Today is the Lenten feast of the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord. Last night, towards the end of the vigil, the Life-giving Cross was brought out for veneration and it remains in the Church for the whole week for our help and encouragement. In this Cross there is a particle of the true Cross upon which Our Savior was crucified. Thus when we venerate it here this week, we are mystically transported to the Holy Land, to Jerusalem, to Golgotha where the cross once stood. And from Golgotha, it is only a short walk, a few hundred feet, to the tomb of the Lord where He rose from the dead. The Cross is brought out now to remind us that we have completed the first half of Great Lent. For those of us who have not started fasting as of yet, the Cross is a stern reminder that now is the time to get our act together and start, or Pascha will come and we will have missed this opportunity. For those of us who are fasting but may be feeling that we are weakening, the sanctity of the Cross strengthens us. And even for us who are not weakening but doing well, the Cross rewards us with Grace. After all, the Cross is our spiritual sword against the dark enemies that we encounter every day.
That the Cross is our weapon of salvation shows us how incredibly merciful the Lord is. In the Old Testament Scripture we see that the Cross was considered to be a curse. It was the diabolical invention of Satan to be used in the most horrific way for men to destroy each other. The Savior takes this diabolical tool and sanctifies it with His blood by dying on it. The Cross then becomes for us a sacred, holy relic that frees us from the influence of the devil if we use it as Christ did. What incredible mercy of the Savior to take something that was developed to horrifically destroy us and make it our ladder into the kingdom of God!
How then can we use the Cross as our Lord did and gain this benefit? When our Lord prepared Himself for the ordeal that He would face in giving His life for us, He went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. There He poured out His heart to the Father and felt, as God, the full force of the struggle that we face as His fallen creatures. He knows our weakness, He knows our pain, He knows our shortcomings, He knows the temptation that we face both from our own fallen nature and from the demonic forces which confront us. He knows these things first hand for having taken on our flesh, He experienced all that we experience, from moment of our birth to the instant of our death. All of this He poured out in prayer and then, seeing the extreme suffering that awaited Him on this path of self sacrifice for us, He fell on His face saying, “O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” And rising from His prayer He found the disciples sleeping and He roused them instructing them to watch and pray that they might not fall prey to temptation. He returned again to His own prayer and again a second time said, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” (Matt 26:39-42) In these two prayers we see the core of how He approached the cross and how we should likewise do so. Jesus Christ is God incarnate – God, the Creator of all that is, took our flesh and assumed our whole life. He saw joy and sorrow, He experienced everything that we do in this life. He had a human will that reacted to all these things as would our own will. At this moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, that human will was brought out and seeing what was ahead He cried out, “Let this cup pass from me.” And then comes the key moment of the Cross where He says, “and yet not my will but Thine be done.” At that moment the human will of Christ is in perfect harmony with the divine will, even though that harmony will result in temporary suffering and death.
Here it is, the very thing that we need to adopt in our own lives in order to fully ascend the Cross with Christ in such a way that it becomes for us a sacred, holy relic that frees us from the influence of the devil. The Cross is an altar of sacrifice and on that altar we offer the one thing that we have to offer – our will. Coming to the Cross we can cry out with this very prayer, “not my will but Thine” sacrificing the one thing that separates us from complete harmony with God. The Psalmist himself saw this a millennium before and cried out in the 50th Psalm, “the sacrifice for God is a broken heart, a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise.” Our own will, the very heart of our being as a free person and the pivot upon which we choose to follow Christ or not is the very thing that we must sacrifice.
By offering up your own will you renounce what “I want” and instead embrace what God gives. This is the essence of the Cross as the symbol of our victory. If we can do this, then we can walk the path of salvation in harmony with Jesus Christ.
Offering up the will means that we set aside our own desires and accept with joy that which God gives to us. Until we set aside our own will, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible to see what God gives because we are so focused on what we want that we are unable to perceive anything else. Everything that we see is colored by the lens of our own desires. If something is good to us it is because that thing conforms to our desire and if it is bad, it is because it goes against our desire. While still wrapped up in our own will, its hard to see things from any different perspective (and if we happen to be able to step out of ourselves for a moment and see something different, it remains impossible to act on it without first denying ourselves.) In order to take this step of acceptance with joy of all that God gives, we first must bring our will into harmony with His. That means giving up our own hopes and dreams and desires and goals and directing our will to only one goal – that of being with our Lord Jesus Christ. If He is our only desire, then to follow Him instead of ourselves becomes the natural thing to do.
