Overcoming Emptiness - Holy Week and Pascha

Holy Week.

Everything over the last several weeks – the services, the commemorations, the prayers, the fasting – has been leading to the events of this week. All of it has been designed to open our hearts to fully experience these high holy days and the Resurrection in which they culminate. 

Though these events are distinct, they nonetheless work together in perfect unity with one another. In truth, we celebrate the events of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection together! 

We cannot isolate the Cross from the Resurrection any more than we can isolate the Resurrection from the Cross.  Doing so would make the Resurrection empty and the Cross meaningless.  

All of the events of Holy Week are undertaken as Christ’s one, seamless Passion, in which He works to free fallen humanity from sin, death, and the devil. As we will sing at midnight on Saturday: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs He is bestowing life.” 

Even on Pascha, the feast of His Most Holy and Glorious Resurrection, we are remembering His death – trampling down death by death. It is in the Cross, in His Death, that Christ’s victory occurs; but it is only in the light of the Resurrection that the darkness of the Cross is seen for what it is. Without the Resurrection, Christ stays in the grave and is just one more nameless victim of the Roman Empire. And so this whole week should be undertaken as one, wholly united and saving act of God. 

It’s important to remember that, before Christ, the Cross was a symbol of death and despair.  Untold thousands died painfully on crosses across the Roman Empire, often for no other reason than because the authorities sought to exert their power and deepen their control.

These were meaningless deaths.  

Yet Christ did not run from the Cross.  Though He was innocent of any and all wrongdoing, He accepted the most brutal and final of punishments.  He accepted a meaningless death.  

Yet, in doing so, He revealed the true meaning of the Cross, as He showed it to be the key to the Resurrection.  He bravely stared into the void, and filled it with hope and life.  
Without the Cross, there is no Resurrection.  And without the Resurrection, the Cross is the meaningless death of a poor carpenter’s poor son.

The Resurrection gives meaning to the Cross, illuminating it as the “Life-Giving Cross” of the Lord. As St. Athanasius puts it, the Resurrection reveals to us that the Cross is “the glorious monument to death’s defeat.”1  But it bears repeating (again and again) that it is only in Christ’s voluntary Passion and His Glorious Resurrection from the dead that we understand death to have been destroyed by His death.

After all, hindsight is twenty-twenty.

Indeed, isn’t this the case in our own lives?

Like everyone, I’ve felt stuck in situations that, at the time, seemed dark, hopeless, even meaningless.  To the extent possible, it is only by looking backwards through my life that I can understand the different steps and turns that I needed to take (to be taken on?) in order to arrive where I am today.

And isn’t that the case with all of us?

Haven’t there been times in each of our lives when we have thought, “There is absolutely no way this is going to work out. I may as well give up.” And haven’t we all been proved wrong at some point, even if it took an uncomfortably long time? And standing on the other side of it, don’t we all have that blessed moment of understanding: “OHHHHHHHHHHHH!” 

Each of us walks through life being pummeled by life’s many mini-deaths, crosses – job loss, divorce, a child’s death, mental illness, addiction ¬– and often, in the midst of it, it simply feels meaningless. 

And we’re not alone in that despair.  Even the Scripture records the despair of great figures like King David who, in the midst of his troubles, cried out to God with doubt, imploring, “How long, O Lord?” (Ps 13).

Even Christ cried out, as He hung from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mat 27:46).  Imagine it. God Himself, hanging from the Cross, experiences feelings of abandonment by God. In this way, God is present even in the experience of  being godforsaken. There are no words to do this justice!

By entering our suffering, God imbues it with meaning, not because He sends the suffering, but because He shares it.  Because He loves us. 

Sometimes we believe that we receive trials and troubles as punishment for…something (not praying enough? not fasting? not giving that homeless gentleman a dollar?). We turn God’s action in our lives into some kind of cosmic yet strangely personal tit-for-tat (at best) or infantile yet powerfully punitive judgment (at worst). As if good things happening in our life were evidence that we are on the right path while the so-called bad things are evidence that we are on the wrong path.

But if that were the case, how does this account for Christ, the Innocent One, who bravely and voluntarily went to His own death?  Was His suffering a punishment?

