28 - The Cross, Third Sunday of Lent, March 19, 2017 (with audio)

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Hebrews 4:14 – 5:6

Mark 8:34 – 9:1

Along about now, at the third Sunday of Great Lent, mybody recovers from the shock of denying myself the foods I was accustomed to eating before and begins to rebel against my resolve to keep the Fast. But, is not this the Fast uncovering the “law of sin” that is in my members (Rom 7:7-23ff.)? I.e., from my own experience with the Fast, I can see how covetousness, i.e. idolatry (Col 3:5), self-will, self-love, enmity (Eph 2:14), this carnal mind that is against God and cannot subject itself to God (Rom 8:7) has become embodied, incarnate in me, principally as gluttony and lust. These, in turn, are served by greed or the love of money (I Tim 6:10).

St Paul teaches that it is not me as me who is against God (7:20). I myself am in the image of God. It is this covetousness that has taken hold of me because I gave myself to it that has taken me away from myself and has set me against God and so against myself and my true nature.

The story of Eve in the garden teaches us that this covetousness or self-love “comes to life” (cf. Rm 7:9) when I stop listening to God and listen to the voice of the serpent. When I receive the word of the serpent, it “copulates” with my disobedience and begins immediately to work in me (kateirgazomai, cf. Rom 7:8) a homunculus of desire that builds in me until I must express it and give birth to it in a concrete, physical act of gluttony, lust and/or greed.

Do you see why we must fast to be healed and delivered from sin? Sin is embodied in us; it is in our members. To be “saved”, I must discipline my body. I must choose to obey Christ. He commands me to take up my cross and follow Him. The cross is given to us in the ascetic disciplines of the Church, specifically in the Lenten Fast, the “flower of abstinence” that grows from the Tree of the Cross (Lenten Triodion, p. 230). To lay hold of my will, I must discipline my body because it is in my body that the covetousness that has corrupted my will has become incarnate as the very principle – albeit an alien principle – of the life or soul (psyche can be translated as ‘soul’ or ‘life’) of my flesh and blood.

St Paul writes: “We have a great High Priest who has passed into the Heavens…Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the Throne of Grace” (Heb 4:14&16). How has He passed into the heavens? By the Cross. What is the Throne of Grace we are called to draw near to? It is the Holy Cross of Christ.

Taking up the fasting and prayer, the cross, of the Church in obedience to the Church (i.e., not following my own counsel for then I but “revive” (Rm 7:9) the disobedience of my self-will again), this is how I draw near the Cross of Christ, the Throne of Grace, that I may pass into the heavens in union with Christ. By means of the cross, the ascetic disciplines of the Church, I deny myself in order to unite myself to Christ on His Cross; this is how I put to death what is earthly in me – my self-will and its disobedience that has become embodied “in my members” – that I may descend with Christ into the tomb of my heart, there to become one with Christ in the likeness of His death.

To fast, then, without prayer is not to unite myself to Christ in the tomb of my heart. To pray without fasting is not to put to death what is earthly in me. I am not following Christ or denying myself for the sake of Christ. The Fast then becomes for me but an exercise in self-righteous pride and instead of “saving my soul”, I destroy(apollumi) her.

The prokeimena for this Sunday of the Cross are taken from Psalm 27 and 73 (LXX). “Be not silent to me lest I become like [sinners, v. 3] who go down to the pit! I lift up my hands toward Thy Holy Temple!” says the one (27:1-2).  “They have profaned the Temple (skenomata) of Thy Name,” says the other (73:12). “Yet, God is our King of old. He has worked (eirgasato, cf. Rm 7:8!) salvation in the midst of the earth!”  

The LORD said to the Jews, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. But, He was speaking of the temple of His Body” (Jn 2:19). Before the Cross, we stand at the Footstool of the Throne of Grace of the Temple of Christ’s Body, the greater and perfected temple not made with hands, i.e., not of this creation – for it was fashioned by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin. And St Paul says: “Know ye not that you are the temple of God, and that the Holy Spirit [by virtue of your baptism] dwells in you?” (I Cor 3:16)

The temple is the center of creation. In the temple sanctuary, earth opens onto heaven, man opens onto God, time opens onto eternity (that’s why the liturgical texts for this Sunday speak of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ as Today). Here in the Orthodox worship of St Herman’s at 54th and 38th, we are in the Church, and so we are in the Body of Christ and therefore in the Temple of God, and therefore we are mystically in the sanctuary of our heart “beyond all things”.

Here in the temple of our heart, then, if we would but deny ourselves and obey the command to put to death what is earthly in us, we would hear that “God is with us!” He who became like us when He became flesh has become one with us in His death on the Cross. He who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life is buried in the tomb of our heart. When we cry out to Him from out of the depths, when we beseech Him to save us lest we be like those who go down to the pit, lo! He is not up there or out there. He is here in our midst, in the pit, here in the midst of the earth of our body which is His temple, working His salvation in the tomb of our heart.

We came into Great Lent “beholding” with the myrrhbearing women “how His Body was laid” in the tomb. St John says, “God is love” (I Jn 4:8). St Paul says, “While we were yet sinners, in His great love for us, Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8). Though He was of one essence with the Father, in obedience to the Father He emptied Himself – He denied Himself – and set up His Temple among us and was obedient even to the point of death on the Cross, that all who believe in Him – who deny themselves for His sake, take up their cross and follow Him – might be saved. I.e., in love Christ’s Body was laid in the Tomb. His death on the Cross and Burial are the “mighty acts” that embody His love for mankind. It’s why He is the Greatly Compassionate One.  

“Behold” how the movement of the LORD in His Incarnation was the self-denying movement of His love for mankind, perfected by His death on the Cross and burial; for by this, He became one with us (Heb 2:14). And, if the LORD is the Image of God in whom we were made, would it not reveal a deep mystery: that what we now experience as death is the corruption of the movement of love in which the world and man were created? I.e., the soul of man, created by God to exist in her heart “beyond all things” was created if you will as an Exodus: created to move out of herself in love – to deny herself – to give herself to and to become one with the LORD Jesus Christ, her Beloved Heavenly Bridegroom.

It says that when they laid His Body in the tomb, that the light of the Sabbath was beginning to dawn (epiphosken; Lk 23:54). This is not speaking of Saturday morning, because it is Friday evening; the sun is setting! No, it is the Light of the Great and Holy Sabbath of God’s Rest, the Light of the Resurrection, of God’s love dawning already on those who sat in darkness in which He finished His creation of the world on the Cross.

The LORD’s call, then, to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and to lose our life is but His command to be raised up into the love of God, to enter into His Temple and to offer on the altar of our heart the sacrifice of praise, of love for the God who first loved us, who created us, and when He saw that we had fallen, did not cease to do all things until He had raised us up to heaven. I think this is why the saints experience death as a “sweetness” (truphe) and why the Lenten Fast should be experienced as such! For, by the Cross (and so by the Fast!), the bitterness of death is destroyed and death is transfigured into the sweetness of the heart denying herself in her desire to give herself wholly in love to her Heavenly Bridegroom. Amen!