My brothers and sisters, we have reached today the midpoint of the Fast. For three weeks we have each been struggling — according to our individual strength and circumstances — to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and… run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). But our Mother the Church knows that the race is long; She knows also our human weakness, just as the Lord Himself “knoweth whereof we are made, [and] remembereth that we are dust” (Ps. 102). And so, on this Sunday that marks the halfway point of our struggle, the Church commands us to bring out the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of Christ for all the faithful to venerate, desiring — in the words of the Lenten Synaxarion — “to refresh our souls and encourage us who may be filled with a sense of bitterness, resentment, and depression.”
But the comfort that the Church offers us today is not at all what many of us might expect. The Church does not bring out for our veneration an icon of the Resurrection. She does not remind us of the beautiful and supremely joyful hymns which we will soon sing together again on Pascha night. She does not comfort us by calling to our remembrance the blessedness of the life of the age to come. Instead, She brings us the Cross.
Perhaps if we shared the theology of some Protestants, this might make more sense to us. If we believed — as so many Christians around us believe — that Christ went to the Cross instead of us, so that we ourselves would not have to, then perhaps the comfort the Church offers us today would be more clear. But, my dear brothers and sisters, this is not our Orthodox and right-believing theology; Christianity is not a spectator sport. The Cross that stands before us at the center of the church today is not simply a reminder of a historical event, nor is it merely the symbol of some abstract theological concept. No, for us Orthodox Christians the Cross — that symbol of death —is in fact our very life itself.
St. Ephraim the Syrian proclaims the Cross to be none other than Tree of Life, the Tree that was barred from the human race by the sin of Adam, the Tree that Christ — the Second Adam — now offers freely to all the faithful. But we cannot be filled with that life simply by looking at the Tree, or by contemplating it, or even by believing in it — for as the Apostle James says: “the devils also believe, and tremble” (Jas. 2:19). No, there is one way, and one way only, to make the Tree of Life our own: we must partake of its fruit. In order to become “partakers of the divine nature” as St. Peter promised, we must partake of the Body of Blood of Christ — but let us never forget that it is the broken Body and the spilled Blood of Christ in which we all share, and which it is the purpose of our entire lives on this earth to make our own.
When our Lord was about to go to His voluntary and life-giving Passion, He said:
The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be. (John 12:23-26)
“Where I am, there shall also my servant be.” And so, my dear brothers and sisters, we see — lifted up before us in all the churches of the world today — the one place where it is absolutely certain that we can be with Christ: that place is hanging on the Cross. Today the Church offers us — as comfort — all of the sufferings and misfortunes, all of the trials and temptations, all of the sin and humiliation and loneliness and pain which are so completely inescapable in our lives in this fallen world, and which together form the cross that God has commanded each and every one of us to take up. And — despite how all this may sound — it truly is a comfort, greater even than all other possible comforts. Because the comfort offered to us by Christianity is not that Christ will take our suffering away from us, but that He will take all of our suffering and fill it with Himself. The comfort Christ offers us is that He will take even the worst sins and the most terrible mistakes — whether our own, or of those around us — and transfigure them into the very things that bring us into the Kingdom of God. After all, it was precisely the worst thing that we human beings ever did — the worst thing that could ever possibly be done — that Christ used, not only to open to us the gates of Heaven, but even to make us into gods by grace.
And He always stands ready to do the same thing in each of our own lives as well. The Apostle Peter assures us of this: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). And so we ought always to be ready to obey the exhortation of the Apostle James to “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations” (Jas. 1:2). Because truly, God’s providence is over absolutely everything in our lives, and no matter what manner of “fiery trials” we might experience in this life, we know beyond any doubt that each and every one of them is also always a gift. Though they may seem to the world to be nothing more than arbitrary, meaningless, senseless misfortunes, nevertheless to the Christian they are the very emblems of our salvation, and even of the boundless love of our God.
