We have reached today the midpoint of the Fast. Half of the struggle is behind us, and the second half still lies ahead. And seeing our weakness, seeing our faintness of heart and the ease with which we can tire and grow despondent, on this Sunday our mother the Holy Church mercifully offers us hope and refreshment, comfort and consolation. But the form which this takes is not at all what “common sense” might imagine. Of the events yet to come, of the prizes which we are running to obtain, the Church does not offer a prefigurement of Pascha and the resurrection, but rather of Holy Friday and the Cross.
Many today have heard that Christianity is a crutch for the weak and feeble-minded, false comfort for those who cannot bear the harsh truths of reality. I entreat all those seduced by such thoughts to enter into an Orthodox Church on this Sunday and behold in the middle of the temple, displayed freely for all to see, exactly what kind of crutch and what kind of comfort Christianity has to offer! Yes, the Cross is a crutch and it is a comfort. But no less is it a promise of – and a summons to – our own personal suffering, humiliation, and death, in loving imitation of the Son of God crucified thereon. As it says in the Synaxarion for this Sunday: “If our God was crucified for our sake, how great should be our effort for His sake, since our afflictions have been assuaged through the Lord’s tribulations, and by the commemoration and the hope of the Cross of glory.”
“The hope of the Cross of glory.” Yes, my brothers and sisters, the hope of this glory belongs to us Christians too, no less than the hope of the glory of the resurrection! For let us not be misled by those who theologize falsely, claiming that Christ came to endure the Cross in place of us, so that we ourselves would not have to endure it. Such theology truly is nothing but false comfort and wishful thinking. St. Paul, even as he speaks almost in ecstasy of the freedom and glory of the children of God, declares that we are “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17).
Those who look for easy answers and a comfortable life, those who wish to run away from the harsh truths of reality, will not find any such escape in true, mystical Christianity. And thank God for that! Thank God that He has not deprived us of the glory of the Cross. Thank God that our Faith is so much richer, so much deeper, far more real and more powerful than the fairy tale that some suppose it to be. Thank God that Christianity is not the way of false hope and easy answers, but that rather it is the way of the Cross. Indeed, for us Orthodox Christians the Cross is no theological abstraction, nor a merely historical event. Just as it lies in the center of the church today, so too the Cross lies at the very center of our lives.
And lest we be tempted to forget this all-important fact, this Great Lent the Providence of God has allowed a particularly clear and obvious cross to be manifested, not only to Orthodox Christians but also to the entire world: the coronavirus, in the shadow of which modern life has all but collapsed overnight.
All around us people are overwhelmed with fear and panic, rushing to and fro, doing everything in their power to protect themselves and their loved ones from this plague. Brethren! If only we were half so concerned with saving ourselves from our sins as the world is with saving itself from this virus! We see clearly before us the lengths to which people are willing to go to care for their mortal bodies – if only we would go a tenth so far in caring for our immortal souls! If we were to do so, I have little doubt that even this tenth of an effort would be enough for us to quickly and easily attain unto salvation and eternal life, no matter how many and grievous our sins. For death is implacable and has regard for no man, nor does it care in the least for all the toils and labors which we undertake in attempting to flee from it, since it knows that it will doubtless lay each and every one of us in the grave at the end. But our Lord Jesus Christ is merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, quick to forgive, and looks for even the slightest excuse to save us and to bring us home to Paradise for all eternity. Let us then be wise in where we sow our efforts, taking heed to the Lord Who said:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
I have heard that some people, wishing to spend their time in isolation profitably, have begun sharing reading lists with one another. This is an excellent idea. I too have a reading list, which I will share with you now. Don’t worry, it is not too lengthy. In fact, there is but one title; here it is: the Funeral Service of the Orthodox Church. Because whatever comes to pass in the next days and weeks and months, we know that sooner or later the day will come when this sublime service will be sung over our cold dead body. Let us then take a little time to ponder and prayerfully meditate upon these powerful, compunctionate, somber, and yet surpassingly joyful words of wisdom, so that when they are sung over our bodies at least a small portion of their beauty and grace will have been reflected in our lives upon this earth.
These words, written long ago by St. John of Damascus, warn us clearly and unmistakably of the treachery of a worldly life:
Truly all things are vanity, and life is but a shadow and a dream; for in vain doth every one born of earth disquiet himself, as saith the Scripture; when we have acquired the world, then do we take up our abode in the grave.
Through the words of the funeral service – just as through each and every event which comes to pass in this world – God calls out us to flee from such a fate, to save ourselves from a meaningless life and an equally meaningless death. As St. Isaac the Syrian warns us: “This life was given to you for repentance; do not waste it in empty pursuits.” We were not placed in this world simply in order to live in it as long and as happily as possible. No, my brothers and sisters, God has put us on this earth for one reason, and for one reason only: in order to give us the chance to pass through the doorway leading from this world to Paradise. And, quite simply, that doorway is the Cross.
Knowing that this is no easy feat, in His infinite mercy God has arranged absolutely every single detail of our lives in order to help us in this “one thing needful” (c.f. Luke 10:42), to give us every chance and tool and motivation to find and to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. And the coronavirus is by no means an exception to this immutable reality, it has by no means defeated the love and mercy with which the Lord God governs our lives. Nor is it by any means an indication that this love and mercy are merely pleasant fictions. On the contrary: the coronavirus is nothing less than an emblem of the love of God for mankind.
