, finding no consolation, she fell breathless, begging that with her children, she might leave this world at the same time.

Others, on the other hand, who know how to philosophically endure these trials sent by God, linger in burying the bodies which are dead: they raise them up on wagons, and, having led them to this holy temple, celebrated a suitable burial for them.

This misfortune which happened, the artist’s hand on the one hand wanted to paint a (picture) resembling it, but it was in an unfaithful way that it dared to try to show it in a confused manner; on the other hand, speech would now also like to present this spectacle, but, as it is impossible for it to show the realities themselves, it admits defeat.

Therefore, when we place the wood of the cross before you in the midst of all, we remind ourselves of the God who was incarnated, the great victim who was slain for us, and snatched everyone from sin, because the altar of propitiation, yes, in truth, it is the cross, as the prophet Ezekiel also saw, giving the symbolic vision of this spiritual temple which is to come, I mean the Church. See what he said to me: In front of the facade of the holy of holies, a vision, as if an appearance of a wooden altar, the height of which is three cubits, the length of two, the width of two. And who can think of what the wooden altar can be, if not the cross, the one on which Christ offered himself as a spiritual victim, the Word of God, the one who for us became incarnate, the one through whom we are raised to the height of the knowledge of the Holy Trinity. This is in fact what it means that its height is three cubits. As to its length of two cubits, and its breadth of two cubits, this clearly shows that he who was laid on the cross and who suffered in his flesh, is the Lord, the Creator and the Maker of the four corners of the inhabited earth, who has spread and penetrated everything right through, and who holds and contains everything within it, which Paul also wrote to the Ephesians, clearly showing the symbol of the cross, saying: So that you may understand with all the saints, what breadth, length, height, and depth is and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that you are filled with all the fullness of God.

This is why, while there are many ways to atone, Emmanuel took upon himself death by the cross, in order to show that God is the one who fills all. So the aspect of the cross is still the way to correct these contemptible and atheistic heresies: if, indeed, the one who was laid on the cross is the God of the universe, the son of the Father and the Word, the same both limited by the flesh and unlimited by the divinity, and in the same way the same passible and impassible, where is it, for those who are drunk without wine, as the prophet says, for these wicked dividers of unity, who parade this error of the two natures, to ask and say how, concerning the two natures, one seeks which one hangs on the wood of the cross?

Where then will Apollinarius hide, this speaker of follies, he who eliminates the intelligence of the divine incarnation. If indeed Christ had shown in this attitude his fullness and his perfection in the divinity by taking the death of the cross which he was supposed to despise the more, how could he not have that which gives his perfection to humanity, in leaving our intellects unsaved, by not taking a spiritual soul and working out our salvation without having intelligence and being deficient in these faculties and resources of our mind.

Neither does the language of the cross agree with the insanity of Eutyches, who reduces the nails to a pure fantasy. For what appearance can be nailed down with nails if not in the flesh? What about a spear injury to the side? And a source of blood and water overflowing at the same time? And he is shown to be at the same time divine and human and without division of all that is his being, or rather entirely divine in this, because it flows for salvation, after Our Lord had given up his spirit.

But the cross also nailed the mouths of the demon-worshiping pagans and shows that all the gods of the gentiles are demons, as it is written; for evil and fearful spirits have a terrible fear of this seal, not as coming from someone forcibly slain, like pagan nonsense, – far from us – but as coming from the seal of the Son of God and the Word of the Father, because many men before Emmanuel were crucified, but they were not fearful to demons, and their cross did not scare away evil spirits. It is the word of demons, weak and (all the more) true, which testifies: What is there between us and you, Jesus, Son of God? Did you come here before the time to torment us?

But, someone will say, if the cross conquered and crushed demons, it did not prevail against the wise men influenced by the Greeks. There is no more to say than to what extent abundance has overcome them, as is demonstrated by the facts. For behold, their plentiful and lengthy speeches, are rejected by all men as being without proof, and no one bends his mind before them either. On the contrary, when fishermen and uneducated people exposed and spoke with the cross, crowds and towns bowed their necks and submitted.

How many of the philosophers wrote with fury against the divine evangelists? Celsus the Epicurean, Porphyry with the infamous name, Julian, the one called wise with a false name, his tyranny rendered him proud. But they seemed to have woven their works in vain: first because the writers that there have been from time to time and the doctors of the Church have solved the riddles of these people like cobwebs; secondly, they too have suffered the punishment for their madness by destroying their lives in a demonic and contemptuous way, to the point that even until now they have been hated because of their insanity or have found mercy because of their distress; for he who fights against Christ, fights rather against himself than against Christ, since, as for him, the cross is for us an invulnerable armour, an inviolable safeguard.

How did some run to Daphne, as I have heard it said, and spend the night without sleep? How did others, even more unbelieving and unintelligent, leave for Seleucia, so that when the quake took place, getting into the boats, they believed that the flights of the birds were their salvation. Who wouldn’t laugh? But rather who would not mourn and be saddened by this insanity? For if this punishment of the Lord had been of one kind and had struck, by the earthquake, only those who were in sin, perhaps there would have been to say for the want of reflection of their mind. But let us move on, because it was not possible thus to escape the hand of the one who is Almighty.

But if we only knew the diversity of the consequences of such punishments! Many have indeed been burnt by lightning, many on earth have been swallowed up in holes, others have been drowned in sea water or by waterspouts. What side to take against this sage? Against him who makes it known through the prophet that his judgments cannot be escaped and who says to those who behave like this foolishly: He who flees from terror, will fall into the hole; and who will come up from the hole, will be caught in the trap.

Let us speak of those who are wise like these! Where should we be more afraid of the terror of an earthquake? In the city that received the punishment because of its sin? or to Daphne? She who has not yet been chastised, and will she no longer be? But, with us through penance, may she erase her sins! And to live, where is there more security? Where there are delights, and everything is allowed? Or, where there are prayers, offices, supplications, tears and torments. Where souls, through preventive fear, renew themselves in remembrance, lift their eyes to heaven and wait for mercy from above.

So do not be deceived and do not provoke the wrath of God, for the earth is the Lord’s and his fullness, he in whom we have life and movement and being, and he is also favourable to those who have mistaken opinions, and may he save every race and age from all mortal wounds, the only good and charitable one, to whom befits glory and honour and power, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and at all times and for ever and ever. Amen!

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