As Saint Mary stood outside the Church that she had been unable to enter, her heart was filled with a great longing, an overwhelming desire to enter and venerate the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord. Where previously she had longed for the satisfaction of her physical desires, she suddenly wanted nothing more than to satisfy this great spiritual desire. She prayed with all her heart to the Mother of God to be allowed to enter into the Church. To this end, she vowed to never again defile her body, to renounce the whole world along with its many temptations and to go wherever the Mother of God would lead her.
Saint Zosimas, from the moment he was weaned from his Mother’s breast, had likewise a great longing and overwhelming desire. He desired to be perfected through spiritual labors. He prayed ceaselessly, he read the Scriptures constantly, he barely ate or rested. But he began to despair that he would be able to continue to grow in his spiritual life for lack of a teacher. And so he followed the direction of an angel of the Lord and left his monastery to another monastery next to the Jordan River. There he encountered many great elders who we are told had a single desire --- to become like corpses, needing nothing of this world, but sustained only by God. He went into the desert with the hopes that he would find a father who could fulfill his desire by giving him ways to grow in the spiritual life. He found such a person in Holy Mother Mary.
Saint Mary, having told Saint Zosimas of her life and of her repentance, made a request of Saint Zosimas. She asked him to bring her Holy Communion the next year. The last time she had received the Holy Mysteries was before crossing over the Jordan River some 47 years before this. And she thirsted for them with an “irrepressible love and longing.”
Saint Zosimas, having returned to his monastery with the memory of this amazing saint in the desert, and having longed to stay with her and learn from her, desired to return to the desert the following year to find Saint Mary once again. It was only because of an illness that he stayed at the monastery until Holy Thursday when he went out with Holy Communion to meet Saint Mary. She had foretold that he would be unable to leave the monastery, knowing that his desire was so strong to come find her that he would have to be prevented from doing so.
These two saints that we read about on this fifth week of Great Lent and celebrate on this Sunday are examples of the great desire that we must have for the spiritual life. At the very beginning of our journey to Great Lent, we read about Zacchaeus who climbed a sycamore tree to be able to see the Lord about whom he had heard. As usual, we are confronted with the question of whether we have a desire to know Christ. Without such desire, all that the Church offers will not benefit us. If you are like me, you have a desire to know Christ as did Zacchaeus. If you are reading this homily, it’s hard to imagine there is no desire in you to know Christ. And yet how great is your desire? Is it a burning desire like that of Saint Mary or Saint Zosimas?
Most of us find ourselves outside of the Church right now, held back from attending services because of the stay-at-home orders given which prevent us from having services like we would like. Are we like Saint Mary where we have a great yearning in our hearts to be in the Church? Do we turn to our Lord, His most holy mother, and all the saints and ask to be allowed entry? Do we repent of all our sins and vow never to return to them if only we might be allowed to enter and to partake of the mysteries? Or are we a little sad, but slightly more annoyed that there won’t be sports on tv, or restaurants open, or travel for vacation?
Do we long to perfect ourselves in the spiritual life as did Saint Zosimas? Do we seek those who can help us grow in holiness? Or do we content ourselves with the thought that we have achieved enough? Having experienced some growth, are we seeking to return once more to where spiritual growth can occur? Will nothing short of illness hold us back from making the journey to the desert, the arena in which we can work out our salvation?
I know for myself that too often I have not. This period of social isolation and quarantine could be just what we need to devote ourselves to reading scripture, to learning to really pray, to really fast, and to help others. How often have you lamented that there isn’t time? Or justified not fasting by claiming that we must eat a certain way to keep up with the demands of work or life? How often have we not seen people in need and not sought a chance to help others? This may be the only time we have for repentance and spiritual growth, but even if illness passes over us, and our Lord tarries in returning, if we do not use this time in which we are expected to stay at home as a chance to pray more, read more, fast more, and give more alms to those we know are in need, what will this time have profited us?
If we are not doing these things, it is likely because we do not have the desire to do them, we can no longer claim that we do not have opportunity. So ask God for the desire, ask Him to grant you love for Him, ask Him to implant in your heart even a small seed of longing. Then nurture that seed by praying, by fasting, by tears of repentance. We are fast approaching Holy Week and Pascha. It is getting close to the eleventh hour, but with desire, with vigilance, we can still use this time to transform ourselves into faithful servants who long for and strive toward the Kingdom which is at hand. When Pascha comes, keep the joy of the feast in your hearts, let that joy be a well which draws you back over and over. When the Church is able to have normal services again, be the first one at the door, the first to cross the threshold and to partake of the life-giving mysteries within.
On the Sunday of the Last Judgment, I spoke these words to you: “To be a Christian means ministering to others at their most difficult moments even though you could yourself be infected and join them in their suffering.” At the time, I didn’t think that I was speaking about events in the near future. As we gather here today for the Divine Liturgy, we are being asked to decide how will we treat the sick and the dying? Will we indeed risk visiting the sick and joining them in their suffering?
When our forefather Adam met Eve, he said “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” and they were naked and unashamed. It was only after the fall that they realized that they were naked because they suddenly realized that they were separate from each other. This was the first example of social distancing, and we have continued distancing to this day.
Before Coronavirus social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine would be seen as negatives, but they are now held up as positive steps to keep people safe. If you’re sick, or if you have been around someone who was sick, shut yourself off from others so they don’t get sick. Don’t expose yourself to others or you risk getting sick yourself and passing it on to others. While there are certainly steps we should take to keep ourselves and others from contracting a serious illness, we must not isolate ourselves and lose the awareness of our common humanity out of self interest.
