The “Not So Great” Great Lent

Fr. Gabriel Bilas | 09 April 2019

Editor’s Note: this sermon was given by Fr. Gabriel last week, when the Orthodox Church celebrated the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross.

“Let all the trees in the forest dance and sing, and behold their fellow tree, the Cross, today receiving veneration:  For Christ, as the Holy Prophet David Prophesied, has exalted it on high!”

Indeed all of creation is lifted up today with us as we reach this Mid-Point of Lent, because Orthodox Christians throughout the world are spending this weekend honoring a simple piece of wood, that comes to all of us at a time when we all so desperately need it!

A few weeks ago, we then all put a Lenten plan into motion with the best intentions, trying to fulfill those words that we heard our Savior say in the Gospel this morning:  “Whosoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”.

With the guidance of the Church, we looked for ways in our life to “deny ourselves”…to say “no” to ourselves and “yes” to God:

“I’m going to watch more closely what I eat.”

“I am going to double my prayer time at home.”  

“I have three spiritual books that I want to get through.” 

“I am going to guard my thoughts more closely and not get judgmental towards my co-workers or my family.”  

“I am going to make sure that I do not miss a single Lenten Service.”  

It usually isn’t long into the Fast that we realize how difficult this “about face” towards the Cross is going to be! A little fasting…a little spiritual effort…a little disconnect from worldliness…and we quickly discover just how fallen we truly are!  The mid-point is about the time where it feels like the more we say we are going to pray, the harder it becomes to pray.  The more we say we are going to control our stomach, the hungrier we become!  The more we say that we are going to increase our faith, the more doubts we have about everything!

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, LENT IS HARD!  Denying yourself and trying to live a life like Christ…is HARD!  A wise monk recently told me something that I pray rings true for everyone here this morning.  He said:  “I never understand why they call it “Great Lent”, because I have never met a sincere Orthodox Christian who has ever had a “Great” Lent.”

A few minutes ago, we found ourselves back where this entire journey started…bowing down at the foot of the cross in the center of the Church.  Bowing down low in front of the cross is the most natural position that we as Christians can find ourselves in, but I think that sometimes, we forget WHY we are bowing down so low.  It is easy to forget the magnitude of what the cross truly represents!

I shared a story with you several years ago that I heard while I was in seminary, about an atheistic woman who once told a priest who was walking in the street:  “Someone who I loved very dearly was shot and murdered in their home.  I would think it stupid for me to immortalize them, by wearing a piece of jewelry shaped like the gun that they were killed with.”

That woman would be absolutely correct, if all the cross was was a piece of jewelry that reminded us of the Passion!  But for a true Christian, who truly understands the magnitude of the cross… brothers and sisters, the cross is EVERYTHING! It is our rock and our support as we wade through the troubling waters of life.

In order to support the weight of those who were crucified on them, the base of the cross had to be buried deep beneath the earth so that it would remain firm.  It acts in the same way for us….as a way to keep our own lives grounded.  When we are in the presence of the cross, there is no movement…there is no change.  It demands of us that we concentrate our attention into the depths of our own souls, and in it’s simplicity, it’s stillness, and it’s silence…the bottomless depth of it’s meaning is opened to us.

There is a beautiful canon that comes from St. Gregory of Sinai, where he describes the power that comes from the cross. He says:  “O Cross, Be unto me the might, the strength, and the power…the deliverer and foremost defender against my enemies…the shield and protector…my victory and establishment…ever preserving and sheltering me.”

The Cross is Everything…and for those of us who have hit that mid-Lenten wall, or have failed in our attempt to completely deny ourselves, today, we are given hope.  The cross serves as so many things, but above all, it stands as a symbol of hope.  When we learn to place our trust in it…when we remember what it means for our lives, not only here on earth, but for all eternity… we gain not only hope, but VICTORY.

May our Lord, by His Precious and Life-Giving Cross, give us the power to propel ourselves towards His Life Saving Passion, where we will once again find ourselves at the foot of Golgotha, and shortly thereafter, gazing inside an empty tomb, as the ultimate victory is proclaimed that “Christ is Risen.”

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