[This is a homily I gave in 2006 on the third Sunday of Lent, known in the Byzantine tradition as the “Sunday of the Holy Cross.”]
The Church places before us today the mystery of the Cross at the middle of Lent. In case we’re getting weary, the Cross is a sign that we’re approaching the fulfillment of these holy days, the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, so that we may be encouraged. We can come and bring all of our struggles and failures and sins and lay them before the Cross, and receive forgiveness and healing and strength to go on. But in case we’re slacking off, we receive the message that it’s high time we take up our cross and follow Jesus. The liturgy constantly brings to mind the mystery of the Cross because it is the essence of Christianity. There’s no Christianity without the Cross.
Some like to call themselves “Easter people.” That’s kind of a modern way of saying they reject the Cross. There are “Catholic” theologians today—surprisingly, even to me who read about this stuff—who explicitly say that say that the Cross is not about the expiation for our sins. That’s an idea that we have to put to rest, they say. Well if it isn’t about expiation for sin, then we have to put our salvation to rest as well. In any case, we can’t be Easter people if we aren’t first Good Friday people. It seems that in practice, Easter people like to celebrate instead of doing penance, laugh instead of weep, to say “God loves me as I am,” instead of repenting and confessing their sins, and use the Cross as a religious decoration rather than carrying it behind the Lord.
I saw on the internet a group of people who call themselves Catholic—there are actually several sects in this country, but I don’t even elevate them to the status of schismatic—who are made up of ex-priests and people like that, but have very little resemblance to the Catholic Church. Well, I saw a picture of this group, they form their own church and they make sure they say they’re inclusive about marital status and gender issues and these are no obstacles to ordination in their church. And so, this picture was of them performing an ordination of a woman. They were all standing around a table with their arms out, dressed in suits and dresses, and there was a cross on the wall, of course without a corpus. That would have been in poor taste. But I was thinking to myself: in this blasphemous rite that they were performing, what did the cross mean to them, the big cross on the wall? Did they know that they were blaspheming the mystery of the Cross at that very moment, making a mockery of Jesus’ sacrifice? They think it’s cute to ordain lesbians to their phony priesthood, but they will have to stand under the judgment of that same Cross when they die.
So let us return to the point here, of the Cross being at the heart of Christianity. The depth of our Christianity, of our relationship to Christ, is the depth of our acceptance of and embracing the Cross. We get glimpses of the resurrection through the sacraments, through the beauty of nature and through the love of God and the people that we experience. But this life is not Heaven. It is still the via dolorosa. We live our lives in the shadow of the Cross, even while the resurrection dawns on the far horizon.
A friend of mine once told me that she felt that she was a kind of inferior Christian because her friends were having all kinds of interesting charismatic experiences, being slain the Spirit and all that kind of stuff, and she didn’t have those experiences. So I had to remind her that those things are not the essence of Christianity. They’re just like icing on the cake. But the danger is that for some of these people, there’s no cake under the icing! They go from one emotional experience to another without achieving any depth in their spiritual life, in their relationship to God. If you equate your relationship to God with fun experiences, then you’re going to miss out on the reality of that relationship, the depth and the mystery and the power of it.
But Christianity is not about emotional experiences. It’s about Christ and about Him crucified and risen. It’s about allowing Jesus into the wreckage of our lives and giving Him full permission to cleanse and transform and heal them and to make all things new. It’s about being faithful to Him in good times and bad, about being willing to be corrected for our faults, being willing to take up our cross and suffer whatever it takes to overcome sin and to live for righteousness. It’s about saying yes to Him who gave up his life for us. It’s about seeking Him with our whole heart, about preferring nothing to his holy will. It’s about losing our lives so that they may be saved for life in the heavenly kingdom. It’s about standing up for the truth that He has revealed, even in the face of ridicule and opposition. It’s about loving, forgiving, sacrificing ourselves for Jesus’ sake and for the salvation of souls. That, in part, is what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.
