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Homily on the third Sunday of Great Lent: On Carrying Your Cross

Whoso­ev­er will come after me, let him deny him­self, and take up his cross, and fol­low me (Mk. 8:34), said the Lord to his dis­ci­ples, call­ing them unto Him, as we heard today in the Gospels.

Dear broth­ers and sis­ters! We too are dis­ci­ples of our Lord Jesus Christ, because we are Chris­tians. We too are called unto the Lord, to this holy tem­ple, to hear His teach­ing. We stand before the face of the Lord. His gaze is direct­ed at us. Our souls are laid bare before Him; our secret thoughts and hid­den feel­ings are open to Him. He sees all of our inten­tions; He sees the truth, and the sins we have com­mit­ted from our youth; He sees our whole life, past and future; even what we have not yet done is already writ­ten in His book.[1] He knows the hour of our pass­ing into immea­sur­able eter­ni­ty, and gives us His all-holy com­mand­ment for our sal­va­tion: Whoso­ev­er will come after me, let him deny him­self, and take up his cross, and fol­low me.

Through liv­ing faith, let us lift up the eyes of our mind to the Lord Who is present here with us! Let us open our hearts, rolling back the heavy stone of hard­ness from its entrance; let us hear, pon­der, accept, and assim­i­late the teach­ing of our Lord.

What does it mean to deny our­selves? It means leav­ing our sin­ful life. Sin, through which our fall occurred, has so encom­passed our nature that it has become as if nat­ur­al; thus, denial of sin has become denial of nature, and deny­ing nature is deny­ing our­selves. The eter­nal death that has struck our souls has become like life for us. It demands food: sin; it demands to be pleased—with sin. By means of such food and plea­sure, eter­nal death upholds and pre­serves its domin­ion over man. But fall­en man accepts the growth of the domin­ion of death in him­self as growth and suc­cess in life. Thus, he who is infect­ed with a fatal dis­ease is over­come by the force­ful demands of this dis­ease and looks for foods that would strength­en him. He seeks them as the most essen­tial foods, as the most need­ed and pleas­ant delights. The Lord pro­nounced His sen­tence against this eter­nal death, which mankind, sick with ter­ri­ble fal­l­en­ness, imag­ines to be life: For whoso­ev­er will save his life, cul­ti­vat­ing in it the life of fal­l­en­ness or eter­nal death, shall lose it; but whoso­ev­er shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it (Mk. 8:35). Plac­ing before our eyes the whole world with all its beau­ty and charm, the Lord says, For what shall it prof­it a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? What good is it for man, what has he real­ly acquired if he should come to pos­sess not only some minor thing, but even the entire vis­i­ble world? This vis­i­ble world is no more than man’s tem­po­rary guest­house! There is no item on the earth, not a sin­gle acquirable good that we could call our own. Every­thing will be tak­en from us by mer­ci­less and inevitable death; and unfore­seen cir­cum­stances and changes often take them away even before our death. Even our own bod­ies are cast aside at that sacred step into eter­ni­ty. Our pos­ses­sion and trea­sure is our soul, and our soul alone. What shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mk. 8:37), sayeth the word of God. There is noth­ing that can rec­om­pense the loss of the soul when it is killed by eter­nal death, which deceit­ful­ly calls itself life.

What does it mean to take up our cross? The cross was an instru­ment of shame­ful exe­cu­tion of com­mon­ers and cap­tives deprived of a citizen’s rights. The proud world, a world at enmi­ty with Christ, deprives Christ’s dis­ci­ples of the rights enjoyed by the sons of this world. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have cho­sen you out of the world, there­fore the world hateth you. Whoso­ev­er kil­leth you will think that he doeth God ser­vice. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me (Jn. 15:19; 16:2–3). Tak­ing up our cross means mag­nan­i­mous­ly endur­ing the mock­ing and deri­sion that the world pours out upon fol­low­ers of Christ—those sor­rows and per­se­cu­tions with which the sin-lov­ing and blind world per­se­cutes those who fol­low Christ. For this is thankwor­thy, says the Apos­tle Peter, if a man for con­science toward God endure grief, suf­fer­ing wrong­ful­ly. For even here­un­to were ye called (1 Pet. 2:19, 21). We were called by the Lord, Who said to his beloved ones, In the world ye shall have tribu­la­tion: but be of good cheer; I have over­come the world (Jn. 16:33).

