+ In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I imagine nearly everyone here, at least once, has had a difficult time locating a certain destination you were trying to find. Maybe you were given wrong directions, or while you were driving down the road, slowing down to see a particular address; or walking somewhere and the address on the mailbox was correct but the house or the part of town it was in didn’t seem very inviting. For those of you who have read the Chronicles of Narnia, you may remember about how there were dwarves who got stuck in Paradise, but were unable to see it for what it actually was. I wonder what they would see if they looked at the Cross before us here today.
Sometimes the seasons of the church and the symbols of our Faith may become mundane or uninviting, almost to the point of being unable to see them for what they truly are. For example, this is already the third Sunday of Great Lent, and this Cross that we’ve placed in the center of the Church is a symbol of suffering and death. But do we recognize that we are already halfway through the Fast, and can we see the Cross as the Tree of Life that it is?
Today in the Gospel reading we hear Christ, before His crucifixion, telling His disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him. We’ve read or heard these words before, and so it may be a temptation to just take them in stride. But the Church places this Gospel and feast of the Cross in the middle of the Fast not only to remind us that this season is nearly gone, but to point the way to the gates of paradise.
The saints and our hymnography tell us that the grace of God during Great Lent is more accessible than any other time during the year. During this time, if we just attempt to take up our cross, to wake up from our comfort and complacency, to reject the temptation to pursue God “after this stage of life”, to make even a small investment of ourselves, then we will profit immensely from this season of enormous returns.
It’s a miraculous thing to be given a new day to repent with breath in our lungs. But Great Lent is an additional gift – it’s like being given a spiritual escalator to Heaven rather than having to take the stairs. Great Lent elevates us because it generates within us a spirit of urgent and life-changing repentance. At the top of this escalator, we find that God has re-opened the gates of Paradise.
If we feel like our cross is too heavy, or that life is too hard right now, that’s because it is. Reading the lives of the martyrs, and hearing the Epistle from St. Paul today helps us know what to do when life is hard:
“For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One Who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Christians have always been able to see that difficulties in life are also like spiritual escalators, and they use them to draw near to God. They have used their difficulties to increase their prayer and participation in the mystical life of Christ, utilizing the tools given therein (like fasting, prayer, almsgiving, confession, the divine services, etc.). This is how the cross in our life that is too hard for us to to carry becomes not only bearable but also unites us to God.
It has been hard not noticing that only a few people have made use of the weekday services so far this Great Lent. For whatever our reasons may be, if we don’t come to the services we aren’t just missing out. When we’re given these escalators but don’t step on ourselves, we stand in the way of those around us who would like to get on, distracting them and pointing them in the wrong direction.
As we have prayed in the lenten services (and is not yet too late to hear): “Awake, my soul, and be watchful, that Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all things!” It’s important to consider what our answer will be to the Lord at the Final Judgment for not taking advantage of the spiritual escalators He gave us.
My brothers and sisters: This season of Great Lent that we are in, the Cross that we have before us today, and whatever hard things you may be dealing with right now are difficult, but they are given by God for all of our salvation.
Let us not be blind, believing that we have time to delay rather than seeing how we are nearly out of time. Let us not be deceived by the devil’s lie that if God really loved us He wouldn’t allow “bad things happen to us”, rather than seeing that the difficult things in our life are given to us because God really loves us. Let us recognize this season, the difficulties in our life, and this Cross before us for what it is: An escalator to Paradise.
For everyone’s sake: Please, don’t miss the escalator!