The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (8:34-9:1)
Today many of the Christians around the world are celebrating Easter, the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In fact we are also celebrating this today as we do every single Sunday morning during the liturgy. Christians come together to pray and worship the living God and receive His holy body and precious blood on Sunday, the Lord’s day, because this is precisely the day of the resurrection. Every Sunday in the Church is a mini-Pascha, a small Easter celebration, and we sense this joy together each week.
You might be wondering why half of the world celebrates Easter today while often the Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on a different day, this year being Sunday May 2nd. In fact the dating of Easter was a bit of a controversy in the early life of the Church. The dating of Easter or Pascha was finally resolved by the great council of bishops at the first ecumenical council in Nicaea. Here is the formula that was followed and remains in effect until today:
“(1) Pascha was always after the vernal equinox, (2) it was to follow, but not coincide with, the first full moon of spring, and (3) it was always to be on a Sunday. A fourth principle – and one enunciated following Nicea I – is implicit in the first three: namely, (4) the date of Pascha was not to depend on the Jewish dates for Passover in any way.” Orthodoxwiki.org
While this is the prescribed method, there are some issues since the calendar being used in the fourth century was not as mathematically accurate as modern calendars. Nevertheless, we honor the decisions of the ecumenical council and do not change these decisions without another great council and full agreement with the Orthodox churches. That is part of the life of an Orthodox Christian, submission to the decisions of the Church that have been passed down to us.
However as part of the world is celebrating Easter, we in the Orthodox world are right in the thick of it, in the dead center of Great and Holy Lent. We are in the middle of the spiritual battle. Have you been fighting? Have you been struggling? Have you raised your level of prayer and spiritual reading during the last 3 weeks? Have you focused more on the poor and their needs? Have you dedicated yourself to more of the services of the Church? Have you examined your own heart and found that it is much worse than you had imagined? Have you taken your repentance to new depths? These are all necessary aspects of Lent. Part of our work to cleanse our hearts and our souls is to discover our blemishes and to see our weaknesses so that we will understand our deep need for a savior. Our calling is to die to ourselves, to give up our lives for Christ. That is your calling. If someone asked us “what is the purpose of your life?” A proper answer might be “To learn how to die to ourselves and live to Christ.” As St. Paul once put it “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me!” Lent is a time not only to die to ourselves and to sin, but a time for our great physician and healer Jesus Christ, to perform heart surgery and while He is doing so, He will also heal the rest of us, mind, body, heart and soul.
Our life is made up of seconds and minutes, hours and days, weeks and months and years and decades, and sometimes even centuries. Each and every second that we are here is a gift from God that is given to us for our salvation. Is Lent just something we suffer through or are we taking hold of this valuable time and trying to cling to Christ? Hopefully we aren’t squandering this time while we dream about Pascha. There is no Pascha, no Easter, without first the cross. The Church is open and the people are physically healthy by the grace of God. Let us thank God for all of His mercy towards us during the past year and draw near to His Church to that we might be made spiritually healthy as well.
Today in the middle of Lent we celebrate the procession of the cross. As we are weak and our struggle has been difficult these past few weeks, the Church brings out her most prized weapon and possession to inspire us and strengthen us for the remainder of the fight. We have failed to live the life of Christians. We fail daily in our quest to be perfect children of God. We are beaten and defeated by the demons and our own disordered passions and desires. Yet, we look to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ as our hope and joy in the midst of our spiritual struggle. In our reading for the day during matins we heard these words,
“Having arrived with God’s grace at the middle of the Fast, our compassionate Mother—the Holy Orthodox Church—thought fit to reveal to us the Holy Cross as the joy of the world and power of the faithful to help us carry on the struggles of the divine Fast. By its power, O Christ God, preserve us from the crafty designs of the evil one and account us worthy to worship Thy divine Passion and life-giving Resurrection, as we achieve the course of the Forty Days with ease, and have mercy on us, as Thou alone art good and the Lover of mankind.”
The cross of Christ is a gift to all of humanity because it is no mere cross. Many thousands of people were crucified during the time of the Roman empire, but most of those crosses were crosses of punishment and instruments of torture. However the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ was something much greater. Through His holy passion and death, the cross became our liberation, our freedom and the gateway to new life. Through this cross, Christ trampled down death and all things demonic. He did this so that those who were baptized into His death and raised up, would put on Christ and would also trample down death and live a life free from the demons as well as their activities and influences.
The Church cries out to her children saying “Freedom is yours, joy is yours, victory is yours, life and resurrection are yours!” but she continues with these words “if you will carry your cross with patient endurance, like your Lord and Master.” Our Lord Jesus Christ is with us during this Lenten season and struggle. Are you determined to stay with Christ no matter the cost? Are you prepared to follow Him even to death, even the death of the cross? Because that is what Christ requires of us, each in our own unique ways. And through your own unique struggle to be obedient to the Lord and to carry your cross, God will not allow you to lose your life, but will restore it and heal it and actualize it and make it a real life, a life in Christ. There is no other way for us. No way around our suffering. Christianity without suffering is a perversion of our faith. It is Christianity without Christ. There is no way around the cross, or under the cross or over the cross. Only through the cross is joy come into all the world.
May the Lord bless your struggle and give you courage to carry your cross and follow His footsteps not only to Golgotha, but even to the empty tomb and life eternal. AMEN