SUNDAY OF THE CROSS 2019
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Welcome to the Third Sunday of the Great Fast! We know it’s the Third Sunday because the Holy and Life-giving Cross is in the middle of the church for us to venerate, and it will remain there until Friday. In fact, in the Orthodox Church we call all of next week “Cross Veneration Week.” Why does the holy Church do this? Won’t we be venerating the Holy Cross during Passion Week, Holy Week? Yes, of course we will, but this is different. Great Lent is a journey, a journey to Holy Week, a journey to Pascha. When Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, they had a long journey to endure, a journey through the wilderness, a journey through the hot desert before they would reach the Promised Land. While on their way, it was essential to find sources of water. Often this water was obtained at oases. Do you know what an oasis is? An oasis is a place in the desert where underground sources of water bubble up to the surface. Some are very small and some are very large, supporting crops, livestock, and even communities of people. One feature that one sees at every oasis in the desert is trees, lots of trees, usually date palms. These wonderful trees provide food, they provide shade, they even provide a back-rest for those weary from their travels. There’s something else that the trees provide that we don’t often think about...they provide protection. Protection? Protection from what? The trees protect the travelers from being sand-blasted into oblivion, and they protect the water from being contaminated by the ferocious winds that blow in the desert. In this same way, the Church offers the life-bearing tree of the cross of the Lord to those who have traveled in ascetic labors and deprivations, for their “relief, cooling, and consolation.”
As I said before, the time of the fast is a journey. It’s a journey that involves increased asceticism and labors of piety. If there is any time during the course of the year when we need to make a real effort to crucify our flesh with its passions and lusts, it is Great Lent. A true fast consists in working hard to free ourselves from every evil thing, restraining our tongues from every idle, corrupt, and indecent word. Turning away from these things should not be for us an unpleasant chore, a grudging exercise, an inconvenient duty, but rather a saving labor that brings peace and joy. However, this work is far from easy. It takes real commitment. The truth is, if we don’t do the work, we don’t get the reward. If we don’t do the journey, we don’t get the oasis.
Great Lent is our declaration of war against sin; not somebody else’s sin, but our own sin. We promise at this time to crucify our passions and lusts, and we voluntarily choose to suffer, even though it is just a tiny bit of suffering. In order to dislodge the “sting of sin” from our flesh, we have to discipline it with fasting. After all, the very first sin, that cataclysmic sin which brought ruin to the entire human race resulted from Adam eating something that God told him not to eat! We are called upon to undo what Adam did by saying “no” to the serpent rather than “yes.” St. Tikhon of Moscow wrote: “Didn’t Christ fast for forty days, although He possessed a sinless nature? While miraculously feeding others, didn’t He himself hunger and thirst? During the fast the Church more intensely calls us to spend time in vigils and prayer. Didn’t Christ the Savior dedicate all His time away from teaching and helping people to conversing with His Father and to fervent prayer to Him? This means that the way of fasting is the way of Christ, and whoever wants to serve Him should also follow Him; and blessings and glory are promised from Christ to him for this, for ‘where the cross is, there also is glory.’”
By understanding the cross we see that through suffering comes glory. On the cross the Savior endured grievous sufferings. The Innocent One was condemned to a shameful death and was nailed to the cross; crowned with a crown of thorns, and pierced in the side with a spear. He endured mockery, spitting, and cursing. He experienced excruciating physical and psychological torments. On the Cross He completed that great work of redeeming humanity, for which cause He came to earth. By means of the Cross, He glorifies not only Himself, but also all those who desire to enter into the Kingdom, glorifying even the Cross itself. From that time on the Cross is no longer the shameful instrument of execution but to the contrary, it has become the dearest and most sacred object for all Orthodox Christians. Therefore Christians, if they walk the path of ascetic labors and struggle with sin, if they bear their crosses with humility and zeal—that is, various troubles, deprivations, disappointments and the like, let them be comforted: The Kingdom of God is taken by force, and those who force themselves to do God’s will, will take it (Matthew 11:12). If they participate in Christ’s sufferings, then they will participate in Christ’s glory; if they die with Him they will also rise with Him. St. Theophan the Recluse wrote: “The Spirit of Christ is the spirit of preparedness to suffer and to bear, good-naturedly, all that is sorrowful. Comfort, arrogance, luxury, and ease are all foreign to its searching and tastes. Its path lies in the fruitless, empty desert. The model is the forty-year wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness. Who follows this path? All those who see Canaan beyond the desert, overflowing with milk and honey. During their wandering they too will receive manna, however not from the earth, but from heaven; not material manna, but spiritual. All the glory is within!”
May the grace-filled power of the Cross of Christ bring strength and consolation to all those who dare to be “illumined by fasting.” Amen.