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.

______________

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:

Sometimes the World is Black and White: Archbishop Iakovos and the Lesson of Selma

March 15 marks the half-century anniversary of the culmination of a dramatic series of events in American Civil Rights history that have been seared into the country’s national consciousness, events now remembered simply as “Selma.”  On that day, captured for posterity in a moving cover photograph for LIFE magazine, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Iakovos, appeared together on a prominent national stage.  They were brought together by recent violence, tragedy, and murder that had taken place in Selma, Alabama.

Risking their jobs, their homes, and their families’ physical safety, African-American residents in and around Selma, Alabama, took the first steps beginning in January 1965 in what would become a fateful civil rights campaign.  Initiated by student activists and organized by ministers from the Southern Christian Leadership Council, local blacks attempted to register to vote, a basic civil and political right that they had been denied for generations after the post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South.  Town and county officials repeatedly turned away all black citizens as they rejected every attempt by African Americans to register to vote.  In response, the disenfranchised black community joined together in marches and peaceful demonstrations.  Despite constant intimidation and provocations from local and state police, civil rights protesters continued to rally and march peacefully in adherence to the Christian principle of non-violent civil disobedience.

Frustrated by their failure to silence the Selma protests, Alabama police authorities, now joined by members of the Ku Klux Klan, militant segregationists, and other white supremacists, turned to open violence.  On February 17, state troopers fired on and attacked a group of marchers in the nearby-town of Marion, killing a young Baptist deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and wounding several others.  In response to the killing and violence in Marion, the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council prepared a march to take place from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery, a distance of more than fifty miles.

On Sunday, March 7, some 600 marchers assembled outside a black community church in Selma to begin the journey to Montgomery.  As they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge (ironically, named in honor of a Confederate general) over the Alabama River they were blocked, mockingly ordered to disperse, and then violently attacked by state troopers and local police.  Firing teargas canisters, mounted police and police on foot charged into the column of marchers, clubbing and beating both male and female protestors, ultimately hospitalizing more than 50 people.  The police rampage was broadcast by television around the world.  News and images of the violence stirred outrage across the country.  In the view of many scholars, “Bloody Sunday,” as the violent event came to be known, and the following week of developments culminating on March 15, marked the critical turning point in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

In response to the events of March 7, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent telegrams to prominent religious and civic leaders urging them to join him in protest in Selma against the recent violence.  Hundreds of supporters responded and began arriving in Selma over the next several days.  Shortly after his arrival in Selma, one of those supporters, Rev. James Reeb, a young white Kansas-born Unitarian Universalist minister and community organizer from Boston, was brutally beaten and murdered by a group of Klansmen.  Rev. Reeb’s death, on March 11, produced a national uproar, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to address the nation in a televised broadcast in which he decried Reeb’s killing as an “American tragedy.”  A memorial service for James Reeb was planned to take place in Selma, on Monday, March 15, at Brown Chapel, the church where marchers had first assembled on “Bloody Sunday.”

From his headquarters in New York, the head of the then Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, Archbishop Iakovos, had been following the escalating events in Selma with growing alarm.  On March 12, the day after the death of Rev. Reeb, the Archbishop telegrammed the minister’s widow: “The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and our communicants extend deepest condolences and sympathy on the tragic death of your beloved husband, a minister of God who fought oppression of Human Rights and dignity and died heroically on the battlefield of mankind.”  The following day, March 13, Archbishop Iakovos was asked by Rev. Robert Spike, Executive Director of the National Council of Churches Commission on Religion and Race to fly to Selma in order to represent the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the World Council of Churches (Iakovos was one of its presidents), and the National Council of Churches (Iakovos was its vice-president), at the memorial for Rev. Reeb.  On March 14, Iakovos met in New York with his staff and advisors, made up of both priests and lay people, who counseled him against going to Selma.  Iakovos’ advisors were concerned about the highly charged atmosphere in Selma, they were fearful about the Archdiocese taking any action that might prove to be politically unpopular, and they feared for the Archbishop’s personal safety. 

