About What the Holy Church Teaches Us Today


        Brothers and sisters,


        We have arrived at one of the most notable commemorations of the liturgical year, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross, which is the mid-point of the Great Fast.  Halfway on our journey to the Tomb of the Lord, the life-giving Cross is brought out of the altar to be venerated, and the sight of the instrument of our salvation urges us not to flag in prayer and fasting, but to continue on to our immediate goal, the illumination of our mind and soul, and from thence to our ultimate goal, eternal salvation.

        The sight of Christ crucified, slaughtered for our sins, stirs up in us feelings of love and gratitude to the Saviour, and we remember His saying:  He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, He it is that loveth Me.[1]  These words are an excellent summary of our Christian calling, which requires obedience to the Saviour’s commandments.

        When a man takes upon himself the cross of obedience to Christ, He renounces himself; he renounces self-love, the better to love the Lord more fervently.  He ceases to do his own will, to do what his fallen desires urge, because he has united his feelings and intentions to the Lord’s will.  Gazing with inner eyes upon Christ crucified, he resolves to uproot his vices.  Our vices do not uproot themselves on their own, but must be pulled out with much force.  Furthermore, they are quick to spring up again, so our exertion must be constant.  Contemplation of the Holy Cross reminds the Christian that he must cut his ties to everything earthly:  he must eradicate not merely his attachment to a single vice, but to all of them.

        When we gaze at the image of Christ upon the Cross, our soul feels constricted by the world; it perceives the world’s darkness; it yearns for what is lofty, for what is boundless; and it begins to strive to attain the Light that is never-setting and never darkens.  It cries out the final words of Gregory Palamas, the great saint we commemorated last Sunday:  “Higher, higher!”  It also realizes that to set any purpose to one’s life above the attainment of the divine Light and spiritual salvation is self-deception.      

        As the Christian prostrates himself before the life-giving Cross, he should examine himself carefully, asking why it is he repeatedly falls into sin.  If he examines himself thus, then he will quickly come to the conclusion that his falls almost always begin when he accepts unworthy or impious thoughts.  The thoughts take control of his mind, then turn into confused, self-destructive feelings.  Finally, depending upon the context and circumstance, the feelings may be translated into sinful deeds.

        Even in the initial stage of assault by unworthy or impious thoughts, the Christian soul, which should shine with virtue, becomes darkened, if the thoughts are accepted.  We begin to imagine that we can love God and do good, and at the same time love the world, permitting ourself to gratify the passions.  But this is an illusion, such as the illusion of a blind person who imagines that an object has only form, and not color.  In reality, the human heart cannot really love two things that are opposed.  The heart can only delude itself into thinking it loves both, when truly, it loves only one.  This is why the Lord said, No man can serve two masters:  for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.  Ye cannot love God and mammon.[2] 

        Love for what is good and sacred is a very lofty feeling, which is why it is naturally hard to attain and difficult to cultivate for fallen man.  In order to attain it, the righteous understand that they must voluntarily deprive themselves of pleasure, mortify the flesh, and embrace the Cross.  Without the Cross, there is no salvation.  If we do not embrace the Cross, then we will never truly understand the first thing about Christian life.

        It is to assist us in acquiring this understanding that our Holy Orthodox Church has ordained the Great Fast, with its various commemorations and the practices connected with it.  But in fact, these practices are but an intensification of the general practices characteristic of Orthodox piety, such as prolonged prayer; making prostrations; keeping vigil in church and at home; standing rather than sitting when one prays; fasting twice a week and for other, extended periods of time; maintaining silence; and so forth.

        Besides these devout ascetic practices which the Holy Church teaches and which we impose upon ourself, the way of the Cross has another, equally important aspect.  This is the acceptance with gratitude of things that most people consider misfortune, and which are not dependent on one’s own will, things such as illness, loss, unsought-for burdens, and other tribulations.  These befall everyone, but not everyone accepts them in the same spirit.  A criminal is punished for his deeds, but he usually resents it, so the punishment does not further his salvation.  But when the Christian undergoes trials and tribulations, considers that he is being chastised deservedly for his sins, and thanks God, bearing the suffering for Christ’s sake so that he can be a co-sufferer with Christ, then these benefit him just as much as ascetical suffering undertaken for the Lord.

        The Cross partly laid upon us by life and which we partly lay upon ourself out of love for Christ and zeal for our salvation is difficult to carry in the beginning, but with time becomes so dear to us that we cannot endure to part from it.  If we bear it as we should – and especially if we occupy ourself with watchfulness over our thoughts, rebuttal of sinful suggestions, and the mental Prayer of Jesus – our mind little by little becomes occupied with ruminations pure, holy, lofty, and celestial.  When this orientation becomes habitual, then the heart begins to love the good intensely and to hate the sinful.  Then, gradually, the virtues become strong and the vices weak.

        This is something that people who are attached to the earthly, who love things temporal, cannot understand.  But it is a natural process, even if also a spiritual one.  The person who is in earnest about his salvation, who picks up his cross and follows Christ, naturally begins to love his neighbor and to love God and His temple, and is willing to sacrifice both himself and what is his for them.  The ultimate expression of this is holy martyrdom.  This is why the Church of Christ urges us to read, most of all, the New Testament, but after that, the Lives of the Saints, which are mostly the passions of the holy martyrs.  For if one has even a little spiritual sense and is steeped in the accounts of the martyrs’ sufferings, then he will understand, at least in general, how to conduct himself as a Christian.

        And so, dear brothers and sisters, our Holy Church brings forth the life-giving Cross from the altar for our veneration today to teach us what is lofty, noble, and holy; and to urge us with love for the Crucified One to seek heaven:  to seek the light of Christ and His heavenly Kingdom, whatever it may cost us.  She reminds us of the words of the Master such as, If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me,[3] and, If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.[4]  This is what our Holy Church teaches us today, and this is what our Lord Jesus Christ says to us as He hangs upon the Cross.  And so, live as you think and as you wish, but know of a certainty that Jesus Christ teaches, by His word and by His Cross, that to walk the path to His Kingdom means to bear the Cross, to disdain the things of earth, and to strive ceaselessly for the things of heaven.  Amen.


[1] John 14:21

[2] Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13

[3] Matt. 16:24

[4] Luke 16:26