But such self sacrifice requires that we love God above all else and secondly that we trust Him to love us and to bring us to Himself. That trust is important because what we are doing when we sacrifice our own will is that we are putting ourselves fully and completely in the hands of God. We trust that He loves us and desires that we come into communion and union with Him. Because He loves us, He also arranges our lives in such a way that everything works together for the purpose of bringing us to Himself. For this reason the Apostle was able to say, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) That “good” is the fulfillment of the one desire of the will that has been sacrificed to God – to be with Him. Our all-powerful God brings every thing in our lives into the service of this one desire, to be with Him. Knowing this, we can have confidence that every event, every joy, every sorrow, every moment of our lives is part of the path to be with God. Thus no matter what happens, whether “good” or “bad” from a worldly point of view, we can embrace it and rejoice in it for that moment has brought us one step closer to Christ – our one and only true desire.
Here then is how we sacrifice our will on the altar of the Cross and offer it to our Lord Jesus Christ. The prayer, “not my will but Thine be done” is the key to transforming the Cross from an instrument of torture and death into the symbol of our victory and the font of joy. Sacrifice your will, set aside your own desires, your hopes and dreams and goals. Replace your will with the will of God and embrace all that He brings to you in this life. When your only love, your only desire is to be with Christ, then every moment of your life becomes one more step closer the realization of that desire. Our Lord arranges every step of the way so that it brings us nearer to Him and having that confidence we can then embrace all that comes to us and accept it with joy for we are coming ever nearer to Jesus Christ.
This then is the path of the Cross; the path not of suffering and torture, but of joy and rejoicing. Abandon yourself into the arms of Jesus Christ outstretched to receive you on the Cross and you will receive your desire for just as you have embraced Him, so will He embrace you.
On this, the second Sunday of Great Lent, the Church celebrates the memory of Saint Gregory Palamas. Saint Gregory was born into a noble and well-respected family and was well-educated in secular learning as well as in the divine law. At an early age he decided to leave behind this world and to pursue the monastic life. By his example his widowed mother and all of his siblings followed him into the angelic life.
Saint Gregory having been called out of the wilderness to accept the priesthood and later the episcopacy was a great defender of the Church against heresies, both old and new. For a time, he even found himself in exile for a year by God’s providence, and in his exile was able to travel from city to city proclaiming the gospel, strengthening the faith of Christians, and correcting heresies throughout eastern part of the Christian world.
But perhaps the most important contribution of Saint Gregory Palamas was his defense of the practice of Hesychastic Prayer. In the canon from Vigil last night, we heard "Adam's nature was made godlike, O Virgin, when without undergoing change God took flesh within thy womb..." This is the beginning of how we are to understand hesychasm -- prayer in silence and stillness that leads us to union and communion with God. By becoming man, our Lord made union of the divine and the human possible. On Mount Tabor, our Lord revealed the uncreated light of His divinity through his human flesh, and through prayer, asceticism, and the contemplation of God, we too can shine with this light. We see this at work in the life of our beloved Saint Seraphim.
And yet, you’ve probably noticed that over the last two weeks of increased prayer and fasting that you haven’t started blinding people with uncreated light. We might be tempted to think that either God is incapable of doing this in us, or that we are incapable of it. Abbot Haralambos of the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos says that it is rare for people living outside of monasteries to achieve such things. He writes “otherwise, if it were easy in the world, it wouldn’t have been necessary for us to go to monasteries and the mountains, Christ says to Martha in the gospel, ‘you are worried and distracted by many things.’ People in the world are like Martha. Those who live as Christians serve Christ, but mostly in material matters.” And yet he goes on to provide an example of a family which did live a life of hesychastic prayer in the world. It is possible, but it is harder than when we are able to devote ourselves completely to this prayer.