No. God is the source of life and joy, not death and despair.  Yet the world, which is still in the process of being saved, is still imperfect.  And our walk through life will, unfortunately, be interrupted by crosses.  

Each of us experiences these crosses as being too heavy, too overwhelming, and perhaps that is precisely the point. Even Christ fell carrying His Cross; crosses are HEAVY. And frequently, we may find ourselves falling under the weight of them, asking ourselves and God, “What’s the point?”

Honestly, there may not always be the point.  Life just sucks sometimes.  

But perhaps that is just the point. Maybe the choices we make, and the way we respond to apparently meaningless suffering, will allow us to make sense of that pain when it’s all done.

Maybe we’ll be able to make sense of pain when we’re delivered from it, when we look backward from the Kingdom of God.

Maybe our paths through life will only make sense when we stand resurrected by the Resurrected One and look back at all that our lives have been. Maybe only then, after we stand unbroken and transformed, will our crosses – job loss, divorce, etc. – become monuments to the defeat of death in our own lives. 

God understands that our crosses hurt us. He understands that we are prone to despair and confusion and feelings of utter meaningless. And He does not want us to endure it alone. Instead of allowing these things to simply be meaningless, Christ took up the Cross and transformed darkness into light. He took the meaningless, and gave it meaning inasmuch as pain, suffering – indeed, the Cross – has become the location of His very life-giving presence. 

It is in His death that He fully unites Himself with humanity, drinking to the dregs all that it is to be a human in this broken, fallen, and dying world.

And perhaps this is the message of Holy Week for us. Our paths may be dark. Our crosses may be heavy. But they only last for a little while, and in the end, the light of Christ’s Resurrection reveals to us that they are the very means by which we can share in Christ’s victory over death in our own lives. Indeed, we must not view our own crosses apart from Christ’s victory in the Cross, illumined by His Resurrection.

Christ’s Passion and Resurrection show us that, even when our own suffering seems arbitrary and meaningless, this emptiness can be overcome. That no darkness is too dark to be overcome by Christ’s light, as we join Him on the path to Golgotha. 

And what’s more, Christ’s Passion and Resurrection demonstrate to us that we do not walk this path alone. As Andrew Root writes, “God does not meet us in the natural order, in power, or in individual holiness, but in lowliness, weakness, and suffering; for God desires to be with us and for us. Out of great love, God chooses to be found in places of despair and suffering; God chooses to be found on the cross.”2 

But God also shows us in His Resurrection from the dead that these places of despair and suffering are about to be broken through, that an all-new reality is bursting forth from the grave, for even now, “upon those in the tombs He is bestowing life.” Presently. And always.

So let’s take up our crosses, walk the path of following Christ, who is Risen from the dead, trusting that as we walk with Him in the likeness of His death, so, too, will we live with Him forever in the likeness of His Resurrection.

-Christian Gonzalez

1 St. Athanasius, trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V., On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 1993), p. 54.

2 Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair (Abingdon Press, Nashville: 2011), p.84.

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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For more:

For more on our salvation in Christ, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on the Resurrection, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

Mission: Impossible - Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday

I can hardly believe it, but Great Lent is almost over.

The 40-day Fast is nearing its end, and we have been through it all with Christ. 

We have climbed up the tree to get a glimpse of Him. We have been brought before Him by faithful friends and have had our sins forgiven. We have been thrown to the ground by evil spirits and have been lifted up by His grace. We have asked Him to give us whatever we want. 

And now, we stand on the verge of Holy Week, and we are about to welcome Him into our hearts, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (Jn. 12:13)

And welcome Him we should!

After all, our celebration of Palm Sunday is the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, as well as the joyful entry of fish into our stomachs for this brief interim between Great Lent and Holy Week. 

(That’s right: Great Lent doesn’t end with the Resurrection, it ends with the Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday.  We prepare for our preparation.)

So yes, Christ is triumphant. But exactly what is the triumph?

Just the day before Palm Sunday, we celebrate Lazarus Saturday, in which Jesus journeys to the town of Bethany because His friend Lazarus has fallen sick and died. 

Allow me to set the scene: a few days before traveling to Bethany, Jesus receives news that Lazarus is sick and that his sisters, Martha and Mary, are asking Christ to come heal Lazarus. When He hears this, however, He deliberately chooses to stay where He is for another TWO DAYS. Like a boss.

