A HOMILY FOR THE SUNDAY OF THE CROSS

 

About How the Holy Cross Guides Us to Conclude the Fast Well

 

        Brothers and sisters!

        Three weeks have already passed since we set out on the course of the Fast.  Half of Great Lent is over.  In Russian, there is a saying:  “He who begins as he should has already completed half the work.”  Does this apply to us?  One way or another, there can be no doubt that we are well on our way.  It is impossible to turn back, unworthy to drop out now.  We can only continue to go forward.  But how?  For good advice, we must turn to our wise counselor, the Church of Christ.  On this day, she offers to us the Holy Cross of Christ, indicating how we are to advance.

        By the Cross, the weapon that vanquishes sin, she reminds us that we must acknowledge our sins.  Fasting, increased prayer, Confession, and intense preparation to receive Holy Communion are all meant to help a man look at himself and acknowledge who he truly is.

        Everyday worldly life convinces us that we must make excuses for the way we think, speak, and act; that we must justify ourselves; forgive ourselves easily, and blame others.  We tell ourselves that we do not sin, but just have weaknesses.  Others are mostly at fault for our problems.  Because we fail to look into our souls, we are more or less satisfied with the way we are.  We play the Pharisee, with our thoughts telling us, “I am not a thief, I am not an adulterer, I am not a murderer.”  But, if we would look just a little deeper, we would see that we are covered with the grime of sin from head to toe.  We would see that the worm of sin has hollowed out our human dignity and that we stand on the edge of an abyss.

        By presenting to us the Cross of Christ in the middle of the Fast, our Holy Orthodox Church reminds us:  “If in seven weeks you fail to come to a profound awareness of your sinfulness, your sinful ways, and you fail to repent before the Lord and seriously undertake to change your manner of thinking and your behavior, then the Fast will prove useless for you.  Great Lent will not serve your salvation, if you refuse to acknowledge the obvious and to act upon it.”

        Honest, dispassionate, unsparing self-examination is an essential element of the struggle of Great Lent. Without it, we cannot advance in the Christian life, much less approach any sort of perfection.  Until we begin to know ourselves, our life is little more than a heap of sinful thoughts, sinful feelings, sinful words, and sinful deeds.  To acquire self-knowledge, we must come to reckoning with our conscience.  Unless we spend an hour or two every day in solitude praying and reading soul-saving books, and also devote a few minutes of this time directly to self-examination, our conscience will remain choked.  It will never be able to express itself as it can and should.  Great Lent offers the perfect opportunity to address the deficiency most of us have in this regard.  For the Fast to benefit us, we must learn to set a watch before our mouth, and a door of enclosure round about our lips; we must discover the inestimable value of solitude, solitary prayer, and introspection.  Only then will we learn not to incline our hearts unto words of evil, to make excuse with excuses in sin.[1] 

        To enter within means to stand before the tribunal of the conscience, before the Lord’s judgment seat.  It means to answer conscience honestly, knowing that conscience (and, of course, God) already know the answers to the questions put forth at this inquisition.

        Thus, conscience asks, “Who are you, and what is your faith?”

        I answer, “I am an Orthodox Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

        “Faith in Christ Jesus,” says conscience, “demands that a person always be guided by a single consideration, love for God.  Is this what guides you?”

        “Unfortunately, I love myself much more than I love God.  Like a broken weather-vane, I am always pointing in a single direction; I am always inclined towards my baser preferences.”

        “Shameful,” says conscience.  “Jesus Christ taught meekness and humility.  If you were baptized into Christ; if you are, as you say, a follower of Christ, then you should be humble, or you should at least pursue meekness and humility.  But if you are full of proud thoughts and vain ambitions, constantly exalting yourself and denigrating your neighbor; if you are driven by love of preeminence and are eager to force your will on others, then how can you be a disciple of the One Who is meek and lowly in heart?”[2]

        And conscience continues:  “Jesus Christ requires that His followers ceaselessly war against their passions and every evil in their heart.  Is that what you do?  Or do you spend most of your waking hours worrying about how you will get what you want, or prevail over others, or enjoy yourself, and so forth?”

        Again, “Jesus Christ constantly taught about the Kingdom of God, about pursuing the virtues, and about making spiritual, not material gain.  Are these the things you pursue most ardently?  Or are you lazy, indifferent, even scornful when it comes to spiritual endeavor?”

        And again:  “Jesus Christ taught His disciples not just to accept, but to embrace the will of God; to deny themselves; to bear with hope and love every sorrow, every cross God lays upon us.  Do you bear your cross nobly and without complaint?  And besides enduring gladly the sorrows God sends for your salvation, do you eagerly impose upon yourself spiritual struggles for Christ’s sake?  Do you exert yourself in labors of prayer, standing, vigil, prostrations, fasting, and almsgiving out of ardent love for God?”

        This is how the voice of conscience convicts the person who enters within and stands before its judgment-seat.  When someone really begins to listen to conscience, it speaks ever more and more clearly to him, and it becomes harder and harder for him to contradict it.  Then he sees things like fasting, long church services, reading books about the inner spiritual life, and intense preparation for Holy Communion in an entirely different light than before -- a brilliant light illumining their inestimable value.

        The person whose conscience is awake and alert hears its just promptings and fully acknowledges his sinful condition; he fully acknowledges that he is desperately in need of all the ways and means of sanctification and salvation offered him by the Holy Church.  He recognizes that if he does not rouse himself to earnest spiritual struggle, to patient carrying of the cross now, during the Holy and Great Fast, he is hardly likely to do so at any other period of the year.

        Brothers and sisters!  If we include the days of Christ’s holy Passion, four weeks still remain in the Lenten season.  That is a considerable amount of time. May we all use it wisely, for Great Lent comes only once in a year.  May we freely admit our mistakes, may we rise from our falls, and may we steady our resolution to become Christians not in name, but in life; not in word, but in deed.  What, what indeed, could be a better conclusion to the holy Fast?

        May the merciful Lord help us all.  Amen.

 

 

[1] Ps. 140:3-4

[2] Matt. 11:29