Recently I read a story about a girl who was seven years old. One day she was lost and could not find her way home. She had nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. After several hours the little girl found herself bewildered, terrified, and heartbroken. Later that day a man saw the young girl hopelessly crying. "What is the problem my dear child" asked the man. "I'm lost", wailed the child. "Well now, no need to cry, we can bring you safely home. Now, let me see, whereabouts do you live?" "I am not sure", said the girl, "but if you lead me to the hill where the big wooden cross is, I can then find my way home." For the young girl that big wooden cross was her landmark - it was her symbol to help her come home.
There was a big wooden cross at a place called 'Golgotha' about two thousand years ago and there is also a big wooden cross here on our hill - here at our home.
Year in and year out, after much thought, contemplation, and prayer many of us come from all over the world to attend our beloved Holy Cross Seminary. Each of us comes with aspirations and dreams that will hopefully enable us to serve our Holy Orthodox Church. As the semesters progress every one of us is greeted by diverse challenges. The challenges may seem overwhelming and can often times attack us on a daily basis. Most importantly, we are faced with a fierce spiritual battle, that without caution, could utterly destroy us! - and all of us in this community know exactly what I mean - all of us are constantly attacked. As a former student said to me on my first day here at our beloved 'scholi', "Welcome to Hellenic College and Holy Cross - the devil's playground."
At times the spiritual war may become so trying and difficult that we may begin contemplating even leaving the seminary from the day we arrive. Through much growth with our Spiritual Fathers, we learn to prevail and overcome! Before we realize, ample time has passed and we, find ourselves with three and a half years left and others with a year and a half left. By the blink of an eye, we discover that we are mid-way finished with our studies.
It is at this mid-point that we begin to see our destination as opposed to the place of our original departure. This serves as a time of evaluation and introspection. A moment for all of us to realize just how far we have come and just how much further we have to go in our spiritual and educational formation.
In a much more profound fashion, the Church as a whole has quickly encountered the mid-way point of the Great Lenten period. In the center of our fast lies a big wooden cross - Christ's holy, precious, and life-giving cross. As Fr. Contos, of blessed memory states, "The cross is presented to us for refreshment and assurance, for remembrance of our Lord's Passion, and comfort ... like those following a long path and are tired, see a beautiful tree with many leaves, they would sit in its shadow and rest a while, as if rejuvenated, they will continue their journey."
Though many of us have probably struggled this Lenten period, we are given renewed hope and projected victory through Christ's sacrifice on that big wooden cross! Like a thirst quenching oasis, we are given nourishment to carry on the 'good fight'. How simple it is for us to lose focus as we try to complete all that is necessary throughout our busy schedules. We start out like a 'fourth of July bottle rocket' and then we 'fizzle-out' as if we were a 'dud'. When the smoke clears we find ourselves bewildered, terrified, and heartbroken - just like the little lost girl. But, in the midst of our community and in the midst of the Church stands that big wooden cross.
It is in this remembrance of Christ's Holy Cross that we are able to stay on solid ground. By doing this, we recall Christ's love for all humanity. Just think about it, the Creator of all things, the one who is without beginning and without end, humbling Himself to walk with us, to be with us, and to lay down his life for us - so that we may share in His celestial and eternal Kingdom. In Roman times to die by crucifixion was the most shameful of all deaths, but because of Christ's unconditional love for us that big wooden cross would no longer be a sign of weakness, rather a triumphant beacon of salvation - who's vertical angle points boldly to the heavens, and who's horizontal edges embrace the entire world. It is in tasting Christ's passion on the cross that we can partake of His resurrection. As we chanted the hymn just yesterday, "We venerate thy Cross, O Master, and we glorify thy Holy Resurrection." By keeping and remembering Christ's cross at the center of our lives, our path will be enlightened and God's salvific plan for us will come to fruition.