In fact, Jesus waits until He knows Lazarus is dead. And then He goes to Bethany.

When word gets to the sisters that Christ has finally arrived in Bethany, they each, in turn, say the same thing to Him: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn. 11:21, 32). “If you had come just a little sooner,” they say. “Didn’t You hear? We told you he was sick, and now he’s dead.”

“Where were You when we needed you?”

Oh, how often my words to the Lord sound like this. 

The sisters offer this lament, their prayer sparked by the nothingness they are experiencing in the loss of their brother (on the one hand) and the faith they have in the One who could have saved Him (on the other hand).

And so they wonder: “Where were You?”

By the time they offer this lament to Christ, however, their brother has been dead four days, long enough for his body to begin to stink. 

He’s buried.

Gone.

But Christ offers them hope – “Your brother will rise again” (Jn. 11:23)

“Yeah, yeah,” Martha says. “I know he will live again in the resurrection on the last day” (Jn. 11:24).

But Christ isn’t interested in what Martha knows. He doesn’t want to hear the information she has learned in Sunday school. No, He invites her to trust in Him.  

I am the Resurrection and the Life,” He tells her (Jn. 11:25).

For Christ, belief in the resurrection is not doctrine regarding a future event, but rather, belief in the Resurrection is something to be located squarely in His Person. Jesus invites Martha and Mary not to hope for some future event, but rather to hope in Him, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the One who is coming into the world, He who is the Resurrection of the dead

So do we trust in Him, with the totality of our personhood? Or do we trust in what our brains “know” He can do?

The sisters expected that Jesus would arrive to cure their sick brother. After all, they had seen Him do this with others – certainly He could do it with their brother, who was Jesus’s friend! But Christ deliberately waits until this, the healing of the sick, is beyond the realm of possibility. Indeed, He waits until He is put in a place where He will be forced to do the impossible: raise the dead.

How often do we place our expectations on Christ? How often do we stand in prayer asking God why He didn’t act to do this or that for us? And how often does God subsequently burst through any limits we arbitrarily impose on Him? Our God is a God who raises the dead, for “with God nothing will be impossible” (Lk. 1:37). 

But this movement toward faith is hard.

It’s hard because sometimes God deliberately waits to act. Indeed, He waits until all that can be accomplished by human strength is no longer possible, and then – sometimes only then – will He act. Lazarus didn’t need to be sick or dead to manifest God’s ultimate power over death; Lazarus needed to be really dead – like, really, really dead. This work of Christ’s needed to be the clear and decisive work of God so that none could argue that God had indeed sent Christ (Jn. 11:42).

Sometimes God intentionally withholds His action in order to bring us to that point where we simply cry out to Him, pleading that He do something – anything. And what’s more: it will often be something we could never have anticipated. 

He wants to move us from what we know (or think we know) to genuine faith in Him

Christ’s triumph over death in Bethany paves the way for His entrance into Jerusalem, where the crowd welcomes Him gladly into their midst! Jesus has just done something spectacular, something that no human hand could have done. He has raised a man from the dead, restoring him to those who had counted him as lost forever! What cause is there to prevent fervent festivity and flaring fanfares? 

Let us, with the crowd, welcome Him with joy into our hearts!

But let us also approach this day with trepidation and great solemnity. For within only a matter of days, this crowd will turn their backs on Him. What were previously the shouts of a joyful crowd will quickly turn to the cries of a murderous mob. The mouths that proclaim “Blessed is He” will shortly be shouting “Crucify Him!”

And unfortunately, we are that crowd.

So where will we stand next week when they take Him away to be killed? Will we run away in fear and despair? 

Or will we stand beside Him and die with Him, trusting that He is a God who does the impossible and raises the dead?

-Christian Gonzalez 

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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For more:

For more on the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.