St. Ephraim the Syrian once said something extremely profound: “Patiently suffer hardship, in order to avoid the hardship of empty suffering.” Because no matter what some might say — whether the televangelists who proclaim a gospel of “health and wealth,” or the humanistic preachers of secular progress — the plain truth is that none of us in this fallen world can possibly escape from suffering and death. The choice before us is not whether or not to suffer, but whether or not our suffering will mean anything. If we resist, or complain, or run away, then our eyes will remain closed, and our hearts will remain hardened. But if instead we struggle to accept the crosses that the Lord allows in our lives — with patience, and with faith, and with gratitude — then we will be given the highest honor and the greatest joy that a Christian can possibly hope to receive in this life: not only to know, but even to participate in the divine love of God.
This is the great mystery revealed to us by St. Isaac the Syrian when he writes:
But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son over to death for its sake.“ This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself. Yea, if He had had anything more precious, He would have given it to us, so that by it our race might be His own. Because of His great love for us it was not His pleasure to do violence to our freedom (although He is able to do so), but He chose that we should draw near to Him by the love of our understanding.
The God Who is love has laid down His life for us on the Cross, and He offers that same life to each one of us, freely and unstintingly. That we must lay down our own lives in order to receive His is not some matter of harsh justice or arbitrary whim; it is simply a matter of love. It is as the Lord Himself said: “This is My commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).
This is the meaning and the purpose of all of our Christian struggle during this holy season of Great Lent. We must always remember that the measure of “success” in our struggle during this Fast is not the quantity — or even the quality — of our ascetic efforts. The only true measure of success is our love. And our growth and increase in love is the real purpose of all genuine ascetic effort, and indeed the only context in which our asceticism has any meaning at all.
And so, my brothers and sisters, when we come face to face with the Cross in our own lives — whether in the form of trials and temptations, or assaults from our sins and our passions, or the mockery and derision of the unbelieving world — let us not become distressed, or confused, or disheartened. It is not a sign that God has forgotten or abandoned us; it is not a sign that we ourselves are nothing but failures; it is not a sign that something has somehow gone terribly wrong. On the contrary, let us instead rejoice and give most fervent thanks, for through the Cross God is offering us the greatest of gifts and the holiest of opportunities: the chance to truly learn to love, the chance to truly become a Christian, the chance to truly become like Him.
May God grant each one of us the strength and the courage to receive the comfort which the Church offers us today in the Cross of Christ. May He fill each one of our hearts with the love that alone can enable us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and [to] run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2)…. so that “where I am, there shall also my servant be” (John 12:26). Amen!
Thank you, Father. As someone who is chronically, severely sick, I struggle with not letting my cross consume me. My illness demands so much attention and often leaves me too weak to pray anything other than the Jesus Prayer while laying in bed. Even though I know my cross is a gift from God for my salvation, and I have truly accepted and embraced it as such, and my priest has told me that my illness is my asceticism, I nonetheless frequently find myself irritable and greatly lacking in love towards those closest to me in my life… so I feel like I am not reaping the benefits of my asceticism of illness. Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, “the purpose of the Christian life is acquisition of the Holy Spirt,” and, obviously, love towards neighbor would be the evidence of that… something I definitely do not have. Do you have any suggestion for me?
I think that for you, it is very important to consciously thank God for your illness, and for the difficulties and annoyances that it causes you during the day… at least try to do so at the close of each day (as well as thanking Him for the good things of the day, of course), but ideally even in the midst of these things. This will lighten your burden and remind you of the gifts that God is giving you precisely through these trials and adversities, and help you to struggle with hope and with joy. At the same time, if you can try each day to take at least one opportunity to help someone else who is suffering — whether through a kind word, a brief prayer, or something else — your own burdens will then seem much lighter, and you will fulfull the apostolic commandment: “bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
And of course, above all — pray. Your prayer doesn’t need to be some lofty essay of piety, just the Jesus Prayer is more than enough. God is very close to those who are suffering, and is always ready to help — perhaps not by taking away the trial, but always He will give the grace that you need not only to endure it, but to come through it better off than you were before that trial happened.
I am sorry for my poor words and for not doing more to help you. You are in my unworthy prayers.
With love in Christ,
Your words are very helpful, Father. May God give me the strength to implement your suggestions. Thank you for your prayers.