3rd Sunday of Lent – Orthodox Homily on Life Giving Cross

Our Lord Jesus Christ gives us these convicting words today, “Whosoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”  The death of Jesus of Nazareth is a historical fact, but many live today as if this death and the empty tomb are irrelevant, preferring instead to put off grappling with the ramifications of this truth and its calling on their lives: But then, they find themselves empty, hopeless, alone, robbed of the peace only Christ can give.  Certainly, in the face of the Coronavirus, many are facing for the first time something beyond their ability to control.  This can induce fear, particularly in those whose hope is only in this life.  Certainly, the virus is a reminder of how fragile our earthly lives are and is, perhaps, an opportunity to reprioritize and deepen our life in Christ, our hope in Him who is eternal life.  

The reality is that without the cross, this is all there is to life; there is no hope, no rescue from ourselves, our passions, our sin.  Without the victory of the cross, each person has no reason not to live for his own pleasure, to deny himself nothing, or, conversely, not to fear when all this is stripped away and laid bare by a plague, financial ruin, or some other calamity.  Without life with God, Nihilism, in all its despair and insanity, is the only recourse.

God has desired better for us all along.  The reality of who we are deep down as human beings, whom God created us to be is not depressed, lonely, self-centered, slaves to the passions, fearfully awaiting our death.  Instead, God created us to be bearers of His likeness, angels in the flesh, His beloved children, born anew of water and the spirit, beginning eternal life even now.  

He’s created us for glory, life with Him, but how often we exchange this glory for enslavement to the temporal things of this world.  We exchange our freedom to grow, heal, and work out our salvation, for that which is passing away, stripped in a moment from us when calamity strikes.  

Christ’s death on the cross reminds us first that by the tree our first parents, Adam and Eve, fell into sin through their disobedience and were exiled from paradise; they preferred the sweet-sounding lies of Satan to relationship with God and obedience to His life.  They introduced death into the world through sin, that is, through apartness from the life God alone is.  

Our first parents and then we, every time we sin, willingly, “play with death.”  We choose to be apart from God, Life.  The Fall, in this sense, is personal for us, reflecting our choices.  

But Christ, by His death on the cross, descended into Hades and raised the dead who were there, who had longed to see His day, gaining the victory over sin and death.  Christ died the vilest of deaths so that He could defeat on our behalf the vilest of our sins and passions.  

Third-century Saint, Irenaeus, explains the Mystery in this way: “He (Christ) by His obedience on the tree renewed [and reversed] what was done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree…”  and St. Paul says, “22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”

If those who touched the hem of Christ’s garment found healing, what would happen when Christ entered Hades and confronted death head on?  Who would emerge the victor but the Lord of Life Himself, the only One who could offer Himself to death and emerge victorious?  

We venerate the cross of Christ then, not just as a symbol, a sign, but a reality, marking that final victory over sin and death.  We ‘own’ the cross for ourselves, seeing Christ’s challenge to us today as the means by which we overcome our passions and acquire more of His likeness.  By Christ’s death on the cross, death is transfigured into life for all who live for and in God.  

Christ God alone is worthy of our trust and hope.  The cross itself reminds us of this existential truth that Christ has conquered sin and death and invites us to share in His victory.  For this reason, we herald the cross in the hymnography of the Church as the “trophy invincible.”  

We sing in the Canticles from Matins for the Feast, “Thy cross, O Lord all-merciful, is honored by the whole world, for Thou hast made the instrument of death into a source of life.  Sanctify those who venerate it, O God of our Fathers, who alone art blessed and greatly glorified.”

How then do we interiorize and apply the cross to our lives?  It’s not enough to carry the cross around our necks; we also need to carry it on our hearts, in our souls, applying Christ’s words.  

In Christ and His Church we’ve been given the tools of salvation we need to overcome our reliance on having things ‘our way,’ on living for self in all its pride, loneliness, and fear.  This is part of what it means for us to deny ourselves and take up our own cross.  All who are being saved will have a cross, and with it, great struggles to overcome.  But through those struggles we can grow in faith.  By self-denial and death to self and sin, we gain faith and life in Christ.  Our identity is grounded further in Him, in that which is eternal and not in this passing, temporal life.  

Jesus says then, “whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.”  Christ, in denying Himself for us, gave Himself, His own life, to defeat death.  So, we, in order to live and obtain the true life in His life, learn to take up Christ’s call.  In self-denial and love for God, we fight our vain attempts to create the mirage of temporal ‘stability’ in and around us with all the creature comforts one can accumulate.  Certainly, if nothing else, the Coronavirus will teach us that.  Stability is an illusion.  Likewise, through fasting we learn that we don’t live by bread alone.  We learn that the pursuit of all the world has to offer, can’t bring us true joy, cannot heal our souls, and cannot save us.  

Because He loves us, Christ God warns us by asking us, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”  In other words, Christ is saying, “What are you doing, man, living as if there’s no God, no resurrection from the dead?”  Without Christ’s victory on the cross and our participation in it, there’s nothing left but emptiness, which would be all there is to life without Christ, without the cross and its victory for mankind and for each of us personally.  

This truth is summed up in this hymn from Matins for this Sunday: “I died through a tree, but I have found in thee a Tree of Life, O Cross of Christ.  Thou art my invincible protector, my strong defense against the demons.  Venerating thee this day, I cry aloud: Sanctify me by thy glory.”  May this be our prayer too this day.  Then, we’ll arrive at Pascha changed, deified, furthered in our unity with Christ.  Having taken up our cross to live for Christ who alone is worthy of our trust and hope, no virus or calamity will be able to take our life in Him from us.    

Fr. Robert Miclean

Holy Archangels Orthodox Church

Sunday, 22 March 2020 Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross

Epistle:Hebrews 4:14-5:6

Gospel:Mark 8:34-9:1