In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Forgiveness Sunday, the last day before the beginning of Great Lent. It is the day on which we most sincerely and from the bottom of our hearts ask the forgiveness of all our relatives and Orthodox friends, so that we might enter into this holy and sacred season with clean hearts, minds, and consciences. I will not say much this morning about the Gospel reading we have just heard about forgiveness–it speaks for itself–nor about the importance of forgiveness in the life of any and all followers of Christ—without which there can be no spiritual life whatsoever. These are such fundamentals that I will pass on to a primary theme of the Lenten Fast, which is repentance and the carrying of our crosses.
Our Lord’s method of recruiting his disciples was characterized by frankness, sincerity, even bluntness. He did not try to attract His followers by promising wealth, earthly glory, or happiness here below. On the contrary, He told them clearly what they were expected to give up and to suffer, if they wished to follow Him: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Now, this must have been very startling to those who were interested in Jesus. It was not, by today’s standards, “good PR” by any means. Compare this with most of the television evangelists, who promise their followers everything imaginable if they will just send in some money! Compare this also with other kinds of ministers and priests who give generic, feel-good sermons. But the Savior of mankind said something quite different. He said: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Since Lent leads us to Calvary and the Cross, as well as the Resurrection, it is good to dwell on the Cross during this holy season.
This condition—carrying our crosses–is still more strictly required of those who possess the fullness of the Truth, that is Holy Orthodoxy. We must willingly and courageously follow Christ wherever He leads, not only to good pastures, not only to the Eucharist, which is the Mystical Banquet, where we feed on His sacred Body and Blood and on His grace, where we can experience the consolations of His presence and His love, but also on the tiresome and painful journey of His sufferings, and of His humiliations.
This is among the things we are to contemplate during this season of fasting and repentance. We are to be ready, if called upon, to stand near Him at the foot of the cross, with His sorrowful Mother and His beloved disciple, and the other Holy Women of Jerusalem. Only if we are willing thus to follow the divine Master are we worthy of the name Christians, for as St. Paul tells us, “they who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:24)
Why must we carry a cross? In other words, why must we endure suffering, affliction, distress of all kinds—physical, spiritual, and emotional–? Well, as a follower of Christ I am bound to carry my cross in life not only in imitation of Christ, but also because I am a sinner. These crosses, these sufferings in life have value, contrary to what our society, our culture says. Crosses help to weaken our fallen human nature and strengthen our spiritual powers, thus removing occasions of temptations. As St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit [that is, the Holy Spirit] and do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” (8:13).
What does the word “mortify” mean? It comes from the Latin word for “death” and is the same root from which we derive our words “mortician” and “mortuary.” So when St. Paul says that we must “mortify the deeds of the body,” he is saying that we must put certain things about ourselves to death. In other words, we must control ourselves, particularly our passions, both of the body and of the mind. As the great ancient Roman, Cicero, said, we must “let the passions be amenable to reason”–a rather polite way of saying that we must bring ourselves under subjection to the Law of Christ, the Law of the Cross.
We live in an age and in a world where self-seeking, self-gratification, and sensual pleasure of one kind or another seems to be the law, not the Law of the Cross. Everything is all about “me”; it is not for nothing that this has been called the “me generation.” But through mortification and self-denial we can rise above self-interest, our own personal pleasure, and our own comfort or satisfaction. There are people in the world who practice self-denial, sometimes in a high degree, but they do it for self-centered reasons: diet, physical fitness, participating in rigorous sports, etc. St. Paul says that such folk are doing this in order to “receive a perishable crown,” a reward that will fall to dust and ashes with the death of the body. But “we,” he says, carry our crosses and practice self-denial in order to obtain an “imperishable” crown. (I Cor. 9:25). This “imperishable crown” is the crown of humility. It is the crown Our Lord accepted to wear during His passion: a Crown of Thorns. It is painful to wear this crown and one bleeds and is torn, but this is what it takes to acquire humility.
The Church gives us various methods of self-denial throughout the Church Year, but most especially during Lent. These are, of course, fasting, attendance at Lenten services, restricting the senses—especially the eyes—and cultivating a repentant spirit. We do this by beginning to mortify our pride, putting our pride to death, for humility has two eyes: with one we recognize our own miserableness so as not to attribute to ourselves anything but our nothingness; with the other we recognize our duty to work and to attribute everything to God. All the martyrs were perfectly humble because thy preferred to die suffering the most terrible torments rather than abandon humility.
So during this Lent, and especially the First Week, with its great emphasis on repentance by listening to and reading the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, let us remember that we have lived most of our lives like the raging sea which cannot rest, laden down with our own attitudes opinions, judgmental thoughts, complaints, and lack of love for others. Let us instead realize that the heart of a truly humble man or woman is fully content in its humility, “rich in being low” as St. James says in his epistle. “Rich in being low.” And thus we will have a quiet, peaceful, and spiritually productive season of the Fast, gradually ridding ourselves more and more of self-love, agitation, and disquiet. We will accept, in the shadow of the Cross whatever afflictions and humiliations come to us, and even trying to embrace them (!), and we will use the means for self-denial and mortification which the Holy Church has provided for us during this season, remembering every day these stern words of Our Lord:
“If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”