Against the opposition of his staff and advisors, Iakovos resolved to go to Selma.  On the morning of March 15, Archbishop Iakovos, accompanied by only one assistant priest, Fr. George Bacopoulos, and twenty other prominent clergymen representing various denominations flew into Selma on a small aircraft, which their pilot landed in a nearby cow pasture because he feared a violent reception awaited them at the town’s airport.  Iakovos soon arrived at Brown Chapel where distinguished religious and community leaders from around the country had already gathered to eulogize James Reeb.  As the highest-ranking religious leader at the memorial service, Iakovos was given a place of honor on the dais, from where he spoke to the nearly 4,000 mourners who filled the church to capacity and poured outside, saying:

I came to this memorial service because I believe this is an appropriate occasion not only to dedicate myself as well as our Greek Orthodox communicants to the noble cause for which our friend, the Reverend James Reeb, gave his life; but also in order to show our willingness to continue this fight against prejudice, bias, and persecution.  In this God-given cause, I feel sure that I have the full and understanding support of our Greek Orthodox faithful of America.  For our Greek Orthodox Church and our people fully understand from our heritage and our tradition such sacrificial involvements.  Our Church has never hesitated to fight, when it felt it must, for the rights of mankind; and many of our Churchmen have been in the forefront of these battles time and again….The ways of God are not always revealed to us, but certainly His choice of this dedicated minister to be the victim of racial hatred and the hero of this struggle to gain unalienable constitutional rights for those American brethren of ours who are denied them, and to die, so to speak, on this battlefield for human dignity and equality, was not accidental or haphazard.  Let us seek out in this tragedy a divine lesson for all of us.  The Reverend Reeb felt he could not be outside the arena of this bitter struggle, and we, too, must feel that we cannot.  Let his martyrdom be an inspiration and a reminder to us that there are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for the basic American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, without which this land cannot survive.  Our hope and prayer, then, is that we may be given strength to let God know by our acts and deeds, and not only by our words, that like the late Reverend James Reeb, we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.”

Some time later, Rev. King arrived and offered his own stirring eulogy to the congregation.  Eventually, as the mourners moved to exit the crowded church, Rev. King paused for a moment over the threshold of the doorway of Brown Chapel, locked hands with Iakovos, and spoke quietly and privately to the Archbishop.  From there, the two religious figures led the crowd of thousands in a solemn, peaceful, half-hour-long procession to Selma’s courthouse.  At the center, leading the march, was Dr. King carrying a purple and white memorial wreath, next to King on his right was Archbishop Iakovos, and to King’s left were Rev. Ralph Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young.  A resolute Iakovos, appearing stoic but dignified in his flowing black cassock and skufia, and clutching his archiepiscopal staff, towered physically over all others around him, capturing both the awe of spectators who had lined the streets and the curiosity of hundreds of reporters, photographers, and cameramen who followed the procession along its entire march.

When Rev. King and Archbishop Iakovos reached the courthouse, they found the building locked from the inside.  They and the other dignitaries leading the procession climbed the courthouse steps and then turned to face the almost 4,000 people who had followed them.  At that precise moment a photographer captured the image of Iakovos and King together that would appear on the front cover of the March 26 issue of the immensely popular, ubiquitous Life magazine, an indelible and still incomparable visual impression of the presence of Orthodox Christianity in American history and society. 

Following the conclusion of the memorial, Fr. Bacopoulos left for New York and Archbishop Iakovos flew to visit the Greek Orthodox parish of Holy Trinity in Charleston, South Carolina.  Since his enthronement as Archbishop in 1959, Iakovos had begun a concerted effort to visit all of the parishes in the Archdiocese, and his return from Selma afforded him an opportunity, which he had not previously realized, to meet his fellow Orthodox Christians in Charleston.  However, upon his arrival in Charleston the Archbishop experienced bigotry and a backlash from his own people.  Not a single member of the Charlestown Greek Orthodox community appeared for scheduled events, and Iakovos found himself alone in a hotel room fielding a stream of hostile phone calls throughout the night from Greek Americans across the country that were enraged by his presence in Selma earlier that day.       

In the years that followed Selma—marked by the subsequent legislative triumphs initiated by the Civil Rights Movement, and the expanding enlightenment of society around race and equality—more and more people, including the vast majority of Greek Orthodox Americans, came to appreciate Archbishop Iakovos’ role in the Civil Rights Movement.  Today, Greek Orthodox Christians in America rightly take reflective pride in the courage, vision, and dignity that Archbishop Iakovos displayed in the face of hatred, racism, and persecution.  Iakovos, unlike most of his white hierarchical contemporaries in the Roman Catholic and major Protestant Churches, especially during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, was a consistently outspoken foe of racial intolerance and inequality throughout his entire period of archiepiscopal leadership.  Indeed, eulogizing the Archbishop’s death in 2005, Rev. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, reflected that “at a time when many of the nation’s most prominent clergy were silent, Archbishop Iakovos courageously supported our Freedom Movement and marched alongside my husband, and he continued to support the nonviolent movement against poverty, racism and violence throughout his life.” 