For more on what happens after we die, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on struggling with doubt, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Functions of Religion, and the Symbolism of a Myrtle Tree

The Izmir University of Economics honored His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and New Rome Bartholomew with the title of Honorary Doctor of Sociology on February 9, 2015.  The University’s Faculty Senate resolution conferring the honorary doctorate emphasized the fact that the title was being awarded to Bartholomew in recognition of his All Holiness’ service to humanity and contribution to interfaith dialogue.  After accepting his degree from Ogun Esen, the Rector of the University, Bartholomew delivered a speech, “Building Bridges: Interfaith Dialogue, Ecological Awareness, and the Culture of Solidarity.”  The Ecumenical Patriarch addressed University faculty and students, representatives of the Turkish state, members of the foreign diplomatic community in Izmir, members of the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and others. 

The thematic pieces of Bartholomew’s speech, emphasizing dialogue, ecology, and human solidarity, were constructed as part of a fascinating architecture that addressed the timeless functions of religion.  His All Holiness established the context for his discussion by reflecting on “the return of God” in public life and world affairs.  Bartholomew observed that the longstanding modernist expectation of an end to religion has proven to be a flawed secularist prejudice, refuted by myriad expressions worldwide that indicate the reaffirmation of religion as a central dimension in private and public life in the twenty-first century.  Indeed, because of the historical and ongoing importance of religion, it is crucial to reevaluate the role and function of religion in and across cultures and societies.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew identified four crucial functions of religion.  One, “religion is connected with the deep concerns of the human being…which permanently affect the human soul.”  In other words, religion provides answers to humanity’s existential questions; it provides orientation, purpose, meaning, and understanding of life. 

Two, religion is fundamental to the identity of peoples and cultures and to the positive awareness and interaction between groups.  Bartholomew noted, “this is why knowledge of the belief and the religion of the other is an indispensable precondition of understanding otherness and of the establishment of communication and dialogue.” 

Three, religions, more than any other force in history, have created and preserved the greatest cultural achievements of humankind, essential moral values, and respect for human dignity and the living world.  His All Holiness reflected, “Religion is the arc of wisdom and of the spiritual inheritance of humanity.  Culture has in general the stamp of religion.  Even modern humanistic secular movements, for example the human rights movement, cannot be understood and evaluated independently of their religious roots.” 

Four, Bartholomew identified peacemaking as an essential function of religion.  Inasmuch as religion can be, and has been, used to divide people, such conditions and their results, including intolerance and violence, represent the failure of religion, not its essence, which is the protection of human life and dignity.  Reminding us that the revival of religion has a vital role to play in reconciliation and peace, His All Holiness pointed out, “In our times, the credibility of religions depends largely on their commitment to peace.  The way to peace and reconciliation is interreligious dialogue and cooperation in view of the main contemporary challenges, like the destruction of the natural environment and the growing economic and social crisis.”

Invoking the constructive perspective and hopefulness that comes from faith, Bartholomew observed that, although the world is, indeed, in crisis, never before in history have so many human beings, enabled by advances in technology, “had the opportunity to bring so many positive changes to so many people and to the global community simply through encounter and dialogue.  While it may be true that this is a time of crisis, it must equally be underlined that there has also never been greater chances for communication and dialogue.”

Two days before the February 9 event at the Izmir University of Economics, Bartholomew stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence through dialogue between people of every religion, in a sermon following the Divine Liturgy.  Bartholomew officiated that Liturgy in the only Greek Orthodox church in Izmir, historic Smyrna, a city where, less than a century ago, one would have encountered countless churches, chapels, and cathedrals serving hundreds of thousands of Christians.  The Divine Liturgy took place in the church of Aghios Voukolos (known as Ayavukla to the Turks).  Built in 1887 and named in honor of the patron saint of Smyrna, Saint Voukolos, a student of John the Apostle, and the first bishop of the once great cosmopolitan Greek port city, the church is situated in the district of Basmane, where, before their annihilation in 1922, the Armenian and Greek communities converged. 

Although it was charred, looted, and damaged, Aghios Voukolos was the only church to survive the notorious burning of Smyrna by Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist Turkish forces in September 1922.  Following the murder and expulsion of Smyrna’s Christian population, the Turkish state authorities seized Aghios Voukolos and, after initially using the building for secular purposes and despite its official designation as an “archaeological museum,” eventually abandoned the structure in a deliberately act designed to promote the church’s erosion over many decades of neglect and decay.  In an arbitrary turn, the municipal government of Izmir undertook a restoration of the church from 2009 to 2012, with the project’s official goal being to save Aghios Voukolos as “a cultural, arts, and education center.” 

