03 - Sunday After the Elevation, Sept 21, 2014

Galatians 2:16-20 (Sunday After)

II Corinthians 4:6-15

Mark 8:34-9:1 (Sunday After)

Matthew 22:35-46

The Church tells us that the cross Christ commands those who would follow Him to take up is given to us in the form of the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting. She tells us this, for example, on the first Wednesday of Great Lent, when she calls the Great Fast the “flower of abstinence” that grows from the tree of the Cross. (Lenten Triodion, p. 230) Let us note that this flower of abstinence grows not from our cross but from Christ’s Cross; so, when we observe the ascetic disciplines of the Church, we are taking up not just our cross, but even the Cross of Christ.

Rooted in the wood of Christ’s Cross, the ascetic disciplines of the Church are rooted in the suffering and the death of Christ on the Cross, which He voluntarily ascended in obedience to the Father as the expression of His love for the Father. That means, however, that they are infused with the power of His Holy Resurrection. So when we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church as our cross, voluntarily, because we want to, in obedience to Christ as the expression of our love for Christ, we are uniting ourselves to Christ and receiving in a small measure His suffering and dying into our bodies, but also His Holy Resurrection. As St Paul says, we “carry about in our body the dying of the LORD Jesus that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body; we are being delivered to death for Jesus sake that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

Even more importantly, however, we receive His death and resurrection into our will. “In our body,…in our mortal flesh,” says St Paul; i.e., in our dying. When we take up the cross, the ascetic disciplines of the Church, voluntarily, because we want to, taking up our cross becomes an action that brings what we “believe” down from the ivory tower and onto the ground. Our faith becomes real, concrete, incarnate. The mind of Christ – the mind of obedience in love to the Father – is incorporated into our will and begins to reshape our mind and to transfigure our soul and even our body that is passing away. For, the death of Jesus begins to work in us; but that means, as St Paul says, that the life of Jesus, i.e., His Holy Resurrection begins to work in us. (II Cor 2:10-12) Note well, however, that the life of Jesus does not begin to work in us until we unite ourselves to Christ voluntarily – because we want to – in the likeness of His death by taking up our cross, i.e., the ascetic disciplines of the Church as the Church directs.

From this, we begin to see that the cross which the LORD commands us to take up is at its heart our will, our desire. Our will is what we are laying hold of when we take up the Church’s ascetic disciplines. The death of Jesus works to destroy the weakness and the corruption of our will that we suffer because we have given ourselves over to the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, and His Holy Resurrection works to make our will strong and pure because by taking up our cross and uniting ourselves to Christ on His Cross, the LORD begins to create in us a clean heart and to put in us a new and right spirit. He puts our dead heart of stone to death, and creates in us a living heart of flesh. He replaces the spirit of disobedience that stinks with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud, with the fragrance of His Holy Spirit that ever refreshes the soul with the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy and peace.

I have come to believe that this cross of ascetic discipline given us by the Church, precisely because it is taken up voluntarily – i.e., by our own free will, because we want to – is at the heart of things because it heals us at our root, our will and the desire of our heart. There are other crosses given to us that we do not want: bodily and psychological illness, poverty, calamities and adversities. These are not given us by God. They are not the “flowers” that grow from the tree of Christ’s Cross. Rather, they are the thorns and thistles that grow from another tree, the tree of our disobedience, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve chose voluntarily to eat from that tree. Freely, they chose disobedience over obedience to the divine command; and, it produced in their souls and bodies the thorns and thistles that grow from the dread loneliness of death.

So also with us, their children: how many of the unwanted crosses given to us in this life are the result of choices we freely made: the mental anguish and emotional suffering that comes, e.g., from choosing the immorality over morality, unfaithfulness over faithfulness, the physical issues that spring up because we have chosen indulgence over discipline, convenience over uprightness?

Yet, even these unwanted crosses can be transfigured when we unite ourselves voluntarily to Christ by taking up the cross of the Church’s ascetic disciplines. Because the ascetic disciplines of the Church are rooted in the Cross of Christ, they swallow up the unwanted crosses – as the serpent from Moses’ staff swallowed the serpents from the staves of the Pharaoh’s magicians. They dissolve the sting of death carried in them, as the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness healed the venom of the serpents’ bite. Taking up the “flower of abstinence” voluntarily and in the humility of repentance, we are crucified with Christ in the same mind of the thief who confessed Him. As did he, so we learn to accept these unwanted crosses as the just punishment for our sins. In our suffering, we turn to Christ as the thief,and in the fear of God, with faith and love, we cry out to Him, seeing with the eyes of faith that He is the One Who voluntarily bears our griefs and carries our sorrows as Isaiah foretold, who is voluntarily wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities so that by His stripes we might be healed – we cry out to him as the thief and we say: “O LORD, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom!” (Lk 23:42)

If the Scriptures are true, and we believe they are, if we can pray to the LORD from our cross in the humble contrition of the thief, we will hear Him saying to us those precious words: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” That is to say: we “carry about in our body the dying of the LORD Jesus that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body. We deliver ourselves always to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh,” i.e., precisely in our death.

Here is the deep mystery of the Church: the Cross of Christ is the very Tree of Life Adam and Eve were commanded to eat from – but they never got to it. Christ is the fruit of that Tree who has come out to us. When, therefore, we take up these “flowers” of prayer and fasting that grow from the tree of the Cross, and we follow their stems and leaves that produced them they lead us to the Cross of Christ as to the Tree of Life. From there, they lead us into the tomb of our heart as into the cave of Bethlehem, to the precious Rose brought forth from the womb of the Theotokos in the Cave; and, from there, they lead us out into the garden, the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. (Jn 19:41)

Beloved faithful, the LORD says: “Whoever wants to follow after behind Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” Why would we want to deny ourselves and take up our cross, lay hold of our will for the sake of Christ and His Holy Gospel, and follow Him?

Look ahead to the new liturgical year now before us, brothers and sisters. The flowers growing from the tree of the Cross, the fasting and feasting seasons of the Church, are leading us to Christmas and to Christ’s Holy Pascha and to His Glorious Ascension. They are leading us back to Eden that was been opened again at His birth, into the heavens that were opened up at His Baptism, even into the very Holy of Holies in the Temple of Heaven – our “deep heart” – that was opened at His Holy Passion. We want to follow Him because we want to be made clean and made well, and because he is leading us back to who we really are, children of God. Amen!