SUNDAY OF THE VENERATION OF THE CROSS
With the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, we already mark the midway point in our Lenten journey toward Pascha. This beautiful season of repentance is passing by so quickly and the Cross is brought out before us on this day to provide us with a sober reminder of why we make our efforts to struggle toward our salvation, to provide us with encouragement in recognizing that Christ Himself is with us in all of our struggles, and to set before us the symbol of the victory of Christ our Lord Who tramples down death by death!
In the Holy Gospel appointed for this Sunday, we hear the exhortation of Christ Who calls us to ‘deny ourselves, take up our cross, and to follow Him’. The Cross stands before us this morning to underscore this Christian principle of accepting and taking up our cross. Each and every one of us has major and minor crosses that we must bear in this life. Perhaps we suffer from illness, perhaps we are out of work or are struggling to make ends meet, perhaps we have difficult relationships with others in our lives, or perhaps we continue to struggle with some persistent sin that ensnares us. These challenges can either make us or break us. We can approach them with resentment, anger, and frustration – wishing that things were different and letting these things drag us downward; or we can approach them with humility, acceptance, and patience – calling upon God to be with us in our suffering, to give us strength, and letting these very things be the things that point us upward toward God, our hope.
One of the most important messages of the Cross is that Christ is with us in our suffering. And not just that He is empathetic toward our suffering, but that He Himself has endured all human suffering and that He has gained the victory! We can and must turn to Christ in our misery, in our sufferings… and we must never fall prey to the lie of the evil one that we are alone. No matter what our particular circumstance might be: lonely and isolated? – He was betrayed and abandoned in His darkest hour; homeless or destitute? – He had no home and nowhere to lay His head; sick and in pain? – there has hardly been a more brutal and painful form of torture and death than crucifixion; assaulted by constant temptation? – in His humanity, He endured it all.
This Lenten pilgrimage leads us toward that bright and radiant day of Pascha, when all over the world the voices resound with the good news that Christ is risen! The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of our hope as Christians. And yet, we must recognize that the path to Resurrection goes directly through Crucifixion. Without the Cross, there is no hope of Pascha! For what is Resurrection? It is a triumph of Life over Death. It is the emergence, the bursting forth of the power of Life out of the tomb.
And so, if we want to participate in the joy and the glory of the Resurrection, we must not shrink away from accepting the Cross. There is no Christianity without the Cross… though I think that much of the world wishes for and attempts to make that so.
It is more and more common to see this Christianity without the Cross. This is a Christianity that only emphasizes the nice and pleasing sayings of the Gospel. It is a self-affirming philosophy that makes no demands of self-sacrifice, holds no judgments over our behavior, and really has no need of a Savior – promising a paradise of self-indulgence. This might sound easy and attractive, but it has nothing to do with reality.
Reflecting upon such comfortable Christianity, one commentator characterized it as: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’
The world tries its hardest to strip Christ of His victory and the potency and implications of what He accomplished for us. Christ was not a moral preacher. He was not an inspiring activist Who championed the poor. He was not indifferent to and tolerant of sinful behavior. He loved all and cared for all to be sure - but take the example of the woman caught in adultery. In His love and concern for the least of us, He stood by her and saved her from being stoned to death. He called upon the consciences of her accusers, saying ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ And when her accusers had dispersed, He reached out to take her hand. And now, this is where the Christianity without the Cross would end the story. Christ, the champion of the oppressed… and leave it at that.
But that is NOT the end of this story. Christ had saved her from her accusers and assures her that He also extends His forgiveness to her. And then He exhorts her to ‘go and sin no more’. He does not affirm her in her sin. He does not condemn her, but He is perfectly clear that she must repent and ‘go and sin no more’. She must deny herself, take up her cross, and follow Him.
The Cross is brought before us this morning dear brothers and sisters to remind us that the way to the Kingdom of Heaven is through the narrow gate. The Cross is not easy… and in our consciences we know that nothing of great value comes easily.
Yet, we have great reason to be of courage! Christ has already won the victory! He has trampled down death by death and has risen from the dead. Death no longer has dominion over us! Christ has taken upon His shoulders all the misery, all the suffering, all the sin of this world and has borne it, has trembled under its weight, and has suffered its consequences of death. And yet, death could not contain the One Who is the Source of Life! He burst forth from the grave and His Light scattered the darkness.
We are called to unite ourselves to Christ. We unite ourselves to His death as well as to His resurrection. In uniting ourselves to His death – we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. We follow Him not just to death, but through death and out the other side… into the glory of His resurrection!
This is the good news of the Gospel! This is the message of the Cross!
When our Lord was crucified upon the Cross, there were two thieves on either side of Him. One on the right side and one on the left. The thief on the left said: ‘If you are the Christ, save Yourself and us!’ He did not understand that in order to heal death, Christ had to experience it. He wanted that Christianity without the Cross. The thief on the right, however, accepted his own sufferings, seeing them as just reward for his misdeeds. He also saw the innocence of Christ and asked of Him: ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.’
As we venerate the precious Cross of our Lord today, let each of us say: ‘O Lord, remember me in Your Kingdom!’