The Tree of Life that Leads Us Back to Paradise: Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent and the Veneration of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

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

             People today look in many different places to find their true identities.  Unfortunately, it is all too easy to define who we really are in terms of our self-centered desires, our current state of personal brokenness, or some worldly project that inflames our passions.  Doing so may make us feel better temporarily, but it ultimately enslaves us even further to the ways of a world held captive to the fear of death.  On this Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, right in the middle of Lent, we celebrate that the Self-Offering of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world has worked the restoration and fulfillment of the human person in the divine image and likeness.  Through His crucifixion, the New Adam has entered fully into the wretchedness of the first Adam to the point of death in order to liberate us from slavery to its corrupting power and make us participants in eternal life.  The Cross is truly the Tree of Life through which we return to the blessedness of Paradise.

As our epistle reading states, Christ is our “great High Priest” Who ministers in the heavenly temple, where He intercedes for us eternally.   He has made a way for us into the kingdom of heaven through His Cross and glorious resurrection. In order to enter into His salvation, we must unite ourselves to His great Self-Offering by taking up our own crosses.  Doing so means denying ourselves as we put faithfulness to Him before anything else, including indulging our personal inclinations, whatever they may be, that distract us from fulfilling our high calling.    Even as common bread and wine are fulfilled as our Lord’s Body and Blood when offered in the Divine Liturgy, we too are transformed when we unite ourselves in faith and faithfulness to the High Priestly offering of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.

We must not adore the Cross only in religious services, but truly deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow the Savior each day of our lives if we are to know the joy of His Kingdom.  Otherwise, we will continue looking for meaning and purpose according to the standards of our world of corruption in one way or another.  Even if we gain the whole world by getting everything that we want, we will lose our souls and show that we are ashamed of our Lord and His Cross.  How we live and who we become will reveal the true object of our worship.

The disciplines of Lent provide us with opportunities to gain strength to take up our crosses as we follow the Lord to His Cross and empty tomb.  To embrace Lent with integrity is to take intentional steps to lose our lives for Christ’s sake as we die to the corruptions of soul that keep us comfortably enslaved to the ways of the first Adam.  When we devote time and energy to prayer on a daily basis, we open our hearts to the Savior and learn to put Him first in our lives.  When we struggle to fast from the richest and most sustaining foods, we gain strength to resist the deeply ingrained habit of indulging our self-centered desires for pleasure.  When we share our time, energy, and resources with others, we become more like Christ in offering ourselves for the good of our neighbors.  These are the most basic disciplines of the Christian life, and we all need Lent to remind us each year of their importance for gaining the spiritual health necessary to take up our crosses.

Saint Paul wrote that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:24) Pursuing the path to the healing of our souls requires uniting ourselves personally to our Lord’s Cross as we enter into the restoration and fulfillment of the human person that He worked by offering Himself upon it.  Because we fall short of doing so time and time again, we must all make regular use of the Holy Mystery of Confession as we name and repent of the ways in which we have not denied ourselves, taken up our crosses, and followed Him.  In order to acquire the spiritual health to receive His Body and Blood for our healing, and not for judgment or condemnation, we need the forgiveness and strength that the great High Priest shares with us through the ministries of His Body, the Church.  Along with prayer and fasting, taking Confession regularly is necessary preparation to receive Holy Communion.  That is not a matter of legalism, but of life, for to be in communion with Christ means to share in the fullness of life that He has brought to the world through His Cross.  If we refuse to confess and repent of the ways in which we remain enslaved to death, then we refuse to take up the cross of dying to the power of sin in our lives.  That amounts to putting ourselves out of a spiritually healthy relationship with the Lord.

We adore the Holy Cross today because it is ultimately a sign of the blessed eternal life that the Savior has brought to the world through His victory over the corrupting power of sin and death.  As we continue our Lenten journey, we must offer every dimension of our lives to Him for healing as we take up our crosses.  Whether in Lent or any other time, that is the only way to enter into Paradise by the power of the Cross through which our great High Priest has restored and fulfilled the human person in God’s image and likeness. Let us find our true identity in Him.

 

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