Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1
We do not have to look very closely at dominant trends in our culture today for signs that growing numbers of people are offering their lives for the service of false gods, regardless of how they identify themselves religiously. The evidence of their idolatry is not primarily in where they congregate to worship, but in how they seek first the things of this world, such as possessions, power, and pleasure. That was the mindsight of the corrupt religious leaders who called for the Lord’s crucifixion because they perceived Him as a threat to their power. It was also the perspective of the Romans who believed that worshiping their many gods protected their empire. By having “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin on the Cross, Pontius Pilate did not miss the opportunity to let everyone know what happened to those perceived to challenge Roman rule. (Jn. 19:20)
On this Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, right in the middle of Lent, we do the complete opposite of making success in the world, however defined, our highest goal. Today we venerate the Cross on which Jesus Christ offered Himself for the salvation of the world. Through His crucifixion, the New Adam entered fully into the misery and 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 through His glorious resurrection on the third day. The Cross is truly the Tree of Life through which we return to the blessedness of Paradise.
As our epistle reading states, our crucified and risen Lord is the “great High Priest” Who ministers in the heavenly temple, where He intercedes for us eternally. In order to enter into His salvation, we must take up our own crosses as we refuse to make pursuing any earthly goal our highest good. Denying ourselves means putting faithfulness to Him before anything else, including indulging any personal inclinations and desires that hold us back 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 to the High Priestly offering of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. If we refuse to do so, however, we will shut ourselves out of the blessedness of His Kingdom, both as a present reality and as a future hope.
We must not adore the Cross only in religious services, but must deny ourselves daily as we take up our crosses in order to love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves. The disciplines of Lent help us gain the strength to do precisely that as we take intentional steps to die to all that keeps us comfortably enslaved to the self-centered ways of the first Adam. By devoting ourselves to prayer, we open our hearts to the Savior and learn experientially that our life is in Him. By refusing to gratify our desires for the richest and most sustaining foods, we open ourselves in humility to receive His strength for resisting deeply ingrained habits of self-indulgence. 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 to practice them in order to gain the spiritual health necessary to take up our crosses, especially in relation to the great challenges of our lives.
If we refuse to deny ourselves even in small ways this Lent, then we will become even more accustomed to serving ourselves instead of God and neighbor. Doing so will reveal that we are ashamed of our Lord and His Cross, and prefer to offer our lives to other gods, especially ourselves. Even if we continue down that path to the point that we somehow gain the whole world, we will risk losing our souls by committing idolatry every bit as much as those who condemned Christ because He stood in the way of fulfilling their passionate desires for power. Indeed, we will be even more guilty because we know that His Cross is not a sign of ultimate defeat to be repudiated, but “a weapon of peace and a trophy invincible” to be honored.
There is perhaps nothing worse than distorting our calling as Christians to the point that the Cross becomes merely an empty symbol that we use to achieve our desire for any earthly goal, no matter how appealing or noble. If we do not actually take up our crosses and deny ourselves out of love for God and neighbor, then we will condemn only ourselves when we use the Cross idolatrously to justify getting whatever we want personally for ourselves or for the factions, nations, or other groups with which we identify. Whenever we recognize that we are coming anywhere close to using the way of Christ to seek the things of this world as ends in themselves, we must call for the Lord’s mercy from the depths of our souls as we struggle to embody St. Paul’s teaching that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:24)
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, let us offer every dimension of our lives to Him for healing as we take up our own crosses. Whether in Lent or any other time, that is the only way to enter into Paradise through our great High Priest, Who offered Himself fully upon the Cross for our salvation.