This is no small statement, and I do not make it lightly. But neither do I make it of myself. Let us listen to the words of the saints of all ages, spoken again in recent times by Elder Macarius of Optina:
The law of destruction was imprinted since my conception; on each newly developing member, death applied its menacing seal, saying: “This is mine.” The links of my days are a chain of greater or lesser suffering; every new day of my life is a step that draws me closer to decay. Sicknesses come, and my trembling heart asks them: “Are you just the forerunner of my death, or have you already been given the authority to separate my soul from my body with a dread and terrible parting?” Sometimes my spiritual eye, distracted by the cares of life, abandons the contemplation of my sad destiny. Yet, as soon as an unexpected sorrowful event strikes me, I quickly come back to my favorite teaching, like a baby to its mother’s breast, i.e., to a discourse on death, for in sincere grief is hidden true consolation, and the wise remembrance of death breaks the bonds of death.
Thou, Who by Thy unspeakable goodness hast created us, tell us, why didst Thou fill our lives with grief? Dost not Thy mercy make Thee pity our sufferings? Why dost Thou grant me being and later take it away through a painful death?
I do not enjoy, says God, your illnesses, O man. But, out of the seeds of your grief and sorrow, I want to bring forth for you fruits of eternal and majestic joy. I imprinted the law of death and destruction not only in your body, but also in every object of this visible world. I commanded the whole world, together with your body, to cry out to you that this life is not the true and real life, and there is nothing permanent here to which your heart should become attached… When you do not hearken unto the threatening voice of the entire universe, then My paternal mercy, which always wishes you unlimited good, compels Me to lift the scepter of chastisement. When I torment you with temptations, wear you out with illness, with pangs of remorse, it is that you might abandon your folly, become wise, cease seeking after shadows and return to the path of truth, and at the same time to the path of salvation. My unutterable mercy and unlimited love for human beings compelled Me to take your flesh upon Myself; through My abasement I have revealed the greatness of God to the human race. By suffering on the Cross for the salvation of men, whom I desire to draw to Myself, I first afflict them with grief, and with these arrows of affliction I deaden their hearts to temporary pleasures. The scepter of punishment is an emblem of My love for men.
My brothers and sisters, it is by no means an accident that this plague has come upon us during the season of Great Lent. Truly, the coronavirus is a gift given to us by the love of God, for mankind today no longer wishes to repent. We have grown fat and lazy, complacent and proud, and we have scornfully derided the Spirit of God, seeking to banish Him far from our lives in this world… or else we have simply grown totally indifferent as to whether He is with us or not. Such a fate is infinitely worse than death. And so the love of God has not left us alone, but has reached down to us from Heaven to shake us awake from our spiritual slumber, to give us yet another chance to forsake this world of death and decay. As Elder John Krestiankin once said: today we no longer have any virtues or any asceticism, and so our only hope to be saved is through illnesses. And so, again and again, as we will sing triumphantly on Pascha night: by death Christ is trampling down death.
But let us not forget that God has not allowed this plague during Lent to come upon Christians only, but upon all the world alike. And neither let us forget that is was not simply through poverty and death, but rather through profound gratitude and joy in the face of poverty and death, that the saints and martyrs of old shook the unbelieving world to its core and converted even the most hardened pagans and sinners. And so not only for our own sakes, but even more for the sakes of those around us, we Orthodox Christians must likewise face the poverty and death brought by the coronavirus with profound gratitude and joy. This plague has been given as a healing balm for the spiritual sores of all people, Christians and unbelievers alike. But if we Christians refuse the cure out of faintheartedness and fear, how can we possibly hope for the unbelieving world to be profited by it? “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32) said the Lord, as He went of His own free will to ascend the Cross we see before us today. So much belongs to us, my dear brothers and sisters, “for unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:48).
How vital it is, then, that we Orthodox Christians recognize the gift of the coronavirus for what it is, that we bow down before the Lord and kiss it with humble gratitude and sincere joy, just as those of us who still have the opportunity will bow down and kiss the Cross in the center of the church today. For this virus truly is a cross. Just like a cross, it has the power to bring us to our earthly grave. But our Christ has filled even the Cross and death with Himself, He has made even the grave but a doorway to heaven. And so too this virus, precisely because it has the power to kill, has also the power to free us from true and spiritual death, to rouse us to repentance, to work in us the most profound of changes in our lives.
So let us not fear it. Let us not “sorrow… even as others which have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), for our hope as Christians is so much more than what mere earthly health can possibly offer. Rather, let us obey the words of the Apostle James who commands us: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into diverse temptations” (James 1:2). Let us rejoice that the Lord is calling us. Let us rejoice that He is freeing us from our delusions and our sins. Let us rejoice that we are being given every reason and every opportunity to repent before the end. And above all, let us thank and bless and glorify the Lord Christ, Who “being found in fashion as a man… humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Let us share in His Cross, let us share in His suffering, let us share in His death, that we might also share in His glorious and saving resurrection on Pascha night. For like St. Paul, so too do all true Christians “reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Amen.