Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this Sunday of the Holy Cross, we have come, now, to the midpoint of our Great Lenten Fast. This Sunday serves as a transitional day, a day of refreshment and pause. It is an oasis in the desert of our Lenten trek. So special is this day that the Church lifts her prohibition of kneeling or prostrating on Sundays (which are mini days of Resurrection because Sunday is the “Lord’s” Day), that we humbly cast ourselves down before the Cross in adoration and veneration, glorifying the Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. In fact, to further enhance this reality, in the hymnody of the Church, we sing of the Cross and “speak to [it]” as if it were “alive” (“Lenten Triodion,” Matins stichera, Canon I), as if it were the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, something perhaps some of us have picked up on and may even find strange at first. But, like so many things in Holy Orthodoxy, we have to live with this for a period of time to allow its truth to sink in and saturate our being and penetrate our souls with its distinct reality, just as the saving, Life-giving Cross is saturated with the divine blood of Jesus Himself, permeated with Christ Himself!
Shine, Cross of the Lord, shine with the light of thy grace upon the hearts of those who honor thee. With love inspired by God, we embrace thee, O desire of all the world. Through thee our tears of sorrow have been wiped away; we have been delivered from the snares of death and have passed over to unending joy. Show us the glory of thy beauty and grant to us thy servants the reward of our abstinence, for we entreat with faith thy rich protection and great mercy.
Hail!, life-giving Cross, the fair Paradise of the Church, Tree of incorruption that brings us the enjoyment of eternal glory: through thee the hosts of demons have been driven back; and the hierarchies of angels rejoice with one accord, as the congregation of the faithful keep the feast. Thou art the invincible weapon, an unbroken stronghold; thou art the victory of kings and the glory of priests. Grant us now to draw near to the Passion of Christ and to His Resurrection.
Hail!, life-giving Cross, unconquerable trophy of the true Faith, door to Paradise, succor of the faithful, rampart set about the Church. Through thee the curse is utterly destroyed, the power of death is swallowed up, and we are raised from earth to Heaven: invincible weapon, adversary of demons, glory of martyrs, true ornament of holy monks, haven of salvation bestowing on the world great mercy.
And, finally, Adam and Eve themselves are bidden in our hymnody to
Run with haste and embrace [the Cross] joyfully, and cry to it with faith: O precious Cross, thou art our succor; partaking of thy fruit, we have gained incorruption; we are restored once more to Eden, and we have received great mercy (“Lenten Triodion,” O Lord, I Call stichera).
As you heard, for us – the Church and her baptized brood – there is nothing more powerful spiritually than the Cross! Martyrs have died for it; others have confessed it at great cost to themselves; and saints have driven back the hordes of demons and the darkness of Hell with its mere form, making the sign of the Cross in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Glorious trophy, invincible weapon, haven of salvation: the Cross is the divine Word of judgment and the Door to Paradise for all who dare to heed the words of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ: “’Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross, and follow Me.’” Indeed, so precious is the Cross of our Lord, just what are we willing to lose, to forfeit, to jettison in order to gain its victory, its Eternal Life? Or, as our Lord asks, “’[W]hat shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world’ at the cost of his own soul? ‘[W]hat shall a man give in exchange [and lose his own soul]?’” Just how important is eternity to us? What we’re willing to trade speaks volumes.
St. Paul gives voice to this in one of his Epistles just after he speaks of how the Son of God emptied Himself so as to take on our flesh and blood lot, humbling Himself, even to the point of death on the Cross, just so He might re-gain us sinners (Pp. 2:5-11; Hb. 12:2). In light of Jesus’ condescension, whatever St. Paul has gained in this world is “crap” by comparison! And that’s nearly a verbatim quote of the Apostle! There is and can be no comparison to Jesus Christ and His Cross. Paul willingly and gladly suffers loss of all things in this life in order to gain Jesus Christ crucified. He is willing to partake of the sufferings of Jesus Christ, even to be “conformed to His death, if, by any means, [he] may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Pp. 3:1-11). No Cross, no Resurrection – the two are sides of the same coin – there is not one without the other. The Cross is the form of our Baptism and the power of our discipleship. We have “put on Christ” (Rm. 6:1-14; 13:14; Ga. 3:27). The Cross “shines with the brightness of Christ’s Resurrection” (“Lenten Triodion,” Matins stichera, Canon I).