And so we might be tempted to leave these things in the hands of monastics. We are too distracted by concerns about this world and since we can’t flee from it, we might as well forget about it. But listen to these words of Saint Gregory Palamas: “If someone attempts to touch the stars with his hand, even though he is tall and stretches his arm further than the rest, he is almost as far away from those ethereal heights as men of much shorter stature, the difference not being worth mentioning.” If this kind of prayer is truly a gift from God, if it is God giving Himself to us, if it comes through our efforts, but not by our efforts, we ought to devote ourselves nonetheless to the effort, even if it seems out of our reach.
Saint Gregory was highly educated and intelligent, but it was not his intelligence or his knowledge that allowed him to experience God. He writes: “It is absolutely impossible… to truly encounter God unless… we go… beyond ourselves, leaving behind everything perceptible to our senses, together with our ability to perceive, and being lifted up above thoughts, reason, knowledge and even the mind itself, and wholly given over to the energy of spiritual perception… we attain to that unknowing which lies beyond knowledge, that is to say, above every kind of much-vaunted philosophy.” This is good news for those of us who are not intellectuals, or great thinkers. The experience of God does not require this of us, it requires that we move beyond those things. We can learn a great many things about God, but we must not be satisfied to know about God, we must know and experience Him in our hearts.
It is not our minds that ascend to God, but rather our minds descend into our hearts, and our whole being ascends to the experience of God. It is our mind, heart, soul, body and senses which make this ascent, and it is why we struggle in this world to achieve such things. The mind is distracted by cares and concerns of this life. The heart is attached to things which are not profitable for us. The body and senses draw us into passionate living. We must first set our minds on seeking God. Saint Gregory tells us "If the mind did not wholly revolve without ceasing around base concerns, it could be given over to superior, more exalted activity, namely, that which is proper to it, and which is the sole means by which it can converse with God."
So in this Lenten season, we must decide that seeking God is our priority. If this is not your priority, I would urge you to spend time in reading Scripture and the lives of the Saints, seeking to understand what is being offered to us, and I would urge you to pray to God and ask Him to give you a greater love for Him.
Having decided that seeking God is our priority, even if it is only the first among many priorities, we must dedicate ourselves to the prayer, fasting and almsgiving to which we are called in this Lenten Season. But we must also seek to find quiet and stillness which Saint Gregory describes as the state “in which the mind and the world stand still, [in which there is] forgetfulness of the things below, initiation into heavenly secrets, the laying aside of ideas for something better.” In the midst of our jobs, or family lives, or even in this building during services this kind of quiet and stillness can be hard to find. But it is something that we cultivate in our selves so that we can have it even in the midst of the storms of life. But it usually starts by finding it in actual silence and calm. So use this Lenten season to rise early from sleep. Stand in prayer before children wake up, pray before work, and pray before going to church. After the children have gone to sleep, once the phone calls, emails and texts have ended for the day, after returning home from Church, once again spend time in prayer in the quiet, in the calm. Turn off the television, turn off the radio, and uninstall Social Media apps from your phone. Give yourself the physical silence that allows you to have any measure of quietness inside of your mind and heart. We must strive for the contemplation of God -- the vision of God in our lives. Saint Gregory calls this “the proof of a soul in good health.”
In this morning’s epistle, Saint Paul asks how we will escape the just rewards for our transgressions and disobedience “if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him.” We have many more witnesses to this great salvation from the centuries since Saint Paul’s time, including Saint Gregory. We must not ignore their witness or their instruction. My prayer for all of you during this Lenten season is that you should be granted in some small measure the experience of God. Saint Symeon the New Theologian writes: “I urge you all... that no one of you neglect your own salvation but that you in every way endeavor to be lifted up even but a little from the earth. Should this wonderful thing happen, which would astound you, that you should float up from the earth into the air, you would not at all want to descend to the earth and stay there! But by 'earth' I mean the fleshly mind, by 'air' the spiritual. Once the mind is set free from evil thoughts and... we contemplate the freedom that Christ our God has bestowed on us, we shall never again be willing to descend to our former slavery to sin and the fleshly mind. In accordance with the voice of Christ we shall not cease to watch and pray until we depart for the bliss that lies beyond and obtain the promised blessings, by the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom all glory is due forever. Amen."
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