For the past several weeks we have ended our liturgy by making a procession around our Church asking God to bless our temple, to bless those who are laboring for its completion, and those who worship in it. At the end of each procession we read from the seventh chapter of Saint Matthew’s gospel. Our Lord reminds the multitudes of people gathered to hear Him speak that our Father in Heaven knows how to give us what is good for us and for our salvation. He asks them “what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?”
Why is it then that when we pray, we often feel that we have received stones with which we are weighed down, burdened, or even crushed; or that we have received a venomous serpent which will strike at us and kill us?
In this morning’s gospel we heard about the Lord walking on the surface of the water as if it was dry land. Having sent His disciples out in a boat at the end of the day, He came to them as dawn was approaching. The Lord said to His disciples “Be of good cheer! It is I (The words he uses here, ἐγώ εἰμι, are the Divine Name the same name He gave Himself when speaking to Moses at the Burning Bush); Do not be afraid.” When Saint Peter saw the Lord and heard His words, He asked the Lord “command me to come to You on the water.” He asked this with zeal, but also with humility. He did not assume that He too could walk on the water as Christ did, unless the Lord commanded him to do so. He also did not presume to make the Lord come to him. Saint Peter walked on the surface of the water because he sought nothing more than to be with Christ. As he walked out to the Lord, it was not the act of walking on the water that made him afraid, for the Lord had commanded it. It was the wind and the waves that gave him fear, because they had not ceased raging. The Disciples were not even safe in the boat, much less in the water. Saint Peter desired to be with the Lord even in the midst of the storm and the tumultuous sea – especially in the midst of the storm and the tumultuous sea, because Christ is the Lord of the wind and the waves and all creation. Even when he lost courage because of the dangerous conditions and began sinking, he cried out “Lord, save me” and his request was granted.
Later in Saint Matthew’s gospel, the mother of Saint James and Saint John, the two sons of Zebedee, came to the Lord and asked that her two sons might sit at His right and at His left in His Kingdom. She asked for this on their behalf, as they were afraid to approach Christ with this question themselves. Rather than chastising them, Christ asks them if they can share in His death, if they could drink of the cup that He drinks and be baptized with the baptism with which He is baptized. He then tells them not to exercise authority, but to let the first among them be servant of all in imitation of Himself. We see here that the glory which they sought can only be obtained by imitating Christ’s self-emptying, his humility. It is not wrong to desire to be with our Lord, but we must seek to be with Him in his death before we can be with Him in His glory.
This evening at Vigil, we will begin celebrating the great Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Our Lord took these same three disciples, Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor. And on that mountain, they “beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) His face became as the sun, and his clothes were white as light. Their reaction to this event was to say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” They rejoiced in being with the Lord, even proposing that they could make tabernacles there for Christ, for Moses, and for Elijah, that they might remain in the presence of the Lord. As He descended with them from the mountain, however, he reminded them that He was going to suffer and die at the hands of His own people. The Kontakion for the feast tells us that he revealed His glory to them so that when they would see Him crucified they would know that His suffering was voluntary.
If we want to behold the glory of God, we must first seek to be with Him. To be with Him, we must take up our cross and follow Him. We cannot behold His glory without beholding His cross – indeed, not without embracing His cross and bearing it on our shoulders.
So what crosses has the Lord given you as you seek to be with Him? Are we rejected by our own people, by our families, friends, or coworkers? Christ too was rejected by His own people. Do we suffer from pain or illness that we don’t feel we deserve? Christ suffered on the cross for our sins, having committed no sins of His own. Are we unappreciated or disrespected? Christ tells us that “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.” Do our children not listen to us, honor us, or obey us? How often must our Lord tolerate our failure to listen to him, or our lack of respect and obedience?
Most of us try to pray sincerely for what we think will be good for us. We feel that it is impossible for us to live our lives to the fullest, which includes being a Christian, if we have a job that is too stressful, a home that seems inadequate to our needs, a car that keeps breaking down, a spouse that is not helpful or supportive, a child who is unruly or disobedient. What we fail to realize is that it is in those moments we are closest to Christ. He feels distant in that moment because we see all of these things as a crushing stone or a striking serpent. We should remember that the cross was prefigured by the brass serpent lifted up in the wilderness which brought salvation from venomous bites while still appearing as a serpent; or that the devil himself tempted our Lord asking Him to change stones into bread.
We may feel like God has forsaken us and failed to answer our most fervent prayers, and so, like a child who wants a toy, we repeat our request over and over and over again in the hopes that we will get what we ask for. Instead, if we thank God for allowing us to experience a small amount of the suffering, dishonor, or disobedience that He did, we will begin to find Him there in that suffering. If we try to see the ways in which God is present with us in our suffering when we join our suffering to His, we can begin to see that God truly is giving us bread and fish to eat, and that the bread and fish He gives us can feed great multitudes, with an abundance left over. It is good to be in the presence of the Lord, but for the Lord who emptied Himself taking on the form a servant, to be in His presence is to experience unjust, undeserved suffering. He endured His suffering voluntarily. We don’t need to seek out suffering, but we shouldn’t seek to flee from the crosses given to us for our salvation. When we live in His presence, even if it means suffering, dishonor, or sorrow, we too will share in His glory in His Kingdom.