32 - Cross and Fasting: Fourth Sunday of Lent, April 14, 2013

Hebrews 6:13-20

Mark 9:15-29

On the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church commemorates St John Climacus. He was abbot of Mt Sinai monastery in the seventh century, and wrote “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, a spiritual work read in Orthodox monasteries and Orthodox homes throughout the world during the Lenten season.

St John’s “Ladder of Divine Ascent” is, in fact, the Cross – made clear to us from so many of our liturgical texts that call the Cross a “heavenly ladder” that reaches up to heaven. The Theotokos, too, for that matter, is called a “heavenly ladder”, for through her, the Savior came down from heaven and became flesh and dwelt among us. She tells us to, “Do whatever He tells you to do!” And, He tells us to take up our cross daily. Perhaps we can say, then, as does St Gregory Palamas in one of his homilies, that as we take up our cross daily, we are granted to become “mothers of Christ.” We bring forth Christ from our souls and we ascend to heaven as we take up our cross, daily uniting ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death and Holy Resurrection.

Today’s commemoration of St John Climacus, then, or so it seems to me, continues in a different key our veneration of the Cross from last Sunday. For that matter, next Sunday does, too, because of the critical role of the Cross – and of the Theotokos! – in St Mary of Egypt’s repentance and salvation. It was by these “ladders of heaven” that she climbed from the depths of her debauched life in Egypt to the heavenly heights of humility and sanctification in the wilderness – the same wilderness, by the way, in which Christ triumphed over the evil one after His baptism in the Jordan. But, we could say that Palm Sunday, too, continues the veneration of the Cross of Christ. For, the children’s “palms of victory” could be taken as branches of the Cross, the Tree of Life, the emblem of victory. And, of course, Pascha itself is the final blossom of glory that flowers from the Cross: the Resurrection of Christ in which He raises the dead to life and ascends to heaven.

These considerations lead me to take this morning’s commemoration of St John Climacus as an occasion to reflect further on the Cross, this “Ladder of Divine Ascent” that is so mysteriously united to the Theotokos and her command to us, in effect, to “Take up your cross as He tells you to do!” It is in the Lord’s word to His disciples in this morning’s Gospel that reveals to us how we go about taking up our cross not in a figurative or metaphorical way, but really, concretely, practically. I am referring specifically to the words of the Savior: “This kind of [demonic evil] cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting.”

Let’s go back at once to St John’s, “Ladder of Divine Ascent”, and note that in his 30 chapters (corresponding to the years of Jesus’ earthly life), he describes how the evil that makes us dead in our sins and trespasses and afflicts us in body and soul with all kinds of maladies and infirmities, can be “driven out” only through the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting. Do you see the close association, even the inner unity of the Cross, the “Ladder of Divine Ascent,” and the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting that is already coming into view?

We hear many times in the Church’s liturgical texts that the demons are driven out by the Cross, just as Christ says in this morning’s Gospel that they are driven out through prayer and fasting. For example, at the Matins of last Wednesday, we sang: “Hail, Tree of Life…by thy power thou scatterest the demons!” (p. 207) “Through veneration [of the Cross], the world is sanctified and the hosts of demons put to flight.” (Lenten Triodion Supplement, p. 219)

This inner unity between the Cross and the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting is given explicitly in the Church’s liturgical texts for Great Lent. For example, from the first week of Great Lent: ““From the Tree of the Cross there grows for all the world the flower of abstinence [i.e. the disciplines of prayer and fasting]. Let us then accept the Fast with love and take pleasure in the fruit of Christ’s commandments.” (Lenten Triodion, p. 230) Consider how we adorned the Cross last Sunday with flowers. Do you see now that the flowers are an image of the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting? Adorned with flowers, the Cross, I would say, shows how our soul – a spiritual desert because we are dead in our sins and trespasses – is made to blossom like the rose, according to Isaiah’s prophecy. In other words, through prayer and fasting, the death that makes our soul to be a spiritual desert is “driven out,” it is destroyed because prayer and fasting are united to Christ’s Cross, and when we accept the fast “with love,” we are taking up our cross for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s, and we are uniting ourselves to Christ in a death and a resurrection like His.

