The Cross Serves No Earthly Goal: Homily for the Third Sunday of Great Lent (Veneration of the Cross) in the Orthodox Church

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

             In many different ways, we have all become experts at ignoring the obvious.  In many aspects of our lives, we tend to focus on unimportant matters and pay little attention to what really counts. Likewise, we are inclined to misinterpret our Lord’s teaching in ways that protect our preconceived notions and selfish desires from criticism, even to the point of making us think that we are serving Him when we are doing the exact opposite.  Across the centuries, those who worship worldly power and success have continued to view His Cross as an empty symbol which they fill with whatever suits their purposes.  Today we adore the Cross, not because it helps us “gain the whole world,” but because through His great Self-Offering on it, the New Adam has liberated us from slavery to the corrupting power of death. Rising on the third day, He conquered Hades and the grave through the Cross, which is truly the Tree of Life through which we return to the blessedness of Paradise.

It is very easy, however, to forget that the Cross was the complete opposite of a beloved religious and cultural symbol in first-century Palestine.  The Savior offered Himself for the salvation of the world on the cruelest instrument of capital punishment used by the Roman Empire, which understood religion merely as a political tool for gaining “the whole world.”  Our Lord’s disciples could not understand a Messiah Who died on the Cross, for they expected a righteous military leader to destroy Israel’s foes and set up an earthly reign.   From Peter’s attempt to correct the Lord when He foretold His crucifixion to the present day, we all look for ways to ignore the true meaning of the Savior’s Cross  so that we can convince ourselves that we do not really have to take up our crosses in order to follow Him.  Like those who rejected and condemned Christ to crucifixion, we would prefer a Lord Who serves our preferred agendas for getting what we want in the world as we know it.

As we adore the Cross today in the middle of Lent, we celebrate that the crucified and risen Lord 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 Him by taking up our own crosses.  Regardless of the circumstances of our lives, that means denying ourselves in order to put faithfulness to Him before pursuing any earthly goal or satisfying any desire, no matter how appealing or apparently noble, that distracts us from fulfilling our high calling as those who bear the divine image and likeness.    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 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, for then we will live the vast majority of our lives according to some version of the standards of our world of corruption.  Even if we gain the whole world by getting everything that we want and all that our culture admires, we will lose our souls as those who 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, which lead only to despair.  When we devote time and energy to prayer on a daily basis, we open our hearts to the Savior and receive strength 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.  Whenever we mindfully embrace the difficult struggle to turn away from slavery to our distorted desires and reorient our lives toward God, we take up our crosses.  These are the most basic practices of the Christian life, and we all need Lent to remind us each year of their importance for gaining the spiritual health necessary to follow our Lord.

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 embrace the restoration and fulfillment 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 the Savior.  In order to acquire the spiritual health to receive His Body and Blood for our salvation, 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.  Confession is not optional for Orthodox Christians, but a necessity.  Along with prayer and fasting, we must all take Confession regularly in preparation to receive Holy Communion.  That is not a matter of legalism, but of reality, for to be in communion with Christ means to share in the healing 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 open ourselves to the healing and strength necessary to take up our crosses and die to the power of sin in our lives.

We do not adore the Holy Cross today because it is useful for serving any personal, cultural, or political agenda.  We do so because the Savior has brought eternal life to the world through His victory over the corrupting power of sin and death.  Now that we are halfway through our Lenten journey, let us continue bearing our crosses as we reorient the desires of our hearts for purification and fulfillment in God.  Whether in Lent or any other time, that is the only way to enter into Paradise through our great High Priest.









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