What our Lord says here in the Gospel is in response to Peter’s horror at the prospect that Jesus the Messiah must endure suffering and rejection, humiliation and, finally, death at the hands of His enemies (Mk. 8:31-33). Peter is stunned and appalled so much so that he took Jesus aside and, as St. Mark says, he “began to rebuke Him.” But, Jesus, then, turned and rebuked His Apostle and all who like Peter wish to deny the Cross its glory and its power in the life of this world. “’Get thee behind Me, Satan,’” Jesus commands Peter, “’for thou savorest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men.’” The Cross and all that comes with it is, as Jesus notes, “’of God.’” It is fallen human reason that thinks otherwise (1 Cr. 1:18-31). The wisdom of God, the way of God, is the Cross – the old rugged Cross. Jesus crucified and risen bids us to empty ourselves, just like He did, take up the Cross, just like He did, and follow Him Who leads the way to the Kingdom of His Father.
What Jesus is calling us to is total and complete abandonment to Him so that we become thoroughly imbued with Jesus Christ. And, the first step in that journey is to “deny self.” Self-emptying is to be like Jesus Christ. For the sake of others; for the sake of the world’s salvation and sanctification the Lamb of God denied Himself and took up His Cross. And, on the third day, was raised up. Peter, in his horror, didn’t hear Jesus say that He would be raised up from the dead. Three times Jesus prophesies His Resurrection and each time it falls on obtuse hearts. When Jesus bids us to “deny self,” it is more than simply saying “no” to our desire for a third helping or another bowl of ice cream. It is to become united with Jesus and to become saturated with His saving and sanctifying grace to such an extent that we can say with St. Paul who knew well this reality, “I have been crucified to the world and the world to me” (Ga. 6:14). “[I]t is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Ga. 2:20). Jesus doesn’t erase us. He fulfills us. He lives in us and through us. He restores us to the true likeness of God and renews the divine image in us as we deny ourselves, take up His Cross, and follow Him. Following Jesus is the path of discipleship, of being a Cross-bearer. By being conformed to the crucified Holy One of God He makes us ever more authentic bearers of His divine image (Rm. 8:29).
Beloved brethren, this Gospel word to us is more necessary and more pertinent to us today than it has ever been perhaps, at least, in recent memory. We live in the midst of a world that is no longer neutral to Jesus and His Cross-birthed, Cross-formed Church. It has become increasingly agitated with us, viewing us as an obstacle in its insurrection against divine revelation and God’s moral order. If the lunacy of the current sexual agenda achieves its goal under the proposed Equality Act of making it a hate crime to believe and to say that gender is a biological truth at birth and not something I determine today and change tomorrow depending on how I feel, among other things, there will come a time of reckoning for us as Christians as to what we really do believe and are willing to sacrifice for the sake of our Lord and Master. Denial of self, taking up the Cross, and following Jesus will take on a whole new flesh and blood reality in a way we have not had to experience in our memory. What will we be willing to give in exchange for our freedom, if it comes down to that? What is the salvation of our soul worth? Or, in the words of an old Protestant hymn made famous by George Beverly Shea, would we “rather have Jesus than anything this [old] world affords today”?
We are not alone, beloved, in this. This will not be the first time the Church has been faced with such a decision, and it won’t be the last time. We have myriads of saints, martyrs, and confessors who have been tested and not found lacking because they denied themselves, took up the Cross of the Lord Jesus, and followed Him. Their strength, their hope, their joy, their glory was the Cross of the Crucified. For He and He alone has conquered the powers of sin, death, and the devil by His Cross and Resurrection. This is the stuff of the Christian Faith. It’s what energizes us. St. Paul counsels us to “consider [Jesus] Who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” And, then, the Apostle reminds me: “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (Hb. 12:3-4). No, I haven’t. Dying to myself and my passions in my struggle against sin, taking up the Cross, and following Jesus has not yet cost me blood. And yet, I live by this truth and stake my very life on the words of our Lord, “’Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross, and follow Me.’” May God grant in His mercy that in that day we may not be ashamed of our Lord and of His words.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!