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speech of his all holiness ecumenical patriarch bartholomew at the patriarchal divine liturgy at the cathedral of saint john the theologian (March 14, 2004)

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Your Eminence, beloved brother in Christ, Archbishop Demetrios of America,
Your Eminence, beloved brother Metropolitan Evangelos of New Jersey,
Beloved and blessed Brothers, Sisters, Fathers and Children in the Lord,

We glorify the most-holy Name of God, Who enabled us to come to you in the middle of the Holy and Great Lenten period, to bless you and your spiritual endeavors, and to paternally strengthen your God-loving efforts in achieving virtue. We also came to perform the bloodless mystagogy, together with your Archbishop and your young in age and prelacy Metropolitan and shepherd Evangelos, who is a hope-bearing servant of the Gospel. We also came to pray for the restoration of peace in the entire world, for the stability of the holy Churches of God and for our salvation.

Today, is the Third Sunday of the Holy and Great Lent, a Sunday which, during the ancient times, appears to have been dedicated to the instructive parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, as it is shown by some relative hymnological remnants, which are chanted until the present day. Such remnants are the Doxastikon of the Praises “The high-minded judgment of the worst Pharisees” and the Idiomelon of the most reverential Vespers service “I do not dare raise my eyes to the sky, me, the wretched one,” both of which refer to this exact parable. Later however, the Church moved the commemoration of this parable to the First Sunday of the Triodion and dedicated today’s Sunday to the Holy and Life-giving Cross of Christ, inviting us to venerate it with piety.

The fasting period is arduous and exhausting for the body, and many become disheartened and hasten to give up the good fight, risking falling out of Lord’s grace. The Lord is greatly pleased by the fasting and prayer of His children. For this reason, the Church, in her wisdom, projects in front of us today the holiest Cross of the Lord. She invites us to behold it attentively and to ponder about the unique sacrifice of our Saviour upon it, His grief, His agony, His pain, and the experience of death, which He accepted to endure for our salvation. In turn, our Church hopes that we will make every effort to endure also the sorrow of the body and the pain and hardship caused by fasting, a way through which we will show to Christ, by means of our bodily deprivation, our faith, love, and dedication. The Church invites us to approach the Cross with joy and fear—“Fear due to sin, of being unworthy”, but also “joy for the salvation” which is offered to us by the Son and Logos of God who was nailed to the Cross. She invites us to approach and venerate with great devotion “the life-giving wood”, namely, the life-giving tree, which yielded the fruits of forgiveness, the remission of our sins, and our reconciliation with God, eternal life, and salvation, which springs forth from the ensuing harmony. Because the Holy Cross is indeed the tree of Life which God planted in the center of Paradise, and because Adam and Eve failed to taste of its fruits due to their disobeying of the commandment of fasting given to them by God; for us to be able to taste of these fruits, God had to send His Son to us. Through God’s incarnate economy and the Cross and death of His son, we, the offspring of the first-called, are able to taste of these sweet fruits of true eternal life and salvation. When we venerate the Holy Cross, which became the footboard of the feet of the Lord, according to the prophetic exhortation: “Elevate the Lord our God and venerate the footboard of His feet,” we receive strength, blessing, grace, and sanctification, which had been offered to the previously murderous instrument by the Son of Man, Who was crucified on the Cross. The gifts of strength, blessing, grace, and sanctification will not only strengthen us to continue our spiritual struggles in the “vast sea” of fasting and prayer, but they will also render us unassailable when we constantly face attacks by the enemies of our salvation, the demons. These gifts will transform us to light-bearing children of the Church worthy of welcoming the Bridegroom of our souls Who is walking to His Passion, and they will enable us to participate in His Passion and Resurrection.

