My dear friends in our Lord: Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
My dear friends, by the grace of God, today we reach the middle of Lent. Three weeks have gone past already, and three weeks of Lent still are before us, before we reach Holy Week. Time is moving quickly! And in order to support us and inspire us to continue our spiritual journey and our works of penance and purification, the Holy Church today, as a good Mother, turns the eyes of her children to the Life-giving Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church today recalls to our minds and our hearts the sufferings that our Lord Jesus Christ bore for our salvation. Furthermore, we are called not only to think on these things, but also to imitate our Lord – and even to unite our own sufferings to His – in order that we might attain participation with Him in the glory and joy of the Resurrection.
Today, we hear in the Gospel about the carrying of the cross by each and every one of us, and about those sufferings and those afflictions which are inevitably encountered on the way of the cross.
“The Lord said: If any man will follow me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel, shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Three conditions, my dear friends, three conditions are today set by Christ for those who are willing to follow Him. Three conditions: The first – let him deny himself. The second – take up his cross. And the third – follow me. Let us look at each of these conditions in their turn.
First: “Let him deny himself.” What is meant when our Lord says we must deny ourselves?
This means quite simply that as Christians, we decide for the sake of Christ and for the confession of the true faith, not to run after all the benefits of this world, but rather to endure all difficulties, trials, and misfortunes firmly and unshakably; all for Christ’s sake.
In order to fulfill the call of the Lord when He says, “let him deny himself,” we, who are working towards the kingdom, desiring eternal salvation, we must certainly reject our sinful pride, we must, by the Savior’s commandment, renounce our sinful desires, we must reject the enjoyment of sinful indulgence, we must reject vain curiosity, we must reject all unhealthy and impure attachments. In a word, we must deny ourselves. We deny ourselves, limiting ourselves in everything, by all necessary means, in the great work of curbing our insatiable, lustful, gluttonous, envious, vainglorious passions.
In commanding us to completely deny ourselves, that is, to deny the disordered of sin that is invested within our soul, the Lord calls upon us to renounce all works of darkness and all pride.
It is easy in this world to become addicted to carnal life, as if we live with sin day in and day out, we get used to it. Eventually, we may even come to depend upon it, and we become possessed of a great fear at the very thought of denying ourselves.
Other times, even understanding the necessity of self-denial, instead of genuinely starting a decisive struggle with our sin, breaking with it forever, we deliberately will take only half measures, betraying within ourselves once again that we are held back by craven fear.
The Lord calls us to deny ourselves, that is, turn away from ourselves. But to turn away, to divert our attention away ourself, is really possible only on condition that we then place our attention on something else. It is impossible to simply turn away, without directing our attention and our hearts’ inclinations towards anything. So how then – in practice – can we fulfill the commandment of the Savior? We must begin with a simple step – one which is accessible to everyone. We need simply to look around us and see: who needs our love? Who needs our mercy? Who needs our compassion, our help, our care, our friendship? Our Lord Himself has placed these people near us, knowing today that we would hear His voice. In going to these people with love and help, we simultaneously go to Christ, carrying His Cross, because His Cross is His love, by which the Lord is willing to sacrifice Himself for us, and following Him, we are at the same time empowered to forget about ourselves, being absorbed in caring for others – for the care we give is not simply ours, but also Christ’s!
That is the first condition: Let him deny himself.
The second condition: Let him take up his cross. Let him take up HIS cross, our Lord said. He did not point to His own Precious Cross, which He bore for the human race, because for an ordinary person such a cross can not be borne, but rather to the cross which is given to everyone in their life on earth. A person must patiently bear his cross and constantly look at the final outcome from this life. When our own crosses seem unbearable, we might strengthen ourselves with the thought that perhaps hundreds and thousands of others every day carry even heavier crosses, and all of even these are as nothing compared to the Cross borne by our Lord for the salvation of us all. For the sake of following Christ, all of us must uncomplainingly bear our cross of trials, being spiritually awake, controlling our worldly and our carnal desires, overcoming temptations, and not grumbling in afflictions, trusting at all times in the Wise Providence of God, arranging all things for our salvation.
Let no one deceive you on that point, my dear friends. The path of our salvation by all means lies through suffering, through sorrow, through temptation, because it is only through trial that our faith is strengthened. The path of the cross, which Christ commands us to take, is the path of suffering. Suffering purifies our soul, it elevates it, it makes us wiser. It is only through suffering that a person can begin to understand what the mercy and love of God truly is. The very Cross of the Lord is a symbol of love for us, because love is always sacrificial. The Lord, who is love, stretched out His hands on the Cross, as if wishing to embrace the whole world.
Our love should always be sacrificial, because true love is when one person sacrifices himself, precisely his self, for the one he loves. Therefore, if we love God, we must sacrifice our selves for the sake of Him and loved ones, as He sacrificed Himself for us.
“Many are the sorrows of the righteous,” says the psalmist King David. We need to understand and recognize: all that happens in our mournful life is given to us to salvation, that the way of the Christian is the way of suffering. Grief is inseparable from the life of a Christian. The way of the Cross is the only way in the world which preaches the blessedness of suffering. The world seeks to satisfy all sinful temptations and therefore rejects the cross, avoiding suffering. We, contrarily, are called, even while staying in this world, seeing its beauty and temptations, to remember that this is all temporary, that the Heavenly Fatherland is waiting for us.
Crossbearing, my dear friends, crossbearing is the way to the salvation of our soul. “Let him take up his cross.” The second condition.
The third condition: “Follow me.” The Lord pointed to the third condition for those who want to be saved, saying simply: “Follow me.”
And this is only right, and only just, for it is only for the sake of the Savior that it is fitting for us to endure what He has commanded of us in the first two conditions. It is no small or easy thing to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses. It is no small thing to embrace suffering, to cultivate meekness in adversity, to strive for every sorts of virtue. Only He Who is the Author and the Object of all Faith, He by whom all things were made, Our Lord Jesus Christ – only HE is worth doing these things for, for He alone has done all before us and walks the way of the Cross with us every step of the way. “Follow me.” He goes with us, showing us the way. We do not walk the way alone. To follow Christ is to imitate Him, to live as He commanded, to do as He did.
Our Lord does not merely point out the way. He does not merely set you off in some semblance of the right direction. Rather, He says, “Follow me.” He says it to you, today. He says it as one who is a Guide, a Helper, one who not only shows the way, but who walks it, pointing out dangers, lifting you up should you fall, offering his hand should the way become steep. He will not leave you, but will be with you every moment, in order that you arrive safely at your destination of the eternal Kingdom.
“Follow me.” The third condition.
My dear friends, the Precious and Life-giving Cross, which we venerate today, is the instrument of God’s victory over evil. The Cross is our banner, our weapon, and our shield. By the Christ’s Cross, we conquer all dark forces that know that they were defeated by Christ at Calvary. Let us bow before the Holy Cross with our whole mind, heart, and soul, singing the refrain: We venerate Thy Cross, O Master, and we glorify Thy Holy Resurrection!
And as we make the sign of the cross, we declare our decision to follow Him in the path He has indicated to us: Deny thyself, take up thy cross, and follow Me.