During his sermon, Bartholomew thanked Izmir’s current mayor, Aziz Kocaoglu, for preserving and renovating the Church of Aghios Voukolos, and called Smyrna “a city of creation and prosperity, but also a city of pain, grief, and suffering.”  Adding to the poignancy of the setting, the Divine Liturgy was attended by many descendants of the survivors and refugees of the destruction of Smyrna.  Following the Divine Liturgy, His All Holiness planted a myrtle tree in the church’s courtyard and lit a candle where, according to legend, Saint Voukolos’ tomb is located.  

While honorary degrees are well and good, they are symbolic gestures devoid of real meaning when absent the essence of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s message in Smyrna.  His All Holiness’ spoken message of reconciliation, through remembrance and repentance, was amplified in his choice to plant a myrtle tree at Aghios Voukolos.  The myrtle tree was associated in Biblical times with love, repentance, rebuilding, and prosperity.  Today, Orthodox Christians still remember the destruction of Smyrna and its vibrant Armenian and Greek Christian populations.  However, Turkey’s government denies its own actions—there is no remembering, because there is an unwillingness to acknowledge the act of religious cleansing, part of the larger process of genocide against Ottoman Turkey’s Christians, that culminated in the destruction of Smyrna.  Because there is no acknowledgement, there is no repentance.  And without repentance, there can be no true reconciliation, no meaningful and honest dialogue. 

The newly planted myrtle tree at the Church of Aghios Voukolos can bear fruit only if there is acknowledgment and repentance by Turkey of what all Orthodox Christians still remember.  Only then can there be true reconciliation.  Only then will Aghios Voukolos become a living church, an ecclesial space reflecting the potential of reconciliation through love.  In the meanwhile, the newly refurbished Church of Aghios Voukolos and its small myrtle tree will stand as an eternal reminder of what once was.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want - Sunday of St Mary of Egypt

As we stand a few days away from the fifth and final Sunday of Lent, I am shocked that it has already come to this. But in some way, it seems all too appropriate as we focus our attention on St. Mary of Egypt, the example par excellence of the fulfillment of our own ascetic journey during these last five weeks. By putting St. Mary at the center of our focus, the Church gives us one final, hope-filled push to reassure us that our ascetic endeavor is not pointless. 

Consider:  

We began Lent by celebrating the use of icons in worship as evidence of God’s working in and through human flesh to bring forth true and living icons of Himself. And didn’t we just learn about St. Gregory Palamas and his belief that human beings could exist in intimate knowledge and true experience of God?

And I know the Church just placed Christ’s Cross in front of us to encourage us as we each take up our own cross and follow Christ. Of course, as we take up our cross and follow Him, we learned from St. John Climacus that this following is a process that begins with the renunciation of the life of this world and ends in communion with the life of the world to come.

St. Mary represents the fullness of each of these lessons. When the elder Zosimas comes to her, he finds her walking on water in imitation of Christ, having spent the entire last 40 years seeking fellowship with Him. Through extreme ascetic striving (living only off of what she could find in the desert), she took up her cross after a complete and utter renunciation of all that her life had been before. For Orthodox Christians, St. Mary of Egypt is placed before us as the model after which we should design our own lives.

She is evidence that it can be done.

And she is also evidence that it won’t be easy.

St. Mary was brought to a sharp awareness of herself when she tried to enter the church of the Holy Sepulcher but was mystically stopped from doing so. As she attempted to enter the church, she was confronted by her own impurity, her own sinfulness, her own need to take up the cross and follow Christ. If it was this way for her, then how can I possibly expect to escape such self-confrontation?

These last five weeks have been some of the most personally grueling, embarrassing, and frustrating weeks of my life. On Sunday, the deacon at our church reminded me of St. John Chrysostom’s convicting question, “What good is it if you don't eat meat or poultry, and yet you bite and devour your fellow man?” Sadly, I have seen all too clearly how readily I feast on my brothers and sisters.

I have acted impatiently. I have acted unkindly. I have said things I don’t think or mean, and I have thought mean things I didn’t say. I have accused. I have blamed. I have resented. I have judged and failed to forgive. 

But at least I’ve eaten vegan. Sometimes.

