28 - The Cross, Third Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2018


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Hebrews 4:14 – 5:6

Mark 8:34 – 9:1

At Matins on Thursday last, the Church helped us to see in ourselves what our inner eye may not see: “O my soul,” we were given to pray, “thou hast not cleansed thyself from evil nor avoided the lusts that corrupt thee. Why, then, are you filled with unjustified rejoicing because thou hast observed the Fast? For such is not the fast the LORD has chosen, who desires our true amendment.”

This Matins verse is drawn from Isaiah (58:1-7). Israel complains to the LORD: “Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see? Why have we afflicted our soul, and Thou takest no knowledge of it?” Perhaps that speaks to our own Lenten experience. Even though we are fasting, we experience no real change except that we’re hungry; and so, for what purpose?

In this same passage, the LORD says to Israel: “You seek Me daily and delight to know My ways, as if you were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of your God. You delight to draw near to Me; yet, in the day of your fast, you seek your own pleasure; you fast only to quarrel and to fight. Fasting like this will not make your voice to be heard on high.”

The teaching here isn’t that the Fast is of no real consequence, but that the Fast has a spiritual purpose. It is not in itself the goal. It is meant to get us into our soul, into the “closet of our heart” (Mt 6:6) beneath our self-righteousness that, without the light of the Holy Spirit, is imperceptible to our inner eye. Can you see in this that its purpose is meant to get us inside to where our love for God and our neighbor is swallowed up by self-righteousness? We should know we are not fasting in the Spirit of the Church if our focus is on the externals of the Fast and not on turning inward to see and to “confess” the “evil and the lusts that corrupt” us in our habits of thought, words and behaviors, by which we hurt each other, and separate and isolate ourselves first from God and then from ourselves, and then from each other.

To get inside, into the closet of our soul, we fast with our stomachs, our eyes and ears, hands and feet because we are body and soul. What we feel inside – both consciously and unconsciously, knowingly and unknowingly – expresses itself in our body outside, in our words and behaviors, the way we treat others and also ourselves; and what we do with our body on the outside affects our soul inside. The physical Fast is meant to open us onto the spiritual, our heart, the spiritual center of our being, where we are healed and restored to our “original beauty”.

This getting inside our soul is the true business of the Fast and it can be a fierce business. What makes this business so fierce, as I see it, is that we are fighting the law of death that has become embodied in us. So long as we are in this life, our “death” is not “out here” on the outside; it is “in here”, in our soul, deep within us, in the “tomb of our heart”. And, here we are at the Third Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of the Cross, at the center or in the heart of the Fast. We bring the Cross from the heart of the Church, the altar, out into the center of the nave, where we are, to bow down before the crucified God in worship and to praise and glorify His Holy Resurrection. This outward liturgical movement makes visible the mystery of the Cross by which the fierce business of Lent is conquered in the healing of our soul to the point of eternal life in Christ! Remember, the fast is a flower of abstinence that grows from the wood of the Cross (LT 231). So, the fast leads us in a real way to the Cross of Christ that is working within us, destroying our death by His death from within us.

Christ has destroyed death by His death. Let’s not race through this Gospel proclamation on this Sunday of the Cross. Let’s grow still and allow our mind to embrace the mystery it proclaims to see where it would take our mind.

It’s at the Matins of Great and Holy Saturday morning, sung on Great and Holy Friday night, the Lamentations and Praises, that I see the Church revealing to us all that is meant in the Gospel proclamation that Christ has destroyed death by His death. In the beautiful hymns of that service, we enter into the lamentation of the Mother for her Son. We feel to whatever degree the grief of her heart breaking over the death of her beloved Son; but the fearsome mystery is that in her grief she opens the human heart onto the God who is deep, beyond all things, and she comes out into the joy of praise not of this world for her Son and our God who in His love for the world, became flesh to the point of death on the Cross to become absolutely one with us.

This is fearsome because we see that one does not come to the joy and praise of Resurrection except through lamentation and grief. The Church tells us that in the mystery of the Cross, our wounds are healed by the wounds of the LORD; but, that means that for my wounds to be healed by His wounds, I must turn inward and allow myself to feel them. That means I must stop trying to suppress them, to numb them, or to escape from them. This is what I offer to the LORD in confession as my “offering”, the “living sacrifice” of me as I really am in the ugliness and stench of my spiritual death. Even for this, however, the Church gives voice to what our soul really feels so that she is allowed to speak beneath the cords of whatever masks of self-righteousness we may hide behind trying to silence our pain: “In our wretchedness, what shall we offer Thee, O Master of all, who hast suffered for us?” (LTS 161) Words however eloquent cannot express the soul’s amazement over how our grief and sorrow from the wounds of our soul would be the sacrifice God desires, and not the “prettiness” of our righteousness. I think it’s because the one is our true self, the other is a façade; and in presenting ourselves as ourselves to the crucified God, He is able to wrap His arms around us in His love for us and hold us close, so that He can heal our wounds by His wounds that heal because He has suffered them voluntarily in His great love for us.

This means that the true business of the physical fast is “interior” business: the work of denying ourselves to follow the LORD Jesus beneath our self-righteousness so that it is we as we truly are that we offer to the LORD – face to face, heart to heart.

What could possibly give us the courage, even the desire, to lay aside every excuse, to put aside every defense, to let ourselves feel the suffering of our wounds inside, if not the vision, expressed inexpressibly in words and images, of the WORD of God healing our wounds by His wounds on the Cross; and of the grief piercing the heart of the Theotokos? Who of us cannot feel in the image of her inconsolable grief the grief or our own soul that strikes our heart deep down, and stirs our “real self” far beneath the façade of our self-righteousness?

This, the love for God that is primordial and natural to our heart, created as we are in His image and likeness, that is stirred and awakened in the vision of God’s love poured out for us on His Cross by which He becomes one with us in our death, this is what gives us the courage to turn inward to acknowledge and confess the wounds of our soul. It is courage fueled by the love of our heart for this greatly compassionate God, inflaming her with a desire to run to Him that she may be healed in His love and become one with Him in the “bridal chamber” of her heart.

So, when we bow down before the Cross of Christ and worship His Holy Resurrection, if we do so mindfully, we are using our bodies to help our soul, in the fierce interior struggle of confronting our death and feeling our wounds, to lay aside our defenses and to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, just as we are to the Only Lover of Mankind in the promise of the Savior that in losing our life for His sake, we will find it in Him, a “new creation”, healed and restored to our original beauty in the love and compassion of Christ God that we know beyond all words and images to be our true nature, our true identity, our true destiny. Amen!