17th Sunday After Pentecost – Apodosis of Elevation of the Cross
There is a quote that I would like to begin with today: "The publican prayed only 'God be merciful to me a sinner' and was justified; the repentant thief prayed only 'Remember me...' and received paradise; and the prodigal son and the tax-collector, Zacchaeus, said nothing at all, and received the mercy of the Father and the forgiveness of Christ". This powerful quote is from our Father among the Saints, Dimitri of Rostov whose memory we celebrate today. This gives us a glimpse of what we should be doing in our spiritual lives, to always ask God for help, and he will help us. The Sunday Gospel reading also gives us a similar message… Christ encounters a Canaanite woman, who asks for one simple request. To heal her daughter and free her from demonic possession. She had probably seen many people being healed by Christ throughout his ministry and she too was bold enough to ask this request of Him. What happened next was different from what she expected, he refused because she was not Jewish, and he was not sent to save the Canaanite people. He even seemed to refer to her as a dog saying "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs." (Matthew 15:26). This demeaning saying of our Lord seems to have crushed all hope she had of having her daughter. However, her faith and perseverance shone through. "Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table" (Matthew 15:27). All she wanted was just a small crumb of grace and she knew with that one tiny piece of grace, her daughter would be healed of her disease. And Christ seeing her faith was moved and healed her daughter.
So this brings us back to the quote given to us by St. Dimitri, all we have to do is move our hearts and align our lives towards God, and we too will be saved. This seems so simple and so beautiful. But some might begin to ask, there was another Gospel reading today that seems very contrary to this one. And it is true, because today we also are celebrating the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross of our Lord.
In this other Gospel reading from the Apostle Mark, we heard the Deacon's intone: "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it" (Mark 8:34-35). In fact this seems contrary to all that we had heard, now we have to endure the struggles in our lives in order to receive salvation and grace from God. This reading also admonishes us for denying Christ and almost threatening us with a loss of salvation. This fearful reading is one that we should not take lightly. As we know, we have only one life, only one chance, and by making even the slightest mistake we can lose it all. However, one should not lose all hope because we should not forget, Christ will send us his grace and gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.
Coming back to the quote I began with, we can see that taking up one's Cross is in fact tied together with the grace and forgiveness of God. For that quote given to us by St. Dimiti, we see that these people had to undergo an action, a hardship in order to receive the forgiveness of God. The publican had to bow down in the Temple and say "God forgive me a sinner!". The Thief, crucified and humiliated on the cross had to ask God to remember him. And the prodigal and Zcchaeus having said nothing, had to in fact change their sinful lives. Even the Canaanite woman had to humble herself as being called a dog in order to receive healing. However, all these took up their own crosses and followed Christ. They might be vast and different, but each one took up their own struggles and were able to move forward in Christ. This is how they were able to receive the great grace of Christ. And we too can receive that grace when we take up our own struggles.
But we are not alone in our struggles, many have struggled before us and are examples for us! And these struggles are given to us as a test almost, to see if we are truly faithful to God. To illustrate this point, I would like to recount an excerpt from the life of St Eustice who we celebrated yesterday. I highly recommend to read his life from the Great lives of Saints compiled by St. Dimitri Rostov. In short, St. Eustice, a Roman military leader, had a vision of Christ, and thereby converted to Christianity together with his wife and two children. However, great misfortune came over him as he lost everything. Not only that but his wife and children were taken away from him. This passage takes place after St. Eutice lost his family:
"Emerging from the river, Eustathius remained on the bank weeping for a long time, and then he went on his way sorrowing, having as his only consolation God, in Whom he believed and for Whose sake he bore all these things. He did not murmur against God nor did he say, "Hast Thou called me to know Thee, 0 Lord, that I might be deprived of my wife and children? Of what profit to me is faith, if I am become the most wretched of all men? Is Thy love for Thy faithful such that they must perish, sundered from one another?" That righteous and patient man said nothing of the sort: he only bowed his head and in humility fell down before God, thanking Him for these visitations and thanking Him that it pleased Him that His servants should not enjoy worldly prosperity and vain diversions. Eustathius thanked Him (God), too, that they should abide in sorrows and misfortunes in order that He (God) might console them with eternal joy in the age to come. God, Who works all things to our benefit and Who allows tribulations to befall the righteous man, does not seek to inflict punishment through this means but, rather, tries one’s faith and courage. His desire is not that a man should suffer but that he should display good courage and that he give thanks to God for every circumstance" (http://orthochristian.com/74099.html).
This is what it means to take up one's cross. This is precisely how we become Christ's true disciple. In fact, in this story, Eustice's faith was rewarded, since his family was found unharmed and they were reunited. This is the grace of God at work! Let this same grace come upon us as we take up our struggles. Let us use the examples placed in front of us, and struggle to take up our cross not with sorrow, but with great joy, giving thanks to God for all things!