Ars Praedicandi: Third Sunday of Lent (Orthodox) March 31st

Gospel: Mark 8:34-9:1

Today and throughout the coming week we will perform this ritual of making a prostration before the cross of Christ and venerating it. Our veneration of the cross is an intensified enactment of things that are familiar to us. Venerating God through the cross is so familiar, we do it almost absent-mindedly, as in the following examples:

We make the sign of cross:

In church, during the invocation of the name of the Holy Trinity;

During private prayer at home, before and after meals;

We venerate the cross held by priest at the end of services.

Familiarity gives us an advantage in really embracing the meaning of what we are doing when we express our love for the one who was crucified for us.

We are falling down in worship before Jesus Christ, the son of God.

We are committing ourselves to a life of partaking of his death and resurrection – meaning, we are learning how to die so that he might raise us up.

The act of falling down in worship before the one who was crucified for us essentially communicates that we, as his disciples, his friends, and the sons and daughters of the Father, express joy at being counted worthy to be human citizens of the kingdom of God.

The cross tells us what we need to know about what it means to be human, because Christ shows us how to be truly human.

It is easy to become confused on this point because all of us have core values that come from different sources. Some of us are strong advocates for democracy; some set a high moral bar; some pursue social justice relentlessly; some promote pacifism over violence.

Throughout history, political ideologues have sought to fuse the values of a system with the meaning of the cross so as to inscribe them into societal structures. So, imperial armies carried the cross into battle and attributed military victory over their adversaries to the banner of the cross; in iconography, Christ began to wear a crown as an emperor, bearing a resemblance to the Christian rulers who were likewise anointed, vicars of Christ ruling over native peoples and those they conquered.

There is no shortage of attempts to co-opt the cross among today’s politicians, either – sometimes they repackage messages from the past in an attempt to recreate a Christian golden age symbolized by the prosperity of Christian nations.

Christ’s carrying of and death on the cross cannot be co-opted because this was an act of God who became one of us and poured himself out  – to the point of death – so that we would be freed from captivity to the tyranny of a lie – a lie that presents humanity’s purpose as the accumulation of wealth, power, and fame in this world. Jesus revealed the fullness of divine power when he acted with complete humility by being mocked, arrested, tortured, and executed – even though he was blameless.

We already had a powerful preview of this humility in the stories that bridge Jesus’s coming into the world, his baptism, and his ministry – when the Holy Spirit leads him into the desert to be tempted.

The Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov says that Jesus reveals the power of God shared with us when he practices divine refusal – saying no to the devil. When the devil offers to satisfy his hunger, Jesus says no (because no amount of bread can truly satisfy our inner hunger). When the devil invites Jesus to cast himself down and be spared by a miracle, he says no – because the euphoria of extraordinary events of life is fleeting, – humans come down from their highs. When the devil offers Jesus power, he refuses it – because dominating and exploiting other people brings us no joy.

Instead of accepting these honors that countless people have gladly embraced and pursue relentlessly in our day, Jesus takes the path of utter humility – his only concern for humankind is to love us, even when we are sick, offensive, really scandalously sinful, and marginalized outcasts. Loving those who don’t fit is one of the core values (if you will) of the kingdom of God, and throughout this process of preparing for Lent and Pascha, we’ve been reminded that loving our neighbor is the golden rule.

This is why we perform this act that makes no sense in our culture – and to be honest, falling down in worship before the cross will never make sense, not in any culture in this world. Yet we fall down in worship before an emaciated God-human who was executed in the most humiliating manner, because he revealed God’s love to us and shared it with us – with all of us.

He also invited us to partake in his cross by taking up our cross. This is how we practice being real citizens of God’s kingdom.

It’s so easy to say it; it’s so much harder to do it.

How do I carry my cross?

Our response to this question is usually too complicated. We ask God to reveal the cross to us when it is always before our eyes. For many of us, we’re carrying the cross when we’re dealing with struggles, every day, that never really go away. Maybe we’re sick or chronically injured. Maybe we’re depressed or fight unpleasant addictions. Maybe we are navigating interpersonal conflicts that seem impossible to reconcile. Maybe we’re grieving about choices made by children or other dear ones and have to let them go.

In any of these or other instances, we’re carrying the cross that life presents us and God beckons us to carry. We struggle to carry it. We drop it. Our crosses make us weary and despondent. We want the struggle of the cross to end. It can be painful and emotionally burdensome.

The struggle of carrying our cross is utterly human. The point is to keep carrying it, whatever it is, to fight for the gift God gave us to be human and to be one of his children, citizens of his kingdom. Because when we carry it, and pick it up after dropping it, and persevere through the struggle, we are in the process of dying to those things that try to take our humanity away from us. In other words, we’re trying to get well, to become healthy humans of God’s kingdom.

One of the constants of the Lenten process of repentance is that we do it together, Christ always and everywhere among us as we bear these burdens – no one of us is alone in the struggle to become human.

Here is something to consider as we see the process of carrying the cross as one performed together. We might not think it is much to give whomever God puts in our lives an encouraging smile, a short conversation, a cup of coffee, a pat on the back, a warm embrace, and in our day, a wave on text. It means everything – it is a small gesture of love that shows whoever that other is that “I see you” and you are not alone. Friends, let us give thanks to God for his endless supply of love for us as we approach the cross and fall down before it today. And let us pick up our crosses and carry them, persevering through the struggle, and encouraging one another, with love, to become fully human and accept God’s invitation to be citizens of his kingdom, a realm of love for all humankind, and indeed, for all.

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