With this Sunday we come to the end of the third week of the fast and tomorrow we begin week number four of Great Lent. We have reached, in other words, the mid-point of the Fast and the Church sets before us on this day the holy symbol of our faith, the symbol which gives meaning to our lives, meaning to our fasting, our self-restraint, our prayer, our going to church, our giving of ourselves and every other virtuous thing we do. We find meaning and fulfillment and, more importantly, we receive inspiration from this sign, this holy symbol of the Holy Cross.
It is interesting that in the Orthodox Church we confess that it was every single event of our Lord’s early life – from His Incarnation, to His Circumcision, His Baptism and so on – which constitutes our redemption; everything was done for us and our salvation. Yet, the Church from very early on began to speak especially about His Passion and death when wanting to stress our redemption. In fact, the entire message of the gospel was, quite simply, condensed into the “word of the Cross”. And so St. Paul writes, “we preach Christ crucified” (1. Cor. 1:23).
However this preaching of Christ crucified is not a preaching of something horrible, something horrendous and something terrible. It is, instead, a preaching of the victory over death and destruction and sin and all the evils of this world. For, although we venerate and honor the cross in our tradition and not only do we have images of the cross in our churches and homes but we also make the sign of the cross on our own bodies, when we talk about the cross it is always in connection with the Resurrection. And so today, in place of “Holy God – Svjati Boze…”, we sing: “We venerate Thy Cross, O Master, and we glorify Thy Holy Resurrection.” In other words, the two go hand in hand.
But more than the cross being a mere “symbol” of victory the cross is a weapon. A weapon with which we are called to do battle. And so our Lord says in this morning’s gospel lesson, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
We carry all sorts of things, many burdens in life – many things that we “concern ourselves with” as our Lord tells Martha in that beautiful gospel story. Yet, it was only the cross that Christ wants us to take up.
Taking up the cross means having direction in our lives no matter how lost or uncertain or alone we might feel. And the holy cross gives meaning to every moment of our lives, wherever, whatever point in our lives we might find ourselves to be. You know, one of the messages the Cross gives us is precisely this – our salvation can be found anywhere! St. Theophan the Recluse wrote, “Our salvation does not depend on our location but our spiritual disposition – the state of our soul (emphasis, mine). Therefore, it is possible to save oneself anywhere, in the same way that we can find our destructive fall anywhere. Hence, one of the Apostles, being in the presence of the Lord, reached his downfall. Yet, the thief on the cross found his salvation!”
But I think the question still remains: if our veneration of the Cross is ultimately our celebrating of the glorious Resurrection; if that is, in other words, the end result of the Cross, why do we remember it at all? Isn’t the point that Christ defeated death? Why should we have to remember the painful crucifixion? The answer is simple: there is no Resurrection without the crucifixion. And it’s here that we see the purpose of our fasting. Fasting is found throughout the Bible and those that fasted were fasting in order to come in contact with God. Moses, for instance, fasted before he received the tablets of the commandments, the prophet Elijah fasted before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb. Similarly, we fast not in order to receive communion, we fast so that we might be in communion with God. That is, so that through our taking communion we might come closer to God in our lives.
The only way we can do that, the only way we can “go after Christ” and come closer and closer to Him is if we take up our cross. You know, in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel, we read that when the Angel of the Lord was sent to punish and destroy the sinning people, the Angel was told not to strike those those on whom the “mark” had been made. In the original text this mark is called “tau,” the Hebrew letter corresponding to the letter “T.”, which is how in ancient times the cross was made.
It is this sign that we, too, are called to take up. Our Lord doesn’t simply grant unto us the forgiveness of sins. Rather, He calls us to “deny ourselves” and thereby to do battle with those sins. And in that battle it is the holy Cross which is our most powerful weapon. As we say in one of our prayers: “Rejoice, most venerable and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on thee, Who went down to hades and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, His venerable Cross, for the driving away of every adversary…help me, together with the holy Lady Virgin Theotokos and all the Saints.” Amen.