To embrace the Cross doesn’t mean we’re expected to find it easy. Even the saints in their most candid moments admit that to suffer generously is beyond our ability without a special grace. It wasn’t easy for Jesus either, and He had to suffer what no man could suffer. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as we perhaps do at times, but we must also say the other things that He said from the Cross, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they do.” “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
I have to share with you something about a way how not to bear the cross. I’ll give myself as a prime example. A couple of days ago was one of those days which are fairly frequent, where everything just seems to go wrong, one thing after another, and I had gone down to make a photocopy of this icon for Laura, who’s writing an icon. Actually it was a rather nice day, at least in the morning, and of course as soon as I walked out the door and got half way down the road, it immediately started pouring. I wasn’t dressed for that, but I did have a jacket on. So I stuffed the icon under the coat and ran through the rain to try to get this thing done. I got down there and it turned out that I couldn’t make a copy anyway because the photocopier didn’t go light enough to make a decent copy of it. So that was useless. I ran back up the hill and got soaked a second time going up there. But I wanted to try to protect the icon so it wouldn’t get ruined from the water. So what happened was, I got back in my cell and set the icon down, but I didn’t realize how much water a hood can absorb. So as I checked the icon, I laid it down to see if it was OK or had any water on it; I bent down and all this water poured off my hood all over the icon! I just got so bugged with that I tore off my hood and threw it on the floor to get rid of that ridiculous thing. Well, I forgot that I was wearing my cross over my hood and so I ended up throwing my cross on the floor, too. It was like the Lord was telling me: OK, you’re not just throwing off an annoyance, you’re throwing off the Cross.
So that was a little bit of a lesson. I also remembered that my scripture reading from the morning was the famous text from First Thessalonians where Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.” So I had to go in my examination of conscience at night and say, “Lord, I didn’t rejoice always, I didn’t pray constantly, I didn’t give thanks in all circumstances.” And so, that was my day.
But we have to realize that life is full of stuff like that. Full to the brim of trials and irritating, frustrating things. We just have to accept that. Whether it’s something as small as having your alarm clock jar you out of a deep sleep in the early morning, or much worse things. Failures of vehicles and computers and appliances, health problems and family problems and money problems and work problems and all manner of disappointments and setbacks and injuries or whatever. It’s constantly going to happen. There’s no escape from any of that. That’s the nature of life in this fallen world.
But we have a choice. We can decide either to rage and complain and finally end up in despair—or we can accept it. We can see the Cross in it. We can embrace it and make an offering of it. We can turn it into something positive, something beneficial for ourselves, for our own spiritual growth and for the good of others. Make it a prayer. Make it an intercession. Make it an offering of some sort of suffering or setback to God. Unite it to the Cross, because that’s the only way that any of this stuff is going to be redeemed, is going to be given any meaning or value in our life: we have to consciously place it under the Cross, unite it to the Cross. We’re usually pretty good at understanding all that in theory, but in practice we still rail against it. But we have to get our theory and our practice together. We have to get what we learn in prayer and Scripture reading and worship and put all that into daily life, into the problems of daily life, because they’re always going to be there. So we have to have a way to manage that, to be able to live in peace and even in joy, at least in hope of better things to come. But the Cross is the way for us and the Lord gives it for that.
There’s a kind of ambivalence about the Cross, because we flee the Cross in a sense. We associate the Cross with sufferings and trials and all unpleasant things of life, but at the same time it’s our salvation and something we long for and need, our only way to Paradise. So that mystery, that paradox of the Cross, we have to embrace. Not liking the pain of suffering, yet embracing the mystery which transforms that suffering into life everlasting and into sanctification and holiness and prayer for the good of the whole world. The Cross is the way to paradise, the way out of the misery of this world—contrary to what other people think, that the cross is the misery of the world. It’s just the opposite. We have to unite the misery to the Cross, lift it up, transform it. Jesus will make all things new.
Christ crucified is God’s answer to our questions about life and love and sin and salvation and sorrow and death and God and man. The Father has spoken his final word in the life and death and resurrection of his Son. So hear the word of the Lord and embrace the Cross, your only hope of salvation. When we stand before God in judgment, our destiny is sealed. There’s no second chance at that time. Our lives will either be an eternal success or an eternal failure. There’s nothing in between after the Day of Judgment. God holds out to us the way of salvation and calls out to us through the parched mouth of his dying Son, “I thirst!” I thirst for your salvation. Come to Me. Come to Me while there is yet time. Do not be afraid of the Cross. It is your only hope, the only key to the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Enough then of complaining. Enough running from suffering. Stand in the full dignity of the image in which you were created. Stand as mature men and women of God and follow your Savior along the narrow and rough path to the kingdom of glory.
The Letter to the Hebrews today calls us to approach the throne of grace with confidence, to receive mercy and grace and help in time of need. The Cross is the throne of grace and the King of the Jews was nailed to it so that grace could flow in endless streams from his hands and feet and from that Divine Heart torn open to reveal the source of everlasting love.
Today is not just another day of Lent. It is a day of judgment, a day of salvation, a day of decision. Are we going to be Christians or are we not? Are we going to take up our cross and follow Jesus or are we not? Are we going to give our lives for Jesus’ sake and for the Gospel or are we not? Jesus will give you strength for the journey. He will give you Bread from Heaven and the New Wine of the Kingdom: real food, real drink, as He said. Christ abiding in us and we in Him. And He will raise us up on the last day.