We have come to the halfway point of our Great Lenten struggle. While it may feel like the halfway point, the second half of Lent is even more grueling, even more challenging than the first. After the last couple of difficult weeks it is easy to begin complaining. It is easy to wonder, “what is the real point of all this?” It is easy to feel sorry for ourselves. The basketball tournaments have begun and everyone around me is munching down on buffalo chicken. It is easy to contemplate breaking the fast. It is easy to think about having just a bite. It is easy to give up. The weather has become quite nice over the last week. It is easy to say “I’ll go to services another time, after all, there is always tomorrow. Let me enjoy this lovely day outside.”
In addition, we may be finding that although we are trying very hard, we are making very little progress in the spiritual life. After all the extra prayers and fasting, the extra almsgiving and Scripture reading we are shocked to find that the heavens haven’t opened up and angels haven’t begun to circle around our heads. Some of us have even figured out that in fact we are great sinners. We may feel that we have no hope of salvation. How could God ever save a man as wretched as me?
It may seem strange but the Church herself recognizes the difficulty of the Holy Forty days. She knows this as the bride of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In today’s epistle we hear that in Our Lord we have a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. He knows we are weak. His bride, the Church, knows of our weakness.
It is now, while we are on the brink of despair from hunger, from weakness, from faintheartedness, from our own sinfulness and the attacks of the demons that the Church brings out her most prized possession to the battlefield. It is now, as her soldiers have lost the strength and courage to fight another battle, that She brings us the secret weapon that will turn the tide of the war.
Today the Church brings out the cross for veneration. The cross appears to be one thing, but its reality is much deeper. This cross is full of power. It puts the demons to flight. This symbol of pain becomes our source of comfort. This symbol of weakness pours out strength on us. The ultimate tool for torture becomes a soothing ointment for our discomfort. It reminds us that even during the darkest moments of our life, when death seems to be swallowing up life, there is still hope.
In our weakness, the Church wants to give us strength. The only strength of the Church is the cross of Jesus Christ. The Lord showed His strength when He submitted Himself to the shame, the brutality and the suffering of crucifixion. He accepted death at the hands of His creation and because He accepted death as one who did not know death, He swallowed death completely.
Today we venerate the Cross because the Church has no other symbols of hope to share. The Church has no other symbols of strength or power. The Church has no other symbol of salvation.
The Cross reminds us that the Lord molded His will to the will of God the Father. He denied Himself to save us. He denied Himself justice. He denied Himself the chance to escape. He denied Himself a comfortable and a quiet life. Because He denied Himself, He was able to provide for us. In today’s gospel reading we hear the Lord say “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Each and every one of us is already wishing it was PASCHA. We are already thinking about the celebration of Easter. The Lord reminds us that there is no magical, pain-free, glamorous way to arrive at the resurrection. The way to the empty tomb requires self-denial. The way to the resurrection is dirty, difficult, painful and humiliating. The way to the resurrection is blocked by the cross. This way is only opened up by courageous men and women who carry this cross to the brink of death.
Sometimes this means physical death as we’ve seen in the case of our celebrated martyrs and saints. Sometimes it is a sort of personal death as we allow the old man to die in order for the new man to live. As the Lord says in today’s Gospel “whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.” Are we ready to lose our old life, to become new men and women who follow the teaching and example of Our Lord and Master? Are we ready to really struggle through our sinful habits and ways to cleanse our hearts and minds? Am I ready to say “Lord, please take away everything in my life that separates me from You”? When we are ready to say that and when we accept the cross we find that the cross is transformed. It is no longer an obstacle, it becomes a bridge from death to life.
May God give us the strength and courage of His Son, who loved us and took the cross and gave up His life in order to share His life with us. Glory be to God forever AMEN.