Tak­ing up our cross means coura­geous­ly endur­ing dif­fi­cult unseen labor, agony, and tor­ment for the sake of the Gospels as we war with our own pas­sions, with the sin that lives in us, with the spir­its of evil who vehe­ment­ly make war against us and fran­ticly attack us when we resolve to cast off the yoke of sin, and sub­mit our­selves to the yoke of Christ. For we wres­tle not against flesh and blood, says the holy Apos­tle Paul, but against prin­ci­pal­i­ties, against pow­ers, against the rulers of the dark­ness of this world, against spir­i­tu­al wicked­ness in high places (Eph. 6:12). (For the weapons of our war­fare are not car­nal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Cast­ing down imag­i­na­tions, and every high thing that exal­teth itself against the knowl­edge of God, and bring­ing into cap­tiv­i­ty every thought to the obe­di­ence of Christ (2 Cor. 10:4–5). After gain­ing vic­to­ry in this unseen but labo­ri­ous war­fare, the Apos­tle exclaimed, But God for­bid that I should glo­ry, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is cru­ci­fied unto me, and I unto the world (Gal. 6:14).

Tak­ing up our cross means obe­di­ent­ly and humbly sub­mit­ting our­selves to those tem­po­rary sor­rows and afflic­tions that Divine Prov­i­dence sees fit to allow against us for the cleans­ing away of our sins. Then the cross will serve us as a lad­der from earth to heav­en. The thief in the Gospels who ascend­ed this lad­der ascend­ed from out of ter­ri­ble crimes into most radi­ant heav­en­ly habi­ta­tions. From his cross he pro­nounced words filled with humil­i­ty of wis­dom; in humil­i­ty of wis­dom he entered into the knowl­edge of God, and through the knowl­edge of God, he acquired heav­en. We receive the due reward of our deeds, he said. Lord, remem­ber me when thou comest into thy king­dom (Lk. 23:41–42). When sor­rows encom­pass us, let us also, beloved broth­ers and sis­ters, repeat the words of the good thief—words that can pur­chase par­adise! Or like Job, let us bless the Lord who pun­ish­es us, Who is just yet mer­ci­ful. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, said this suf­fer­er, and shall we not receive evil? As it hath pleased the Lord so is it done; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 2:10; 1:21). May God’s promise, which is true, be ful­filled in us: Blessed is the man that endureth temp­ta­tion: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him. (Js. 1:12).

Tak­ing up our cross means will­ing­ly and eager­ly sub­mit­ting our­selves to depri­va­tions and ascetic labors, by which the irra­tional striv­ings of our flesh are held in check. The Apos­tle Paul had recourse to such a cru­ci­fix­ion of his flesh. He says, But I keep under [in Slavon­ic: “dead­en,” or “mor­ti­fy”] my body, and bring it into sub­jec­tion: lest that by any means, when I have preached to oth­ers, I myself should be a cast­away (1 Cor. 9:27). They that are in the flesh, that is, those who do not restrain their flesh, but allow it to over­come the spir­it, can­not please God (Rom. 8:8). There­fore, though we live in the flesh, we should not live for the flesh! For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die (Rom. 8:12) an eter­nal death; but if ye through the Spir­it do mor­ti­fy the deeds of the body, ye shall live (Rom. 8:13) an eter­nal, blessed life. The flesh is essen­tial­ly restrained by the spir­it; but the spir­it can only take con­trol of the flesh and rule it when it is pre­pared to sub­mit to its cru­ci­fix­ion. The flesh is cru­ci­fied by fast­ing, vig­il, kneel­ing in prayer, and oth­er bod­i­ly labors placed upon it wise­ly and with­in mea­sure. A bod­i­ly labor that is wise and with­in mea­sure frees the body from heav­i­ness and cor­pu­lence, refines its strength, keeps it ever light and capa­ble of activ­i­ty. They that are Christ’s, says the Apos­tle, have cru­ci­fied the flesh with the affec­tions and lusts (Gal. 5:24).