The act of remembering what Christ accomplished on that big wooden cross is simply not enough for our Christian calling. This remembrance must ultimately lead us to the reality of the cross. In the Gospel reading that was highlighted yesterday we heard the words of Christ's challenge
to all of us as He said, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." This proclamation by Christ leads us to a spirit of action and positive change. It is here that our faith in God is put to the test! So, just what is this test? What is it that Christ is telling us?
First, we are called to 'deny' ourselves. The word 'deny' might just be the most hated four letter word in our society. Just think about it, we are taught to deny ourselves of nothing - to have our cake and eat it too.
Our modern age encourages us to deny God and to focus solely on ourselves - for we are led to falsely believing that we are in charge - while Christ reverses this and tells us to deny ourselves and to focus solely on Him - for He is Lord - He is King. We are to deny ourselves from our passions, temptations, and anything that will deter us from being close to God. To leave behind our selfish ways and to empty ourselves, so that God's will may abide in and work through us. As we state in the Lord's Prayer. "Thy will be done", it is God's will that truly fulfills our lives. To deny ourselves is not to lose our uniqueness as individuals, rather it is to reach our full potential as children of God.
Next we are told to 'pick up' our 'cross'. What does this mean for us? What is my cross? And what is your cross? This act of picking up our cross is different for each and everyone of us. As Christ had His cross, we too have inherited our own. The interesting aspect about this concept, is that the cross can come to us in various ways. For some their cross might be a tragic life-threatening illness to deal with, while others might have what are seemingly less significant one's of day to day issues and ordeals, such as dealing with ethical dilemmas and gossip. Whether your cross might be being falsely labeled by people or to be persecuted unjustly, the fact remains, that all of us have a cross or many crosses to bear. We don't know why we are given a particular cross as opposed to our neighbors - but we do know that the will of God cannot lead us to where the grace of God will not keep us.
When examining this particular aspect of Christ's commission I am reminded of the flamboyant and successful Head Coach of Indiana University's Mens Basketball program Bobby Knight. Once he was asked to comment on one of his former star athletes who's career ended with a near fatal accident - the incident left the young man paralyzed. Bobby Knight commented on courage of this athlete and wept, as he reflected on the idea that God gives everyone a hand of cards (like in a card game) and some of our cards may be low ones and seem useless or negative, but it is how we handle these low cards that make us true champions. In the same way it is how we handle, approach, and deal with our cross that truly counts and matters most.
Finally, we are told to 'follow' Him. To follow Him throughout each and every day of our lives. To find His tremendous footprints and to implant our simple footprints in His, every step of the way. In following Him we become like a soldier in an army that is led by the greatest leader of all time. Our identity becomes etched in Christ's name as we walk together towards Him. By denying ourselves in this world and picking up our cross we can heed Christ's call for us to His Kingdom. Though at times, the cross and the Christian life may seem burdensome, the end result is eternal!
So, here we are, a day after Mid-Lent and the Veneration of the Holy Cross and one day closer to our Lord's resurrection. Just yesterday the Priest processed and raised the cross high above in exhaultation. The Priest showed us the cross, just as the man eventually found and showed the big wooden cross on the hill to the little lost girl. Because of this we have been given a landmark that will allow us to find our path and direction .
A famous Canadian author once wrote, "The point of a journey is not to return. In this Great Lenten fast all of us set out on the greatest of all journeys. A journey that will renew our faith in God as we witness His empty tomb. The point of our journey is the resurrection, as we return to the Kingdom prepared for us before all ages - yet the fact remains that there is no going back, no return to our former ways. The Church in its holy wisdom realizes this and places the cross at the center of this - the mid-way point of Lent. As St. Isaac the Syrian wrote, "The cross is the door to mysteries. Through this door the intellect makes entrance into the knowledge of heavenly mysteries." By experiencing the cross, we are able to share in the risen Christ.
My dear friends, we have now found that big wooden cross on the hill - let us continue our journey - for now we can find our way home. This is my hope and prayer. Amen