The level of my self-deception, in many ways, knows no limits, and it is the job of the Fast to uncover my attachments, my delusions, and my false securities. It is the work of Great Lent to come face to face with my complete and utter need to be transformed by God’s grace, from the miserable wretch that I am into the living, breathing Icon of His Son that He calls me to be.

St. Mary answered that call, and she encourages us the rest of us to do so, too.

She encourages us to confront ourselves and, in doing so, truly find ourselves. She encourages us to ask ourselves what we think want (what we really, really want) ... and then to let it go and to turn to the Lord in faith. Because all too often we don’t know what we want (what we really, really want) - or, perhaps more accurately, we don’t know what we ought to want. 

Which is what leads me to my consideration of the Gospel reading this coming Sunday. Because more times than not, I find that I am way more like Christ’s disciples than I ever thought, and it’s usually not in that holy, inspiring, we-left-everything-to-follow-you kind of way. It’s usually in that kind of way that likely to make Jesus #FacePalm when I ask for something that I clearly don’t understand. 

In Sunday’s Gospel, not two verses after Jesus has described the painful, gruesome, and utterly humiliating death that awaits Him in Jerusalem, James and John (those lovable brothers) approach Christ and boldly say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mk. 10:35). Christ patiently entertains their request, which they then make: “In your Kingdom, one of us sits at Your right, and the other at Your left.”

How often do we too seek this glory? How often do we boast in our fasting (even if only to ourselves) as if our 40-day endeavour were really all that braggable? How much is it that we want to promote our own selves in this, so that everyone will see us seated in glory at the head of the Lord’s table?

But Christ’s response is compassionate and clear. He tells James and John, and He tells us: “You do not know what you ask” (Mk. 10:38). He reminds them that He is headed toward His death, a death that is lowly and of ill repute. He will die at the hands of violent men, and He will lay down His life for the life of the world. 

Then He asks them, and He asks us: “Are you in?”

His glory is one thing - but His death? We want to sit by Him in His Kingdom, but do we want to die beside Him on the cross?

To take up the cross means coming face to face with all that it is be human. It means to see our mortality and utter weakness. It means to gaze upon Christ’s (and our) broken humanity in all its frailty. It means to see clearly the end of our sin. It means to perceive ourselves for who we really are.

So are we brave enough to stare ourselves in the face in order to come to know our need for Christ?

St. Mary saw the need and accepted the challenge. And she invites us to do so, too. She reminds us that it is not all doom and gloom as we see the truth of ourselves, but that there is hope for communion with the Living God. 

But are we certain this is what we want (what we really, really want)? Do we want to see who we are?

So we have three more weeks as we journey toward the Cross, and we are presented with a choice: 

Do we want to glorify ourselves as James and John tried? Or do we want to glorify Christ in our bodies by daily taking up the cross as St. Mary did?

St. Mary reminds us that only by seeing ourselves clearly, by embracing our weakness, embracing our mortality, and embracing our need for Christ can we ensure that we will have any spot in His Kingdom, even if it isn’t at His right or left.

And trust me, to find ourselves in His Kingdom is exactly what we want (what we really, really want).

-Christian Gonzalez 

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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For more:

For more on the Gospel reading for the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.

For more on repentance, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on whether we actually try to live like the saints, or just talk about them, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

I Started at the Bottom...I'm Nowhere Near the Top - Sunday of St John Climacus

At this point, all I know is that the struggle is real.

Last week, I wrote about how #hangry I’ve felt these last couple weeks, but now as we round the bend for the final laps of the Great Fast, things have taken on a different tone for me. I am no longer as concerned with the rumbling I hear in my stomach; I am now worried about the grumbling I hear in my heart. 

Sadly, I have come realize how little I truly desire God and God’s things. 

Now I don’t mean that I don’t want to follow the Lord; I do want to follow Him (or at least, I want to want to). Rather, what I mean to say is that my heart is far too attached to things of this life – coffee, television, my friends, my own sense of justice – and far too little attached to things of the life of the world to come – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This Sunday, we commemorate St. John Climacus (“of the Ladder”), spiritual giant and author of the timeless classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. In St. John’s Ladder, he lays forth 30 “rungs” of growth in the Spirit, chronicling the Christian’s ascent toward God. I wish I could look at the Ladder and say, “I’ve pretty much nailed steps 1-15.” But I only need to consider rungs 1 and 2 in order to realize how far I have yet to go in my journey heavenward. 

