Third Sunday of Great Lent – Veneration of the Cross
(Mark 8:34 – 9:1)
Today is the third Sunday of Great Lent – we are midway through our spiritual pilgrimage taking us toward Holy Week and the bright Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. On this day we venerate the Holy Cross of our Lord. The Holy Cross is brought before us today as a reminder of the Lenten struggle and as a great consolation and inspiration… that Christ is with us and that His victorious Resurrection is on the horizon now – just a few weeks away!
Today’s Holy Gospel also provides for us Christ’s teaching about the necessity of denying our self, taking up our cross, and following Him. This threefold prescription provides clear instruction as to what we must do if we are to make progress in our spiritual journey.
First, we must deny ourselves. Pride is the original and underlying sin that separates mankind from God and from each other. If we look deeply for the root cause of so much of our self-inflicted sufferings, we will find that selfishness and pride are the fuel that feed the fire of our sins. When we argue, when we are offended, when our plans are thwarted by some obstacle, when we don’t get what we want, when we are frustrated or depressed or disappointed – all of these things are manifestations of an underlying pride and self-preoccupation. If we truly and deeply believed in and trusted in God and desired His holy will to be done in our lives, denying our own will, then these inevitable occurrences would be handled very differently – not disturbing the peace of our soul, not fanning the flames of frustration and conflict. In denying ourselves we open ourselves up to, and make way for, the possibility of accepting God and His holy will. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “to deny oneself is to be dead to sin, but alive to God.”
Secondly, we are to take up our cross. Taking up one’s cross means to accept without complaint and to endure with patience whatever sorrows or difficulties are set before us. It means to accept and courageously take on whatever responsibilities and uphill battles there might be in front of us. 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 we’re struggling to make ends meet, perhaps we have difficult relationships with others in our lives. These challenges can either make us or break us. We can approach them with resentment, anger, and frustration – wishing that things were different and being miserable that they are not; or we can approach them with humility, acceptance, and patience – calling upon God to be with us in our struggles and to give us strength.
Taking up one’s cross not only means to accept and deal with what comes our way, it also means that we recognize and proactively respond to the call of God in our life. We must not shrink away from opportunities to do good, to show love, and to give of ourselves in serving God.
And so, we say ‘no’ to our selfish pride and we say ‘yes’ to Christ and His cross, and then, as our third step, we are to follow Him… St Innocent of Alaska wrote that: “Following Jesus Christ means accepting with faith and submitting to all that Christ taught without question and with simplicity of heart. He who accepts Jesus Christ’s words becomes His disciple, but he who fulfills His commandments with complete devotion becomes His true and devoted follower.” We are to accept His words and fulfill His commandments with devotion. In this pursuit we are to engage our entire being – our body, our mind, our heart, and our will.
We follow Jesus Christ with our body by keeping it pure, by disciplining ourselves, by caring for it as a gift from God provided to us along our way to salvation. Our body and our physical senses are engaged in following Christ and building an awareness of God by opening our eyes to the beauty of God’s world. When we come into the church we gaze upon the beauty of the icons, we smell the incense, we hear the chanting praise to God… We strive to bring our physical appetites under control through fasting, through prostrations, through standing with attention while at prayer. The discipline of fasting puts a bridle on the selfishness of our body and helps us to bring it into its proper place of service to the spirit in our spiritual efforts.
We follow Jesus Christ with our mind by studying the holy Word of God, by reading the lives of saints, by listening to and attending to the theology presented in our worship. We follow Christ by guarding our mind from attachment to frivolous and evil thoughts that come at us like pesky flies.
We follow Jesus Christ with our heart by prayer and by enkindling the flame of love that God blesses us with. We need to be vigilant against allowing our hearts to grow cold and uncaring, but must instead be actively building that warmth of heart that comes from loving God - demonstrating and pouring out this love through active and practical and self-sacrificing love for our neighbor.
And we follow Jesus Christ with our will by living a life of determination and purpose, keeping our eyes fixed on our ultimate objective – Christ and His heavenly kingdom. We enlist our will in following Christ when we strive to keep the commandments of God and the disciplines of the Church. And we must do so with patience and sobriety… as St Seraphim of Sarov instructed: “Whether you have eaten too much or you have done something else of this kind, because of the weakness of human nature, do not become indignant, do not add another harm to the harm which has already happened, but impel yourself manly to correct it and at the same time to preserve peace of soul.” We should not get rattled when we fall, but acknowledge our failure, seek forgiveness, and then get up and get moving again.
The Holy Cross is brought out before us at this midway point in Lent to serve as a sign of encouragement, to remind us in our sufferings of the One Who redeemed all suffering, to point the way toward the promised Resurrection. May the Holy Cross of our Lord be for us that signpost along the way – inspiring and encouraging us to renew our efforts to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ.