Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, April 7, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
A recording of this sermon is available via Ancient Faith Radio.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
On this third Sunday of the Great Fast, we contemplate the mystery of the Cross of Jesus Christ. In this great mystery, we see sacrifice, atonement, the destruction of death itself. This Cross is at the center of who we are as Christians, so much so that the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the content of the preaching of the Gospel is “Christ crucified.” As Christians, we cannot get away from the cross any more than we could get away from Christ.
Yet the cross still scandalizes us. We may be willing to feel a certain sentimental pathos when we see Christ crucified. We are moved by what He did. We are sorrowful for what happened. We are grateful for His sacrifice. And we should be all of those things. But those feelings are only the beginning of what it means to make the Cross our own, what it means that we preach Christ crucified.
We have heard from the saints that we, too, must be crucified if we are to be true followers of the Crucified One. We must crucify our sinful passions. We must crucify our egos. We must crucify our addictions. We must crucify all our desires, our minds and, indeed, our whole selves. But why? And what does all this mean? Is this just flowery religious language whose only real referent in our daily lives is something that happens in the mind or in the emotions? Or is there something else here?
What I would like us to contemplate today is something found in the Gospel reading appointed for this mystery of the Cross. The Lord said: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
We see from this call from our Lord Jesus that following Him means self-denial and taking up our crosses. Only in doing so can we follow Him. So a follower of Jesus is one who denies himself and takes up his cross. The language of self-denial is a bit more concrete than just religious emotion. If following Jesus means denying yourself, that that means that people who spend their time pursuing their own desires rather than God’s are not actually Jesus’ followers. This is a frequent refrain in Orthodox teaching: that we cannot be true Christians if our top priorities in life are not worship, education in the faith and sharing it with others through witness and service.
But what does it mean to “take up” the Cross? For some Christians, it means suffering the things that come your way, enduring the pain and suffering that comes from disease, disaster, etc., or even to endure persecution that comes from trying to be a Christian. And there is some truth to that.
For others, taking up the Cross doesn’t mean much at all. I think a lot of folks don’t hardly even think about it. It may be that they just don’t care about being true Christians, but it may also be that they just don’t know how. How do I take up my cross? Do I just wait until something bad happens to me and then try to bear it with a smile? What kind of spiritual life is that?
The Orthodox Church alone has preserved the full Christian teaching of what it means to take up the Cross, both in terms of the public preaching of the Church and in terms of the actual spiritual practice of the faithful Christian. In a word, taking up the Cross primarily means one thing: asceticism. Among Christians of our time, this emphasis on asceticism is unique to Orthodoxy. It is almost never mentioned and virtually unpracticed in the Protestant world, and while it exists in the Roman Catholic tradition, it is so de-emphasized that it is rarely practiced.
The English word asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, whose essential meaning is “athletic training.” To engage in askesis is to train, to practice, to be strengthened, for the purpose of engaging in the contest. In a Christian context, asceticism is the actual steps taken in life to practice the self-denial that Jesus says is a prerequisite for following Him.
So what does it look like? How can we be ascetical? There are a number of ascetical practices preserved in the Church—fasting, vigils, lifelong celibacy, sexual continence even within marriage, giving up non-essential possessions, almsgiving, silence, to name a few. And in the monastic life there are some more or variations on these. We may also add some ascetical practices that are in the same spirit but are only expressible within the modern world, such as setting aside entertainment or avoiding Internet social media.
None of these things means punishing yourself. The purpose is not to create suffering. Rather, the theme in all of them is simplification and setting aside desires. In short, it is self-denial, to say “no” to what we want when we could say “yes.”
Now some might argue that such things are not to be found in the New Testament, that Jesus never meant for Christians to be ascetics. But asceticism is actually found everywhere in the New Testament, from the fasting of Jesus to the celibacy of Paul to the rough clothing and meager diet of John the Baptist to the personal poverty commanded by Jesus to the Apostles, not to mention the fasting commanded by Him. And Paul makes mention of “mortifying” his flesh so that he can live in Christ. In short, asceticism is everywhere in the New Testament, and we certainly know that it’s everywhere in subsequent Christian history.
But what does it do? Why is asceticism the way in which we properly take up the Cross and follow Christ? One of the central affirmations of Orthodoxy for how salvation works is that it is synergistic, that salvation requires a synergy of God and man working together. The will and action of God and the will and action of man make salvation possible. It is God’s grace that does all the work, but man must be receptive to that grace, or else nothing happens. Why? Because God created us with free will and loves us so much that He will never override it. In short, we only are saved as much as we want to be, as much as we cooperate to be.
So what asceticism does is train us for saying “yes” to God’s grace. Every time you look at a Philly cheesesteak in Great Lent and say “no,” your will gets a little stronger. Every time you don’t buy that shiny piece of jewelry or gadgetry just so you can have the latest thing, your will gets a little stronger. Every time you practice the vigilance of the eyes by looking away from that Victoria’s Secret advertisement on a billboard on the highway or on television, your will gets a little stronger. When you say to your husband or wife, “Do we really need a car that big?”, your will gets a little stronger.
And having strengthened your will, you are now more able to say “yes” to what you were made for—holiness, communion with God, wisdom, faith, hope, love. This is what Paul means when he says that we must “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). This is how we repent, how we learn to turn from obsession with created things to a focus on the Creator. It is not an instant experience that comes just because we make a decision for Christ or get baptized. It has to be worked out over time. Salvation is an eternal process, not a momentary status.
And that is also why Christian asceticism is traditionally adapted and customized according to the ability of each Christian—salvation is a process, not an achievement. Each of us has to walk the path as he can, and not everyone is at the same place on the path. That is also why asceticism is doable for everyone in some way.
Now, please do not think that asceticism earns you salvation. It doesn’t. There is nothing about any of these practices that makes you holy. Many religions practice asceticism, but that does not mean that their adherents are thereby becoming more like Christ. God doesn’t owe anyone salvation just because they don’t eat meat for a few weeks. Rather, what asceticism does, if practiced within the context of the Church and especially with prayer, is make us receptive to divine grace, which is the presence of God Himself.
If we would be crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), so that we may be His true followers, we have to take up the Cross, which means self-denial and asceticism. And in practicing it, we become stronger. We become freer. We become able to receive more of what God is giving us.
To the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.