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. The God-Man conquered death by death through a public, torturous execution that was intended to strike fear in the hearts of any who would dare challenge the authority of the Roman empire. He is our great High Priest who “sympathize[s] with our weaknesses,” for He entered personally into the grave in order to liberate all of us who were held captive to the fear of death through His glorious resurrection on the third day.
Today we adore His Cross in the midst of a global pandemic that threatens to take the lives of a great many people and has posed profound challenges to life as we know it. Social distancing, sheltering in place, closing of businesses and schools, cancellations of all kinds of events and activities, and a worldwide economic downturn are now realities that impact us all. Throughout history, societies have dealt regularly with plagues and epidemics. And even when they have not, the mortality rate has remained 100%. The current crisis clarifies our condition as those who remain subject to disease, death, and all the problems common to the children of Adam and Eve in this world.
In ways that we cannot fully understand, the Savior became part of the same world we inhabit while remaining divine. As One Who is fully human, He suffered and died on the Cross. He is not a Lord Who causes evil, but One Who takes the full consequences of our corruption upon Himself in order to heal us and bring us into His blessed eternal life. That is also what Christ did through His ministry of healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and casting out demons. In His humanity, the Lord suffers with us such that no dimension of our life or death is foreign to Him. He offered Himself as the great High Priest for the restoration of every bit of our personhood in the divine image and likeness.
No matter what challenges we face, including sickness and death and inconvenience, we may use them as points of entry into the blessedness of His Kingdom. Our present situation provides many opportunities to deny ourselves out of concern for protecting the health of our vulnerable neighbors. It calls us to die to our addiction to pleasure and self-interest for the sake of others. It reminds us that saving our lives in this world is an impossible goal, for the common ravages of disease and death will be with us until the coming fullness of the Reign of God. The current global pandemic reminds us that governments, healthcare systems, and economies, even at their best, are not our saviors and cannot work the fulfillment of the human person in God’s image and likeness. They cannot conquer the grave or bring us back to Paradise. Only our great High Priest, the God-Man, Who embraced personally the full consequences of our brokenness, could do that. His Kingdom remains not of this world, and we will not enter it unless we take up our own crosses as we die to the power of sin in our lives.
This unusual Lent provides us all with many opportunities to do precisely that. When we sacrifice our usual routines and social interactions to protect the lives of others, we take up our crosses. The same is true when we donate to ministries and organizations that help people through the economic challenges of these times. The same is true when we fast from obsessive worry about the future as we entrust our lives and the well-being of our loved ones to the Lord. It may be tempting today to cope with the present crisis by numbing ourselves with mindless entertainment, rich food, and strong drink. Fasting from such self-indulgence enables us to recognize and offer our fears and weaknesses to the Lord for His healing and strength, instead of covering them over with self-gratification. It is only by fighting our passions in ways that redirect our deepest desires for fulfillment to God that we will gain the spiritual clarity to discern how to take up our crosses in this new and unsettling environment.
A good way of coping with social isolation is to establish new routines. Many of us have more time for prayer and spiritual reading this season than we had anticipated, and we should open our hearts to God and fill our minds with the teachings of the Scriptures, the lives of the Saints, and other beneficial resources as much as we can. Instead of being discouraged by the limited liturgical and sacramental life of the Church this Lent, we should focus on the profound opportunities that we have for cultivating the prayer of the heart in quiet and stillness. And if the present circumstances have given us anything but quiet and stillness due to the demands of caring for children or others for whom we are responsible, we should embrace this path to grow in love for others as we serve those in whom we encounter our Lord.
Regardless of the particulars of our life circumstances, let us use the challenges posed by the global pandemic as reminders of the folly of making life in this world our false god. By His Cross and glorious resurrection, the Savior has conquered the power of death. He is not a remote or disengaged deity, but the God-Man Who used His own death to make even the grave an entryway to the glory of the Kingdom. Let us look to His Cross as the ultimate sign of hope for a world still held captive by fear of the grave. That is how we will show that we are not ashamed of our great High Priest, Who offered up Himself to the point of death, burial, and descent into Hades in order to triumph over them all. Let us use this unusual Lent to prepare to follow Him into the joy of the empty tomb through His precious and life-giving Cross.