Embracing the Struggle for Faithfulness: Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent and the Veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1

           Today we venerate the precious and life-giving Cross upon which Jesus Christ offered Himself for the salvation of the world.  By entering into death through the Cross and rising in glory on the third day, He has enabled us to become participants by grace in His eternal life.  To honor the Lord’s Cross requires much more than simply conducting a religious service on a particular day.  It requires taking up our own crosses and uniting ourselves in sacrificial obedience to Christ.  We must offer more than beautiful words and sentiments if we are to do that, for the way of the Cross is participatory.   Our Great High Priest offered Himself fully for our sake, even to the point of death.  It will be impossible for us to share in the joy of Christ’s resurrection unless we offer our lives to Him by dying to our distorted sense of self.   For we will only become the uniquely beautiful people He created us to be in His image and likeness when we experience the healing of the human person that He worked through the Cross.

To participate in the life of Christ requires becoming like Him from the depths of our souls, which is why He told the disciples that they must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Him.  Doing so requires losing our lives for the sake of the Lord and His Gospel; ironically, that is the only way to save our lives.  If we make success or happiness in this world on our own terms our ultimate goal, we will pursue a path that amounts to a complete rejection of the Savior.  Remember that Satan tempted Christ in the desert with worldly power and popularity, as did those throughout His ministry who wanted Him to become a successful political and military leader against the Romans.  No one expected or even understood a Messiah Who died on the Cross, which was seen as a sign of complete failure.  By doing so, however, He has destroyed our captivity to death through His victory over Hades and the grave in His glorious resurrection.  His Kingdom stands in stark contrast to the ways and expectations of our world of corruption.

We take up our crosses whenever we embrace the struggle to become more like our Lord in any circumstance of our lives, despite the inevitable tension that we experience whenever we do so.  It is as simple as that, for He is the perfection of humanity as the God-Man and we most certainly are not.  We open ourselves to His gracious healing of our souls when we accept the painful struggle to turn from serving ourselves to serving Him and our neighbors.  We must not denigrate the small opportunities that we have each day to do so in our familiar routines, for it is what we think, say, and do daily that makes up the bulk of our lives and shapes us and others most profoundly.  Instead of imagining rare and heroic acts of sacrifice, we should focus on the opportunities already before us to put faithfulness to God and serving our neighbors before fulfilling our own self-centered desires, however noble we may think that they are.  If we cannot respond faithfully to small challenges, we will never be prepared for the large ones.

We all face situations in our lives that challenge us to become more like Christ in selfless love, forgiveness, and patience.  Whether involving our families, our health, our financial situation, or anything else, there is no shortage of opportunities to find the healing of our souls by living as those who are not ashamed of the Lord’s Cross.  Instead of focusing on what we can get out of these difficult circumstances for ourselves or on our own will being done, we must offer our challenges to Christ as we unite ourselves more fully to the One Who offered up Himself for the salvation of the world.  When we do so, we will experience in our own souls the great tension between making what we want our god and taking up our crosses in obedience to the one true God.  There is no way to find the healing of our souls without embracing that tension, for that is what it means to deny ourselves as we deliberately turn away from serving our self-centered desires to following the Savior Who has conquered death through His Cross.

The spiritual disciplines of Lent certainly provide important opportunities to gain strength in denying ourselves as we take up our crosses. Instead of indulging in constant entertainment and other unnecessary distractions, we must stretch ourselves a bit by devotion to prayer and reading the Scriptures each day.  Instead of dwelling on whatever thoughts we find appealing and saying whatever comes to mind, we must endure the internal struggle of keeping a close watch on our hearts and mouths.  Otherwise, we will become enslaved to the habit of welcoming thoughts that inflame our passions and speaking in ways that cause others to stumble.  Instead of excusing ourselves from generosity toward our needy and inconvenient neighbors, we must find ways to serve them as Christ has served us.  By appropriate fasting and other forms of self-denial, we will gain experience in saying “no” to ourselves so that we will be able to say “yes” to the Lord and those in whom we encounter Him each day.  When we take Confession, we open ourselves to healing from the prideful illusion of self-righteousness as we confront how little of our lives we have truly offered to Him.

The point of Lent is to prepare us to follow the Lord to His Cross and empty tomb.  There is no way to do that other than by uniting ourselves to the Savior in holiness, which inevitably requires the tension and struggle of serving Him and not simply ourselves.  The point is not to make us miserable, of course, but to make it possible for us to embrace the joy that He has brought to the world by delivering us from bondage to the fear of death, which is the wages of sin.  Let us venerate the Cross, then, not only in this service, but by taking up our crosses in our daily lives so that we will grow in union with the One Who offered up Himself purely out of love for our salvation.  The more that the way of the Cross becomes characteristic of our lives, the more we will know already the holy joy of His resurrection.

 

 

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