In any kind of difficult challenge, it’s always inspiring to know that you are half way to the end. It might be a race, a school year, or a project at work; if you’ve made it this far, you know that you can eventually reach your goal.
We are now half way through the season of Lent, and the Church calls our attention today to the great symbol of victory, the great sign of hope, our Lord’s cross. During the time of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry, of course, no one was inspired by the cross, for it was a feared instrument of execution. No one honored the cross and certainly no one thought that God’s Messiah would die on one.
So it was profoundly shocking when the Savior told His disciples that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again. When St. Peter tried to correct Him, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s. Then the Lord told the disciples what they didn’t want to hear. They too must take up their crosses and lose their lives; that’s the way to enter into the blessed salvation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The hard truth that Jesus Christ broke to His disciples was that we can’t jump ahead to the joy of the empty tomb. We must first go with our Lord to the cross; we too must die in order to rise again. And the unpopular truth is that every last one of us needs to die to our sinfulness, to how we have distorted ourselves, our relationships, and our world. The Son of God offered Himself in free obedience to the Holy Trinity, taking upon Himself the full consequences of sin and death to the point of a horrible execution; He did so out of love for us. And thus He opened the way to the Kingdom of heaven, to life eternal, for you, me, and all humankind; indeed, for the entire creation.
And that way is the cross, for if we want to share in the joy of His resurrection, of His victory over death, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion. We must crucify the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor. We must kill our pride, our selfishness, and our slavery to pleasure. If we don’t crucify these passions, our souls will be too sick, dark, and weak to share in the glory of the resurrection. Like St. Peter, we will think in human terms, not God’s, no matter how religious or moral we appear to others.
And the reality is that we have no shortage of opportunities to take up our crosses. When we struggle to resist a temptation, when we battle angry thoughts against those who have wronged or somehow irritated us, and when we endure deep sorrows and disappointments with trust in God’s faithfulness and mercy, we take up the cross.
Fortunately, we do not go to the cross alone. No matter what we are tempted to think at times, our Savior is no stranger to temptation, suffering, pain, and death. He sympathizes with our struggles because He endured them. He was literally nailed to a cross, died, was buried, and descended into Hades in order to bring the joy of life eternal to corrupt, weak, imperfect people like you and me through His glorious third-day resurrection. And in order to follow Him to the joy of Pascha, we must likewise take up our cross.
So as we begin the second half of Lent, let us keep our eyes on the prize, looking to the great trophy of our Savior’s victory over sin and death, the cross, through which joy has come into all the world. And even though it is a struggle and none of us does it particularly well, let us put aside our own preferences and obsessions in order to take up the cross through prayer, fasting, forgiveness, mending broken relationships, and showing generosity to those in need. Let us offer our lives in free obedience to the Father, accepting whatever pain and struggle there may be in setting things right in our lives as best we can. And no matter what burdens we may bear, no matter our frustrations and failures, let us press on the joy of Pascha. Jesus Christ participated in death in order to bring us into His life, and we must participate in His death in order to share in the glory of His resurrection. So let us deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. For this alone is the way to the brilliant light and eternal blessedness of the Kingdom of God.