What does it mean to take up our cross, and take up specif­i­cal­ly our own cross? It means that every Chris­t­ian should patient­ly bear those very insults and per­se­cu­tions from the world that come to him, and not any oth­ers. This means that every Chris­t­ian should man­ful­ly and con­stant­ly war with those very pas­sions and sin­ful thoughts that arise in him. It means that every Chris­t­ian should with obe­di­ence and ded­i­ca­tion to God’s will, with con­fes­sion of God’s jus­tice and mer­cy, with thank­ful­ness to God, endure those very sor­rows and depri­va­tions that Divine Prov­i­dence allows to come upon him, and not some oth­er things paint­ed and pre­sent­ed to him by his proud dreams. This means being sat­is­fied with those bod­i­ly labors that cor­re­spond to our phys­i­cal strength, the ones that our flesh require in order to keep it in order, and not to seek after increased fast­ing and vig­il, or all oth­er ascetic feats beyond our mea­sure, which destroy our phys­i­cal health and direct our spir­it towards high self-opin­ion and self deceit, as St. John Cli­ma­cus describes.[2] All mankind labors and suf­fers upon the earth, but these suf­fer­ings dif­fer; the pas­sions dif­fer that war against us, the sor­rows and temp­ta­tions dif­fer that God sends us for our heal­ing, for the cleans­ing away of our sins. What dif­fer­ences there are in people’s phys­i­cal strength, in their very health! Pre­cise­ly: every per­son has his own cross. And each Chris­t­ian is com­mand­ed to accept this cross of his own with self-denial, and to fol­low Christ. He who has denied him­self and tak­en up his own cross has made peace with him­self and with his own cir­cum­stances, with his own posi­tion both inter­nal and exter­nal; and only he can rea­son­ably and cor­rect­ly fol­low Christ.

What does it mean to fol­low Christ? It means study­ing the Gospels, hav­ing the Gospels as the only guide of the activ­i­ty of our mind, heart, and body. It means adapt­ing our thoughts to the Gospels, tun­ing the feel­ings of our heart to the Gospels, and serv­ing as an expres­sion of the Gospels by all our deeds and move­ments, both secret and open. As we said before, only the per­son who has escaped deceit through vol­un­tary humil­i­ty (Col. 2:18), who has desired to obtain true humil­i­ty of wis­dom where it abides—in obe­di­ence and sub­mis­sion to God—is capa­ble of fol­low­ing Christ. He who has entered into sub­mis­sion to God, into obe­di­ence com­bined with com­plete self-denial, has tak­en up his own cross, and accept­ed and con­fessed this cross to be his own.

Beloved broth­ers and sis­ters! Bow­ing down bod­i­ly to wor­ship the pre­cious Cross of the Lord today accord­ing to the rule of the Holy Church, we bow down also in spir­it! We ven­er­ate the pre­cious Cross of Christ—our weapon of vic­to­ry and ban­ner of Christ’s glory—each con­fess­ing from his own cross, “I have received the due reward of my deeds! Remem­ber me, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy King­dom!” By rec­og­niz­ing our sin­ful­ness with thank­ful­ness to God and sub­mis­sion to His will, we make our cross—that instru­ment of exe­cu­tion and mark of dishonor—an instru­ment of vic­to­ry and sign of glo­ry, like unto the Cross of the Lord. Through the cross we open par­adise to our­selves. Let us not allow our­selves any evil mur­mur­ing, and espe­cial­ly not any soul-destroy­ing blas­phe­my, which is often heard from the lips of the blind and hard­ened sin­ner, who writhes and thrash­es upon his cross, vain­ly endeav­or­ing to escape from it. With mur­mur­ing and blas­phe­my the cross becomes unbear­ably heavy, drag­ging to hell the one cru­ci­fied upon it. “What have I done?” cries the sin­ner in denial of his sin­ful­ness, accus­ing the just and mer­ci­ful God of injus­tice and mer­ci­less­ness, blam­ing and reject­ing God’s Prov­i­dence. The one who saw the Son of God cru­ci­fied, mock­ing­ly and evil­ly demand­ed of him, If thou be Christ, save thy­self and us (Lk. 23:39),—let him now come down from the cross (Mt. 27:42). But our Lord Jesus Christ was pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh and to endure death[3] in order by the cross to make peace between God and man, and to save mankind by death from eter­nal death. Hav­ing pre­pared the holy Apos­tles for this great event—the incar­nate God-man’s suf­fer­ings and shame­ful death, potent to redeem the human race—the Lord informed the Apos­tles in good time that He must be giv­en over into the hands of sin­ners, must suf­fer much, be killed, and res­ur­rect­ed. This fore­warn­ing seemed strange and unlike­ly to cer­tain of the holy Apos­tles. Then the Lord called unto Him his dis­ci­ples and said to them: Whoso­ev­er will come after me, let him deny him­self, and take up his cross, and fol­low me. Amen.

St. Ignatius (Bri­an­chani­nov)
Trans­lat­ed by Nun Cor­nelia (Rees)