The Cross- God’s Rest Stop for Lent
When was the last time you took a road trip—a long car ride for several hours? Did you drive straight through? Not likely. Probably you stopped somewhere along the way. A truck stop, a convenience store, a restaurant or an interstate rest stop or rest area are the most likely places. Our own group of families here at St. George have done it many times travelling to and from basketball tournaments. Why did we break up the long trip with stops along the way? Many reasons actually—besides the obvious “going to the bathroom,” perhaps we’re tired and we need some fresh air or coffee to wake us up; maybe we get sore sitting for so long in our automobile and we need to stretch and walk and get the blood flowing to our extremities; if the trip takes us past noon or 6pm, we’ll stop for lunch or dinner. If traveling the interstate, and you exit to a designated rest area, what’s one of the common rituals, even if you have GPS on your phone or navigator? It’s looking at the big map on the wall and finding the spot or location that is labeled “You Are Here.” We do this because we can get the whole picture of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going.
It’s the same thing during our road trip of Great and Holy Lent. If you’re fasting, if you’re going to Lenten worship services, if you’re praying more, if you’re helping the poor and the needy, then Lent certainly feels like a long journey. And the Church, knowing the limitations of the human mind and body, gives us little rest stops each week during Lent. We get a little break from fasting each Saturday-Sunday by drinking wine and oil. And we can refuel with Holy Communion every Wednesday at the Pre-sanctified Liturgy.
But we also have rest stop for the whole six-week (eight weeks when you count from Meatfare through Holy Week) journey to Pascha. That rest stop is today, the Third Sunday of Great and Holy Lent. We are at the mid-point of our trip, halfway to our destination. We know that not just by counting weeks but more importantly by the sign-post that is placed here—the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. If we are engaged in the Lenten way of fasting, praying, worshiping, and giving alms then we should be at least a little tired, feeling the need for some refreshment or re-energizing.
Seeing the Cross today and remembering the great kenotic or self-emptying, self-sacrificing love of Christ our Lord, we are provided encouragement to continue our ascetic self-sacrificing journey. If Jesus could do so much for me, then I can do this for Him. I can deny myself a little food and take what I save and give it to the poor and the hungry. If Jesus prayed, sweating blood, for me in the Garden of Gethesemane, then I can pray more each day and worship Him more each week.
In the ancient world, especially in arid climates, travelers looked for an oasis, because that’s where the water was. And how could one tell there was water there? Because there were trees and lots of plant life. In the Scriptures and liturgical hymnology, the Cross is often referred to as a tree. For example, the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden is interpreted by the Church Fathers as the original Cross in creation. The Cross that Jesus was crucified on was made from the wood of a tree. An oasis of trees not only marked the source of fresh water, but they also provided shade from the sun. The Cross of Christ provides shade to weary travelers on the road of Great Lent. It does this mystically, almost imperceptibly because the Cross has real power but God’s power often works behind the scenes so to speak.
At the end of the Divine Liturgy we will conduct the service of the Veneration of the Cross. We will take it in procession, we will bow down before it and we will kiss it to show our love, veneration and respect for Christ’s death on our behalf. Sergius Bulgakov, an eminent Russian theologian of the 20th century, cautioned Orthodox Christians about the Veneration of the Cross celebration. He said it can be inspiration for the diligent and dedicated but for the lazy and the negligent it can become a condemnation, a shaking of our conscience, and a poking of our heart. We must be super-careful that our bowing before the Cross are not like the mocking genuflections of the soldiers who crucified Christ. We must be extremely cautious that when we kiss the Cross it is not like the betraying kiss of Judas. This can happen when we are uncaring and careless about our salvation, neglecting to pray and participate in worship, when we are insensitive to the cries of the needy, poor and homeless.
St. Theophylact, the 11th century Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria reminds us that Christ does not compel us against our own will to take up our Cross. In today’s Gospel Christ says, “Whoever desires to come after Me…” (Mark 8:34). If we do desire to come after Christ, then we are presented a myriad of choices: fasting or dining out with friends; praying or doing chores around the house; worshiping or sports; almsgiving or spending lavishly on ourselves. Well my brothers and sisters, we can’t have it all and follow Christ. We must deny ourselves and take up our Cross (v.34). If we consistently and regularly chose the worldly things, we will eventually lose them and our soul as well. If we choose to lose them now, then God will save your soul for eternity. We cannot take all those worldly things and at the end exchange them for eternal life (vv.36-37). Hell is not a jail where God confines and punishes unrepentant transgressors. Rather, it is the weight of our own sins that keeps us in hell. The only way out is through repentance and confession where God Himself removes the weight of sin from our soul. Ask yourself, when was the last time I went to the rest stop of Sacrament of Confession? Amen!