Homily for 3rd Sunday of Lent: The Sunday of the Cross

Reading:  Mark 8:34-9:1

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen; glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory forever!

          On this day, we have heard some very difficult words from our Lord:  “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

          These words sound like a contradiction, but they truly are not.  These words are the words of life, for just as St. John the Baptist said, “I must decrease so that He may increase.”  If we want the Lord to be everything to us….we must make Him our everything.  Of course, if we do this, we do not actually decrease because we will have exchanged our sinful selves for union with the infinite.  If the Lord increases within us, we experience eternity….more than that, though, we enter eternity with Him.

          Note, however that this denial, this taking up of the cross has to be voluntary.  God does not force us to take this cross.  If we have the desire to follow Him, though, we must be willing to follow Him all the way to the cross, because, as Paul said, if we die with Him, we will rise with Him as well.

          This is the standard teaching of our Church, though, and we’ve heard this often.  There’s a reason for this. We need to be reminded of this!  It’s much easier to walk away from difficulty (or be crushed by it) than to embrace it as our teacher.

          “What does that actually mean?” asked Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.  He answered it in his homily for this Sunday:

It means that we must turn away from our continuous concern with us and look farther afield, see the whole world in its tragedy, in its significance, in its meaning to God, and also turn to God himself. We concentrate so continuously on what we are, what we have, what we do not possess, what we need, what we long for, what we are afraid of. Is that the way in which we can live: in continuous hope for little things, in continuous fear, continuously tormented by greed, and fear, and dislikes, and hatred? What is there what we can regain, what we can make our own, which we can identify with? Very little!

There is no magic carpet that will take us away from our problems.  There is, however, the grace of God which can help us put things into perspective and see things from the eternal point of view.  We know that everyone suffers in this world.  That is why the Lord came to us and became one of us….to give that suffering meaning.  Suffering alone, though, cannot redeem us.  Note that Christ did not say just to take up our cross.  No, we take it up and follow Christ.  He did not say those who lose their lives will gain their life.  No, He said those who lose their lives (and that does not mean just dying, of course), for “my sake and the Gospel’s.”  When (not if) we suffer, we can embrace it as being for the Gospel’s sake.

          How can we do this?  We can turn to our heart with Love toward God and thank Him for the lessons we are learning.  St. Maximos the Confessor (who knew about suffering and hardship…his tongue was ripped out and his right hand severed to try to keep him from preaching and writing against heresy) said, “He who has realized love for God in his heart is tireless, as Jeremiah says (Jer. 17:16) in his pursuit of the Lord his God, and bears every hardship, reproach, and insult nobly, never thinking the least evil of anyone.”  Actually, this teaches one how to bear hardship, and that is crucial in gaining benefit from our suffering.  But how do we turn our hardships into crucifixion for the sake of the Gospel and for Christ?  A modern Greek Elder, Fr. Epiphanios Theodoropoulos tells us: “We should accept afflictions just as we accept the hardship of a surgical operation in order to secure our health.  Pain humbles man.  And the more he is humbled, the more he approaches God.”

          We take medicines, we have surgeries, we suffer all sorts of discomfort in order to gain health, but we often do not want to allow our suffering in the world to be the medicine that brings us closer to God.  God forbid we use our suffering as an excuse to turn away from God!  Knowing that we have a God that has suffered in the flesh as we do, who knows from the inside out what it is like to be thirsty, in pain, and in want (and all of it voluntarily and for our sake), helps us to embrace our own suffering.  We can embrace it voluntarily for His sake and let ourselves be humbled by our crosses so that we will be exalted by the Lord. 

          St. Peter reminded us of this in his first epistle (1 Pet. 5:6-11):

   6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, 7 casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. 10 But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. 11 To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Humble ourselves:  there’s our old friend humility again.  Humility is the best way to take up our cross.  It is the best way for us to crucify our own stubborn wills and align ourselves to God’s will.  For, you see, we can crucify ourselves only partially.  We need help to finish the job.  We can deny our addictions by fasting and abstinence.  We can learn to curb our tongue and rid ourselves of bad language or cursing or blasphemies.  We can train ourselves to prefer others to ourselves…but we can only drive in three of the four nails needed to crucify ourselves.  We will find that we need someone else to hammer in that last nail which will rid us of the last passion that is conquered in the Christian life…and that passion is pride.  We can do many good deeds, fast, curb our tongue, but we can also become proud of these things.  Abba Dorotheos of Gaza reminds us that to gain humility we need a strong medicine which is dispensed by those who persecute us, “Believe that dishonor and censure from people are medicines that remedy your pride,” he wrote, “and pray for those who censure you as genuine doctors of your soul.  Be assured that he who hates dishonor also hates humility, and he who avoids those who distress him, shuns meekness.”

          Those who show us where we are weak are, whether they like it or not, shining the light on that which needs to be corrected in us.  Often we are bothered by something because it has touched a place where we are wounded by pride.  Abba Dorotheos’ words can be very hard words to hear…and harder still to put into effect, but we have a multitude of saints in the Church, though, who show us that this is possible.  They show us how to crucify our own will with God’s help, and how to follow Christ from the cross to the empty tomb.  We can allow this light shone on our weaknesses, which someone meant to be for harm, to be for the good and we can allow this to be the light of God which brings us healing.

          Of course, the greatest of those who showed us the way of humility was Christ Himself, our very God and savior Himself.  St. Ephraim the Syrian reminds us, “Humility is so powerful that even the all-conquering God did not conquer without it.”

           Let us accept, then, our suffering as a means of dispelling the darkness within us and allowing the light to dawn in our hearts.  It will take time, as the natural sunrise shows us; it takes time for the sun to rise completely.  First, there is only the glimmer of light and then the darkness becomes twilight until eventually the darkness is dispelled and the sun shines brightly in the sky.  So the Sun of Righteousness will rise in our hearts as the darkness of pride and ego vanishes.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen; glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory forever!


© 2011 Fr. Philip Kontos