SUNDAY OF THE CROSS
The Sunday of the Cross marks the mid-point of Lent. What do we think of, today, when we think about the cross? We are light years apart from the world that existed when Christ was crucified. It is now “safe” to be a Christian. We do not fear imprisonment or death because of our beliefs. We look on the birth, life and teachings, and the death and resurrection of Jesus as the ultimate gift of God to us. We see the cross as a sign of strength and conquest over death, as a symbol of salvation and the kingdom to come. We see the cross as the horrifying, but necessary forerunner of the miracle of Christ’s resurrection.
Since we already know the outcome, and it is one of love and hope, do we truly appreciate the enormity of God’s gift and what Jesus endured for our benefit? We are told that crucifixion was a shameful way to be executed. Can we even begin to empathize with the mocking, spitting, humiliation and scourging of Jesus? Does it help to imagine that it is our own son or daughter or brother or sister that will endure – must endure – all of this for the greater good of human kind while we watch, helplessly?
But the cross has other meanings, ones to be considered at a more personal level.
Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever will save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Since we are unlikely to be imprisoned or killed for our beliefs today, what meaning does this have for us? In many respects one might argue that it would be easier merely to give up our physical life than to take up the cross of our daily lives and truly live them as a Christian. We do not know how long that will be – perhaps a day, perhaps a year, perhaps 70 or more years. Prayer and fasting, asking for and giving forgiveness, being humble and not self-righteous, and giving real, personal, individual love to everyone who crosses our path – the least of these, God’s brethren – is far more difficult than it sounds. How many of us have really fasted since Clean Monday? How many of us have asked anyone at all for forgiveness for anything, or tried to do something to make up for something we did? How many of us have not sought, at least once in the last few weeks, worldly recognition for something we did that we should have done anyway, without being praised for it? How many of us have made a special effort to reach out to someone? How many of us have tried to be acutely sensitive to the needs of each person we see – even for one day – since the beginning of Lent?
What about the part of the gospel reading that talks about being ashamed of Jesus Christ and his words, and that if we are, Jesus will also be ashamed of us? If we are not going to be killed or imprisoned for our beliefs, why would we be ashamed of Jesus or his words? The most obvious shame would be to deny our faith in Jesus and the cross and the Trinity. This seems unlikely in this day and age. The opposite answer is that we should proclaim our faith for all.
Does this mean we should be out on street corners, proselytizing? No, though there is nothing wrong in that. There is a far more persuasive message we can give about our faith. The honest example of our lives as Orthodox Christians, living as closely as humanly possible to the life and teachings of Jesus, is the most potent advertisement of our faith. That advertisement, and some do really try to live that way, is continually diminished by those of us who proclaim ourselves believers, but are hypocrites. We say what we believe, but do not do it.
We have a wonderful opportunity in this country and age where celebration of diversity and tolerance is a virtue. We live in the midst of many faiths and of people of no faith. Many of those people, of another faith or no faith, are admirable people of great goodwill. Many, as in our own Orthodox faith, fall far short of the kind of life Jesus lived and taught.
If we truly love God, if we truly can bear the cross, if we truly want others to see how wonderful life dedicated to God is, we will show the world, person by individual person, by example. We will let each person see, in the way we live our life and the way we treat them, that everyone – of our faith, other faiths or no faith – is cherished of God and is of value.
Jesus Christ is central to our faith. His death and resurrection are central to our faith. The cross we revere today is central to our faith. The cross is always before us to remind us of the way and to accompany us as a symbol of strength and endurance. If we prayed and fasted and tried to use the first three weeks of Lent to renew and vitalize our lives as Orthodox Christians and to reach out with love to all those about us, then let us embrace the cross as our gift from God. God has given us this cross because we can bear it and follow the path of Jesus. Let us do it humbly, gladly and well.
If we have not prayed or fasted or used the first three weeks of Lent well, let us look upon this moment as a new beginning. Pick up your cross and gain strength from it. Renewal of one’s life and faith is not passive; it is a gesture as strong as war; it is a war on lack of faith, on shame of our faith. Remember that there is great joy in salvation. Remember that there is this way to make a difference in the world – let others experience God through your life as an Orthodox Christian.