Homily 3rd Sunday of Lent Veneration of the Cross

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

          I want to tell you a ghost story today.  It’s not a scary story in the way most people think of as being “scary.”  It could be, though, quite frightening if one looks at it with the right perspective.  There was once a man who was called by a great teacher to be one of his followers.  In fact, he wasn’t just one of the master’s followers; he was part of his inner circle.  This man was special.  He was given a position of leadership, trust and responsibility even within the inner circle of students.  It appeared that he, along with the others in his group, would be one of the successors of the teacher and carry on his work.  Indeed, at certain times, the teacher would send him and others out from their main area of work and spread the teacher’s message.  They were, as it were, student teachers or teaching assistants.

And they were imbued with the teacher’s own power, for the teacher did not teach the usual lessons like mathematics, science or philosophy.   The teacher brought the message of God’s Kingdom on earth…a great theocracy.  He was to be a great king.  He would lead his people to a great victory over their oppressors and free their land.  What was more, his kingdom would then spread beyond the borders of their tiny country and would embrace the world…and this man found himself in the upper echelons of the organization. He imagined that he would be a great prince among men, for the teacher had given them the power to cure others by a word of prayer.  They could command the very demons.  What authority they had!  The teacher had exercised this power, the man thought, to prove to others that he was the great king they expected.

          Over time, though, our protagonist began to understand that his teacher was not the man he thought he was.  The teacher was not the great political leader the man expected.  He was not the great philosopher-king who would free his people and bring the whole world into a great utopia.  He claimed to be much more than this.  The teacher claimed to be the Son of God.  What’s more, His Kingdom was spiritual.  In three years they had not spilled a drop of Roman blood, for the Romans were their oppressors.  Worst of all, they were to love their enemies and turn the other cheek to them when they struck the Teacher or His followers.

          Judas, for that is who the man was, could not bear this and so in his greed for money and for power, he betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ for a mere 30 pieces of silver.  When his conscience pained him later, he tried to give the money back, but it was too late.  His teacher and friend of three years was dead and hanging on a Cross.  Judas, in guilt and anguish and despair, hanged himself.  This was not when Judas died, though.  True, it was when he physically died, when his soul left his body, but he actually died the day that the Lord chose him to be a Disciple and one of the Twelve Apostles.  He had died to his old self and became a new man in Christ….or he should have.  He was a man haunted, though, haunted by the ghost of who he had been and what that old man had hoped for and expected.  Many of the Disciples were going through similar struggles.  James and John wanted to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he came into His kingdom.  Peter thought it a terrible idea that Christ should suffer and die on the Cross.  For his words, Peter was even called Satan (and this in the verses immediately preceding today’s reading).  Despite what they had seen and done with the Lord and at His behest, despite His words to the effect that He would be taken and killed, they could not let go of the ghost of what they thought the Messiah should be: the ghost of their old man and his ideas and expectations, his hopes and dreams.

          Perhaps a better way of looking at the lives of the Apostles with Christ was to say that they were men who were in the process of dying.  They had not yet completely succumbed to the death of their old man.  They had not realized that in order to be born again, they would need to die first.  They would need to die with the Savior and rise again with Him.  This is the image that St. Paul gives us in his writings on the mystery of Baptism.  The old man (even if he’s an infant) goes into the water and arises as a new creature in Christ, a new man.  Sometimes the old man does not want to die, though….and sometimes he haunts us still.

          Often the old man’s ghost in us has to be crucified.  This is what the fathers mean when they say that we must crucify our will.  There are times, many times, when our will is not in alignment with the will of God.  These are the times that we must crucify our will in order for our will to be able to rise again in the image of Christ. 

          We have choices before us.  We can take up our cross the way that the Lord did.  He embraced His Cross.  He took it on willingly.  We can embrace the crucifixion of our will and ascend to our own crosses willingly.  Or we can fight against God’s will and oppose our own will against His. 

          Our Lord will respect our choices too.  He will let us follow our own ways to their logical end or He will joyfully accept our love and our acceptance of His will for us and we will find life eternal.  This is what our Lord meant when He said, “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…”  Please note that the Lord did not say take up my cross, but “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”  We each have a cross that is unique to us.  When we accept it and the death of our old man, and we put his ghost to rest, what do we gain?  We gain our life. We save our souls.  We attain eternal life with the Lord.  If we try to save our life, that is to follow our will, our way of thinking, even our expectations of who we think we’re supposed to be or what we’re supposed to do as opposed to God’s will, then we will lose our life and will die eternally. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”

          It is through the acceptance of, the embracing of, our own crosses that we gain humility, chastening and eternal life.  One must be careful, though, that the will one is following is that of God and not his own will in disguise.  We can fool ourselves that we are listening to the will of God in our lives when in fact we are just camouflaging our own will, draping it in the trappings of the Church.  This is why the Church has given us guidance in our ascetic life concerning fasting among other things, this is why we have confession.  Often a person wishing to follow the path of God will over burden themselves with ascetic labors, going beyond what the ascetic can actually handle.  God does not give us greater temptations than we can bear.  We should not, then, attempt feats that are beyond our ability…even if we think our motives are good and holy.  This is pride speaking.  When we go to confession it is good to remember that one of the reasons we have a witness, the priest, is that this is a way to crucify our mind and make us accountable to someone else.  It’s easier to justify oneself alone than it is to justify oneself in front of a witness, someone who can call our bluff.  The priest is not a judge and jury, though.  He is a witness and a guide….and he has to go to confession to someone as well. 

          That being said we still must take up our cross and the old man in us is terrified by that.  We should find this reluctance odd, though, because when we work for the old man in us, we will go to any lengths to gain what we want.  We will crucify ourselves by working 60 -80 hours a week in order to earn a lot of money so we can buy a really nice house or a car.  We’ll crucify ourselves in sports and endure any number of pains to gain the good physique or to make ourselves attractive to the opposite sex….or to gain the glory that comes with success in sports.  The same is true with any number of worldly pursuits.  We see the stress, the sacrifices necessary for the acquisition of what we want and we will pursue it.  The crosses of worldly success are embraced easily and applauded by many.  Why?  It is because the will is not crucified as well.  The old man gets what he wants.  The world understands this.  When a man follows Christ, though, when he fasts or denies himself he is often scorned by the world as being odd, or a freak.  The world does not understand the true cross.  It is still a laughingstock and stumbling block for those who do not believe.  We must persevere in our efforts, though.    The Lord tells us why.  For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”  We have a choice before us:  the cross that brings us life– the crucifixion of our will; or the cross that brings us death – the crucifixion of God’s will.   

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!

2009 Fr. Philip Kontos