Today’s Holy Gospel according to the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark reminded us of the Lord’s words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Here, we see a clear invitation and challenge, an invitation that encourages free choice. Notice the words: “If any want.” No one is forced to follow Christ. Free will is respected by God, and it should be equally respected by people. Suppression of will, coercion, blackmail, even when it is employed for a good end, are morally unacceptable. Christ invites the willing ones, by free choice, to follow Him. Once we choose to follow Christ, though, we ought to keep in mind that the Christian life cannot be conceived without the Cross: “deny yourself, and take up your cross and follow me.”

Usually, people think of the sad situations they encounter in life as life’s crosses, such as human loss, widowhood, the state of being orphaned, disability or illness, poverty, being reproached or disdained by others, social disgrace and isolation, deprivation of bodily freedom, forceful expatriation, family problems, etc. No one can deny that all these do partake of the characteristics of the sacrifice of the Cross, and they do cause grief. One needs great amounts of patience, spiritual power, and resignation to endure and handle them; but, the essence of the “cross” we are invited to lift—we who believe in Christ and choose to become His Disciples and Brothers—is not exactly that. The essence of the Cross is the denial of the old falling person within us, the denial of decay and of sin. It entails the inauguration of new conditions of love, faith, and confidence in the “God-man,” the person of the Savior. It entails the taking on of the light yoke of obedience to His holy commandments, which are contained in the Holy Gospel and are outlined by the Fathers, the Synods, and the Canons. It entails the crucifixion of selfishness through humility and the abandonment of self-love, which is the root of all weakness and sin; it encourages the cultivation of love toward one another instead. It involves the denial of our own will and the embrace of God’s will. It requires the uncompromising struggle against blameworthy enmities, which prevail in the depths of our hearts, and, contrary to these, the cultivation of virtues under the systematic observation and support of experienced spiritual fathers. It involves the true experience of the prayer of the Church. It necessitates the respectful use of the world, meaning that besides the respect we owe to other human beings, we ought to also respect the wonderful environment, which God created. It also involves the bloodless sacrifice of consciousness through humility and our renunciation of even legitimate rights in favor of the commandment of love; it, also, entails the blood sacrifice, when it is necessary, for the Name of God, although this constitutes a paramount gift of God reserved for a few select ones.

In these terms and very briefly we understand the concept of lifting of our personal cross and following of the Lord. Anyone who thinks that living with these principles is hard and unbearable is free to choose a different way of life and a different course. But the course that leads to Eternal Life is one: Christ. It is He Who said about Himself: “I am the Way and the Truth and Life.” His Cross is both life and resurrection: “Your Cross, Lord, is life and resurrection to your people.” Its yoke is virtuous, and its weight is light. The Devil falsifies the truth and presents things to be completely different than what they are. Behold, though, the humiliating and unbearable slavery of the person who chooses the wide gate and the broad road! Look around you, and you will see it. The ones that are “free” of the duties of the cross, as outlined in the Gospel, become inebriated by vain and temporary worldly fame. They worship money and materialistic values; they worship youth, bodily beauty, and carnal pleasures; they spend their time in casinos and racecourses and gambling clubs; they seek paradises induced by drugs and hallucinogens; they search for pleasure with every pore of their body and every trace of their soul; they seek an imaginary earthly immortality; they run out of breath chasing after inane accomplishments; they cut their soul into many senseless and sinful pursuits. They do all these things for what reason? Their reason is the pursuit of nothing, which lies threateningly opposite of them; or, rather, their reason is for the pursuit of what lies behind nothing, which is nothing else but the ancient dragon in hiding, from whose slavery Christ delivered us through the Cross, the Passion, the Third-Day Death and Life-giving Resurrection! Such “freedom” or rather “looseness” is synonymous to slavery, decay, eternal perishing and hellfire. We should listen to the calling of the Apostle Paul “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Let us offer our freedom to Christ as a gift through our obedience to His Gospel by means of our fasting, prayer, charity, forgiveness, repentance, confession of sins, through a “liturgical” and “incensed” life, as it is said, having always as our company and mighty protector the Holy and Life-giving Cross of the Lord. May we all be worthy to experience the joy of the Resurrection and to participate in the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom. Amen.