17th Sunday after Pentecost / St. Eumenius of Gortyna, Crete / Galatians 2.16-20; Mark 8.34-9.1
F/S/HS. Brothers and sisters, a weighty subject in this morning’s Gospel, where our Lord says the following to all of us: Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
This, dear ones, is the inescapable and inevitable condition of being a Christian—that God allows for the presence of crosses in our lives, allows for sorrows and afflictions, so that we might become a partaker in His sorrows and afflictions, in His own Cross. It is what we do with our crosses that is everything; meaning, that if we endure our crosses as Jesus endured His, a great mystery begins to unfold—Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Mt. 11.28-30).
What are these personal crosses that our Lord asks us to take up and carry? Some of these crosses we all share in common: The sorrows and sufferings of this earthly life. Other crosses are particular to one person but not another.
My cross is maintaining appropriate fasts when I’d rather not fast; keeping vigils when I’d rather not keep vigil because my body is tired. My cross is practicing the rich menu of pious labors that mother church gives us to strengthen us and help cultivate Christ within our hearts.
My cross is my battle with health problems, with disease and sickness, especially sickness and disease that persists. My cross is dealing joyfully with the aging of my body, that when my body aches to prayerfully endure the affliction of that aching. And when my body nears its repose, nears its last earthly breath, to courageously take up the cross of giving my spirit over to God.
My cross is my struggle with co-workers in my work place, to bear with patience their character flaws and obstinate behavior, to never return tit for tat, and to do the one thing I can absolutely do for my coworker: pray for them.
My cross is to do battle with my negative and dark thought-life about others, some who are in my own parish, and to not succumb to despondency about the state of our nation or our world.
My cross is to take up and carry my passions and not indulge them: My struggle with judgmental thought-life; with sloth and greed; with lust and the other appetitive carnal passions; with avarice, with envy and jealousy; and to strive against the distractions that send me far afield of a life prayerfully centered in Christ.
My cross is to sacrificially give of from the bounty of my material possessions, when instead I’d rather hold onto that bounty as my own little precious.
These, dear ones, are just some of the many crosses that afflict us, that we are to take up, patterned after our Lord taking up His own Cross—“… who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12.2).
Sisters and brothers, do we remember Bp. James’ words with us last Friday evening after the Akathist, when he quoted these same words from the Apostle Paul relative to the life of St. Silouan. Jesus was able to take up and endure His own Cross precisely because of the promise of the joy that lived deep within his soul, the promise that on the other side of His Cross lay the joy of eternal life with His Father in Heaven.
So it is with us, dear ones, on the other side of our own personal crosses—eternal and joyful life in the bosom of Abraham. What joy, Bp. James said, to reach that heavenly joy and meet, face to face, eyes to eyes, the likes of St. Silouan or St. Patrick, or St. Xenia, or the mother of God, our Panagia and Theotokos, to meet loved ones who have reposed this earthly life before us. This is the joy that is set before us, a joy that accompanies us during our earthly sojourn of carrying our cross, and a joy that we encounter in its grand glory when we carry our cross with the same noble dignity that Jesus carried His own Cross.
Along His own journey of faith, our Lord was tempted to set aside His Cross. He was tempted by Satan in the desert. He was tempted in the Garden of Gethsemane: O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup (let this Cross) pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will (Matthew 26:39).
That our Lord’s sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Lk. 22.44) in that garden, is to render the proper posture for carrying our own cross. We are not to pick it up and carry it below our waste. Rather, we pick our cross up and shoulder it, so that it sits just above our heart and just below our mind, just as Jesus shouldered His Cross while dragging it to Golgotha.
That our crosses are shouldered between our mind and our heart is mother church’s way of reminding us that many if not most of our crosses are related to our sin. Thus, to bear one’s cross is, first, to acknowledge my sin, and, second, to engage in true repentance of mind and heart. Where we constantly complain and groan about our crosses, we reveal ourselves as neither recognizing nor dealing with the sin that wreaks havoc on our relationship with God.
Which is why the saints give thanks and even praise God for the presence of their own crosses, seeing them as an occasion to examine the sin in their lives and repent of this sin. Thank God for this man in my parish who so incites anger in me, writes St. John of Kronstadt in his journals, for he reveals to me my passions and my lack of prayer for those like him who anger me. O Lord, help me repent of that anger. Help me to find unceasing prayer for those who anger me. Thank God for the presence of this man in my life.
Writes St. Ignatius Brianchannov in his book The Field, in a tiny chapter titled My Cross And The Cross Of Christ: Thank God from the cross, thank Him for the priceless treasure of your own cross, for the precious gift to be able to emulate Christ’s sufferings. Praise God from your cross, because the cross is the only true instructor, guardian, and throne of theology. Outside the cross, there can be no living knowledge of God. Do not search for Christian perfection in human virtues. There you will not find it, because it is hidden in the Cross of Christ. My cross becomes the Cross of Christ when I, a disciple of Christ, carry it with an active knowledge of my own sinfulness … and when I carry it with gratitude to Christ, with praise for Christ. From praise and thanksgiving, spiritual consolation appears in the sufferer; praise and thanksgiving become an endless source of unutterable, undying joy that fills the heart, overflows into the soul, and even onto the body itself.
On September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers were attacked and collapsed, a small Orthodox Church at the base of those towers, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, was destroyed. Moments before its destruction, a young 11 year old girl named Sophia ran into the altar at St. Nicholas and grabbed the altar cross. Sophia loved that cross; she loved venerating it at the end of the service. She barely made it out the door and just down the street when the towers collapsed. So great was the heat around her that the tissue in her lungs, as she gasped for breath, was largely destroyed.
Sophia lived thirteen more days in a hospital bed before she gave up her spirit. During those thirteen days she cradled that cross in her arms, held close to her chest. Her mother reports that Sophia had always been deeply moved by the church’s various services of the Cross, and deeply moved by Jesus’ admonition to take up her own cross and follow Him.
I guess this was my cross to bear, she told her mother, to save our church’s cross and to now, like my Lord, bear my cross unto my death. Because I am going home to see Jesus soon, just as He went home to be with His Father after carrying His own Cross.
Sisters and brothers, may we like Sophia take up and carry the many crosses that our Lord, in the mystery of His providence, allows in our lives. May we carry them with the same dignity and nobility that possessed Sophia. And may we know of the infinitely brilliant joy that awaits us if we persevere in the carrying of those crosses. F/S/HS