Today is exactly the halfway point between the beginning of Great Lent and the holy day of Pascha (Easter), the Feast of Feasts. It is usually right around now, three and a half weeks in, that many of us begin to be ready for Lent to be over. But the fast is only halfway through. We have two and a half weeks of Lent left, then Holy Week to go.
Usually this past Sunday’s sermon at various Orthodox churches marks the lifting up of the Cross for veneration at this point, emphasizing that the Cross is placed here at the center of the fast to give us strength and courage, showing it as our insignia of triumph. But I have to submit a small criticism and say that few are the times I’ve heard why the Cross is so encouraging in these sermons. It’s almost as if we’re supposed to cheer the Cross as some kind of talisman or perhaps as our team’s flag.
So let’s be clear on this: The Cross is an encouragement to us because of the death and resurrection of Christ. If we’re not here in Great Lent to die and to be raised with Christ, then there’s really no point to any of this. That’s the Gospel we’re living. There’s no other purpose to this holy season than that.
The Cross lies before us this week in our churches, placed in the center for our veneration until Friday evening, and we find ourselves at a cross-roads, a place of decision. The question now is how we will continue, how we will make this journey to Pascha. Will we soldier on as good [semi-]ascetics who are supposed to find courage in the mere image of our religious symbol? Will we place our hope in the playing out, once again, of this complex liturgical drama that is Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha? Will we just sort of forget about all this until it’s time to eat meat again in a few weeks?
Here is the road that I hope we will take, the road that I hope to take myself: I shall die and be resurrected with Christ. Everything for me shall become Christ. The Church shall be revealed as Christ, “the fullness of Him Who filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23).
As we stand at this cross-roads today, I hope that we shall find (and re-find) ourselves in Christ. To that end, I commend to you these beautiful words from Georges Khodr, Metropolitan of Mount Lebanon:
How should I conduct myself at Pascha? If the word means passing over, then there’s nothing left for me except to leave everything to meet Christ. There is nothing in the feast except for Christ. There is nothing in Christianity except Christ. Everything else is just a way to talk about Him. It is an expression of Him. Once I was asked what I would keep from this world if I was stranded on a desert island. I answered, “The Sermon on the Mount from Matthew and the Gospel of John.” You know, Lord, that we Orthodox read the entire Gospel in our homes during Holy Week because the Gospel is You.
How should I conduct myself at Pascha? I try to become the Gospel, to become the word so that people may read me and live. Christianity is faces that are illumined in order to give light. This is the living Pascha. It is what causes me to pass through people to the Father’s face. How should I live? “I do not live, it is Christ who lives in me.” Christianity is not a religious system. It is love—that is, clinging to Christ such that you forget your own face in order to see His face and the whole world in His face. If we are people of Pascha, then we are in a state of constantly going beyond ourselves and the world in order to become Him and for Him to become us. It is not a matter of systems and it is not a matter of theoretical principles. Everything is His face, until all faces pass away or we read Him traced upon them.
How should I conduct myself? I should forget myself until I see Him and Him alone in me, until I see myself overlooking all existence. How should I conduct myself? I should place Him before my eyes and see Him as the existence that makes everything else superfluous for me. I do not converse with Him—I encounter Him. Your face, O Lord, Your face is my desire until the moon passes away.