On this Sunday of the Cross, our Lord speaks to us words which seem to have been spoken for exactly our situation today: “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.” We as a society are very focused right now on how to save our lives. But we have been social distancing, self-isolating, and quarantining ourselves for a long time to our detriment. We no longer live in real communities, or know our neighbors; we don’t call each other, or write letters; we use social media to feel like we have community but all we have are “likes” and “retweets.” We generally don’t care that people are sick and dying, hungry or thirsty unless they are our people. We aren’t concerned about people dying outside of the Church where God’s grace abounds. We don’t care that people choose sin over virtue because that’s between them and their conscience.
While we need to take steps to avoid needlessly spreading a contagion, we also need to start living like we share the same human nature – that same human nature that even our Lord Jesus Christ took upon Himself. At Saint Seraphim’s, we are continuing to serve vigils, liturgies, akathists, and moliebens. We are still joining in the communion of all the Saints who have gone before us to their rest at the altar of the living God. It is here more than anywhere that we find our common humanity, that we may be of one heart and one mind, and in communion and union with God. As you leave liturgy having experienced this as fully as you are able, don’t neglect to share the love of God and the love of your fellow man with others. Pick up the phone and call your loved ones, send a care package or a card. Let them know that you love them. If someone becomes sick, by all means take the precautions you feel you need to, but visit them in their sickness in whatever ways you can. Make them feel loved, help them to know God’s love. If you must be distant, isolated, or quarantined in body, at least be present to others in spirit.
In the gospel lesson this morning, our Lord said “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” We have undoubtedly noticed that our crosses are difficult to bear, and even more difficult to be crucified on. While we must bear the burden of our crosses, we must also take up the weapon of the cross.
In the words of the canon last night, “Thou hast made the instrument of death into a source of life.” We must never forget that Christ’s victory over death came at a great cost, but we also must celebrate the cross as a weapon of peace by which we are reconciled to our creator. And on this day the Church calls us to celebrate: Again in the words of the canon: “This is the day of the veneration of the Precious Cross. Now it is placed before us and shines with the brightness of Christ’s Resurrection. Let us all draw near and kiss it with great rejoicing in our souls.”
As the Israelites were preparing to depart from Egypt, the Lord sent one final plague which brought the death of the firstborn sons of all in Egypt. The Israelites were spared this death by sprinkling the blood of the passover lamb on the lintel above the door and on the two door-posts -- by making the sign of the cross with the blood of the lamb.
When the Israelites fled from the land of Egypt, they were pursued by pharoah and his soldiers to the edge of the Red Sea. When Moses stretched out his rod over the sea, it parted in two for the people to pass through on dry ground. Having reached the other side, he waved the rod over the sea again, and having traced the image of the cross over the waters, they closed back in upon their enemies, thus liberating them from those who enslaved them.
When the Israelites were suffering the bites of venomous serpents, God commanded a brass serpent to be lifted up on a pole to save the people from the deadly venom. We see in this a prefiguration of the cross by which we are saved from the venomous bites of that serpent the devil.
When the Amalekites attacked the children of Israel at Rephidim, Moses went and stood on top of the hill overlooking the battle. When his arms were raised at his sides in the form of the cross, the Israelites would have the advantage, when his arms were lowered, they would lose ground in the battle. And so Aaron and Hur held his arms up so that the Israelites would prevail in battle. The battle was won that day by the sign of the cross.
When Jonah was thrown into the raging sea and swallowed by the great sea creature he was in the belly of that creature for three days and three nights. When he stretched out his arms in prayer to the Lord, he was delivered up from his watery grave by the power of the cross.
These are just a few of the many examples of wonders which show us that the cross was made manifest in power long before it became an implement of death. The glory of the precious and life-giving cross was evident in each of these events by which God delivered His people. The cross was saving God’s people even before our Lord was crucified on it. Our crucified Lord showed us the power of the cross even before it became the instrument of the final destruction of death.
By a tree, Adam fell, and by the glorious tree of the cross we will approach His crucifixion and the great and Holy Day of his Resurrection. In the middle of Great Lent, in the middle of the Church, the image of the cross stands as the emblem of victory, the weapon of peace, the very tree of life itself in the middle of the new garden of paradise. We will not be saved by distancing ourselves from this garden of paradise, or even from each other, we will be saved by drawing near to God and to each other.
Making the sign of the cross ought not to be an empty gesture that we have made hundreds of times before, not with carelessness in our movements, and even more carelessness in our souls, but with conviction and faith in the power of this mighty weapon. The evil serpents who bring death to us are driven back by the sign of the Cross. In battles against the demons, against fear, against anxiety we have the sign of the Cross to drive back our enemies. If we find ourselves struggling in this spiritual battle, we have each other to help lift up the cross against our enemies. Even if you find yourself drowning, imprisoned and entombed with no other help, make the sign of the cross and pray to the Lord that you might be raised back up, delivered out of the abyss.
These things may sound like little more than lovely poetry or pious platitudes in the face of real problems, but that is because we may have never really tried them. We find them lacking because we don’t really know the power of the cross in our lives. We wield the cross like a foam sword or a water gun -- a toy in a game of make believe, rather than an actual weapon against the evil one, against the passions and sins, or the diseases and afflictions that torment us. The people who came before Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection knew the power of the cross because they used it. It drove away death and illness, put to flight and crushed the armies of their enemies, and released them from captivity. They didn’t yet know just how powerful the cross was to their invisible enemies, but they knew its power. We know or at least acknowledge the cross as a weapon whereby we are brought to the Kingdom and granted the peace of Christ, but if we neglect to take up that weapon and wield it faithfully in our spiritual battles, we will find ourselves on the losing end of those battles. When Christ tells us to take up our cross and follow Him, we must take up a burden, but we also take up a weapon. Like a heavy sword which is difficult to wield but mighty in battle, we have such a weapon. This weapon of peace brings us to unity with our Creator and unity with one another. Especially in this time, we need such a weapon.