So, when we hear, for example, at last Tuesday’s Matins: “Venerating thee [the Cross] we turn to flight our bodiless enemies through thy power,” (Lenten Triodion supplement, p. 196) we hear that through the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting, we are laying hold of the power of the Cross and turning to flight our bodiless enemies; which takes me to this troparion, also from the Matins of last Tuesday: “By the operation of Thy Cross and through abstinence, keep in profound peace those who praise and bless Thee, O most merciful!” (Ibid., p. 184) What I hear is this: when I take up the ascetic discipline of prayer and fasting for the sake of Christ and the Gospel I receive into myself the operation, the saving activity of the Cross. By accepting the fast with love – for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s – I unite myself consciously and voluntarily to the crucified and risen body and blood of Christ that I receive into my soul and body through Holy Eucharist. The power, the grace, of His Cross, and the divine life of His Holy Resurrection are united to my will to become in me the active principle that operates in my soul and body.

Now let’s go back to this morning’s Gospel. When Jesus says to His disciples, “This kind of evil cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting,” do you now hear Him saying that this kind of evil cannot be driven out except by His Cross, which becomes active in us when we “take up” the Church’s ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting with love? We do not take up our Cross as Christ commands us to do in some vague, poetic or metaphorical way. We take it up in a very concrete and real way by taking up the Church’s ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting.

Turning back again to Lenten texts: “Moses foreshadowed the Cross when he stretched out his arms and defeated Amalek. Like him let us form a figure of the Cross, stretching out our arms in fasting and prayer, that so we may defeat the host of demons that in malicious envy continually make war against us.” (Ibid., p. 209) The Cross is formed in us when we fast and pray with love; i.e., for the sake of Christ and His Gospel; so that it is through prayer and fasting, the taking up of our cross, that the demonic evil of death is driven out from us; by taking them up we receive the grace of sanctification, and the season of the Fast is even made easy for us! (Ibid, p. 208) We are cleansed and liberated from bondage to the passions, healed and illumined and sanctified and made alive in the Resurrection of Christ.

Might this mystery of the Cross becoming the active principle in us as we accept the Fast with love be what is shown to us when the Cross is returned from the nave back to the altar on the Fourth Friday of Great Lent? The liturgical action is not unlike the sowing of the crucified and risen Lord, like a grain of wheat, in the soil, the sanctuary of our heart, as the crucified Lord was buried in the tomb of His Holy Pascha. When we voluntarily take up our cross by accepting the disciplines of prayer and fasting with love, then the death-destroying and life-creating power of Christ’s Cross is being “buried” in the tomb of our heart, like the Cross being taken back into the sanctuary. United to the most precious Body and Blood of Christ that has been united to our soul and body in Holy Eucharist, the power of Christ’s Cross is incorporated into our soul and body and becomes the active principle in us that purifies and renews us, illumines us from within, bathing us with heavenly light and joy. (Ibid,. p. 195) And thus, we can be granted, as it says in the Lenten text, i.e., weare made to become strong enough to behold with love Christ’s saving Passion in the joy of Pascha night. (ibid, p. 195.)

Now, perhaps we begin to understand why the faithful love and revere Great Lent so: beneath the purple veils of our Lenten fasting, our Lenten melodies, the confession of our sins, there shines the glory of the Resurrection, not as a poetic metaphor but as a spiritual reality that we “taste and see” with the eyes of our soul as they are opened through the purifying process of Christ’s Cross, made active in us through the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting. Our eyes are opened, our tongue is loosed like the eyes and mouth of a corpse coming to life as death is driven out of us and we are made able to “taste and see how good the Lord is” as we take up our cross of prayer and fasting and ascend to the tomb of the Lord’s Life-creating Pascha that opens onto the Garden of Eden. Amen.