The first step of the spiritual life that Climacus describes is “the renunciation of the world,” of which he writes, “If an earthly king were to call us and request us to serve in his presence, we should not delay for other orders, we should not make excuses, but we should leave everything and eagerly go to him.”1  

I can totally get behind this. We should keep ourselves alert and ready so that we can, unfettered, run to the Lord, turning away from all other things that might ask us for our attention. We should set our eyes on Christ and never look back.

I’m with you so far, St. John.

Beginning his description of the second rung, “detachment,” St. John writes, “The man who really loves the Lord…will not love, care or worry about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth.”2

Aaaaaand you lost me, St. John. 

I love, care, or worry about – literally – every single one of those things

Two rungs in, and I couldn’t hold on even a little bit! At this point, I feel like giving up. But how can I give up? Apparently I haven’t even started!
Yet I’m in luck: this Sunday’s Gospel is about a father and son who also feel like they are at the ends of their ropes.

The father of a demon-possessed fellow comes to Christ, seeking healing for his son, who, since childhood, has had a “mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid” (Mk. 9:17-18). Moreover, before coming to Christ, the father had brought his son to the disciples for healing, but they were unable to cast out the demon. Indeed, nothing has helped this poor man and his boy, so of course he feebly wonders if Christ will be able to do anything.  Caught between faith and doubt, he cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

In His typical Christly fashion, Jesus casts out the demon. When the disciples ask why they weren’t up to the task, Christ responds, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mk. 9:29). 

I used to read this story and think that I was the father, praying that beautiful prayer of the faithful doubter. Perhaps I wanted to be fully aware of my own humble faith before the Lord. But the more I think about it, the more I that I am the son, possessed by a mute spirit, leaving me incapable of expressing my own need and longing before the Lord.

Indeed, this mute spirit regularly “throws me to the ground,” keeping me obsessed with things like money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth.

I am attached. I am possessed by my possessions. I am constantly drawn in by the things of this world. Incidentally, the son’s foaming mouth and gnashing teeth are nearly identical to my reaction when Apple announces a new product. My gaze is drawn to the things below, and as a result, I stand at the base of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, my feet planted—and eyes trained—firmly on the ground.

The only way in which I am like the father in this story is that I, too, sincerely doubt anyone can help me.

And then we come to Christ’s immortal and painful words: prayer and fasting. For Christ and for St. John, prayer and fasting are weapons that aid in combating spirits that are constantly “throwing us to the ground” amidst our very real struggle of divine ascent.

My romantic ideas of a “40-day-fast-track-to-perceiving-the-Divine-Light” have long since dissipated, and I am left now only with the truth of myself. I’ve been #hangry, and now I’m just plain broken – and what’s worse: I’ve always been like this – dare I say – I have been like this “since childhood” (Mk. 9:21).

Despite my prayers for the opposite, I am possessed by a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.

I lack the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.

And frankly, I’d much rather look at my brother’s sins because they annoy me a whole lot more than my own, and he really should have enough sense simply to stop being that way. 

Sadly I, too, should simply stop being that way.

But I can’t.

For this kind of spirit comes out only by prayer and fasting. And so the Lord continues to use the fast to cause my sin, my attachments, and my utter worldliness to come to the surface. And it is in prayer that He comes to meet me and heal me. 

The path of ascent is a difficult one, and its goal is reached only by a very real ascetic struggle. And so, at the 4th Sunday of Lent, as the road become ever more difficult, St. John stands as a sign post to us, encouraging us to lean further into the Fast and give ourselves even more fully to our spiritual striving. 

By God’s grace, I will lift my eyes unto the Lord.  And I will plant my feet securely on the ladder’s bottom rung, eager to join the Lord at the top. 

-Christian Gonzalez 

1 St. John Climacus, trans. Archamandrite Lazarus Moore, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Harper & Brothers, 1959), p.4, e-book, ___site
2 Ibid, p. 5.

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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For more:

For more on the Gospel reading for the Sunday of St John Climacus, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.

For more on belief in God check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on overcoming our sins, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

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