Without a doubt, Iakovos’ personal life experience growing up persecuted and discriminated against as an Orthodox Christian in Kemalist Turkey significantly influenced his unique perspective and distinguished him from other white major religious leaders in America.  Archbishop Iakovos knew all too well the harsh realities that defined life as a member of a minority traumatized by a history of enslavement.  Growing up as a Greek Orthodox Christian and citizen of the Republic of Turkey he had confronted daily the legacy of enslavement: the humiliations and insecurity that came with living in a society where his basic freedoms and rights were denied, where persecution, oppression, and arbitrary violence against his community were commonplace and justified by law.  Given his past, Iakovos identified with African Americans in ways that most Americans, including most Greek Americans, were never aware of or could never fully comprehend.

Ultimately, it was Iakovos’ faith that decisively determined his engagement with the world.  In short, the Archbishop was an unwavering, consistent advocate of the Civil Rights Movement because he was an Orthodox Christian, in deed and action, not only in word.  For Iakovos, some of the most basic principles of Orthodoxy—freedom, equality, justice, and the dignity and worth of all lives—were existential realities for all of humanity, because of God’s grace.  Denying people basic rights, persecuting individuals and communities on the basis of race, religion, or culture, constituted a rupture with God because it desecrated our sacred responsibility to accept and love all of humanity and to recognize that each and every person, regardless of race, is created in the image of God.  At Selma, Iakovos took the very unpopular action, at that time, to stand alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in defense of the powerless, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the poor because the Archbishop not only preached theology, he lived Orthodoxy.  Iakovos was determined to bring the beauty of his faith and Church into the real and sometimes ugly and brutal world, locking arms with Rev. King as a sign that we all must participate in transforming the world around us.     

There was no ambiguity in Archbishop Iakovos’ decision to embark upon the road to Selma—for him it was a moral obligation.  He truly revered and practiced the tenets of Orthodox Christianity, including the realization that there are moral absolutes, that often there is a right and a wrong, that, indeed, the world is sometimes black and white, and that such truths warrant recognition and action in their defense.  This is the fundamental lesson to be drawn by the noble, inspiring example set by Archbishop Iakovos at Selma. 

Rev. King often stressed that silence and inaction in the face of injustice and persecution was a betrayal of Christian principles.  Indeed, King famously noted “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  Today, the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States—its hierarchy, clergy, and laity—has a moral obligation and a religious responsibility to rededicate itself to the things that matter, meaning that the Church must work unceasingly to contribute to the societal goals for which Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Iakovos marched together on that fateful day in Selma in 1965.

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.

Let the #Hangry Rejoice! - Sunday of the Holy Cross

Believe it or not, this upcoming Sunday marks the mid-point of Great Lent. The Sunday of the Cross is the turning point of the Fast, and frankly, I welcome it.

I don’t know about anybody else, but at this point, Lent is starting to feel a bit…heavy. 

Normally, my diet consists primarily of eating veggies and meats as I generally abstain from grains and legumes — which I seem to be getting more than enough of these days. I’m tired from the lack of protein (#hangry); I’m achy from joint inflammation due to the grains; and my heart is pounding out of my chest from all the coffee I’ve been drinking to satisfy at least one craving in a Christian-tested, Lent-approved way.

In other words: my Paleo hurts.

Of course, the fatigue of Lent is about more than just what we eat or don’t eat. Indeed, all of the Fast is undertaken as real and necessary work. Great Lent is a season in which we give ourselves to more concentrated and ardent acts of faith, such as prayer, almsgiving, and — perhaps hardest of all — silence.  We do this in order to press more fully into God’s grace and to turn down the noise that we might hear Him better.

And it’s hard.

Yet, in this struggle – or, rather, perhaps because of this struggle the Church puts the Cross of Christ at the center of our attention this week.

Until this point, the Church has asked us largely to concentrate on our own Lenten efforts. Indeed, it has all been about our repentance, our fasting, our Confession, and the like. The Fast, inasmuch as it can be, is our own crucifixion with Christ.  

But now, the Church sets Christ’s Cross before us, inviting us to contemplate His Work. At the turning point of the Fast, the Church is preparing us for the entrance of the King, placing us this day beneath the Banner, the Sign, the Monument of His Victory over death: the Cross.

His Cross.

As per the Church’s wisdom, the last 3 weeks have been dedicated to upping the ante in terms of prayer, fasting, and general openness to God’s Spirit; we have worked, and we have grown tired. It has been 3 weeks of beans and rice, and I’m exhausted of it. But now, the Cross of Christ invites me, us, to rest under its shadow, reminding us that “we cannot take up our cross and follow Christ unless we have His Cross which He took up in order to save us. It is His Cross, not ours, that saves us.”1 

In the Gospel reading this Sunday, we hear some of Christ’s most direct and important words:

The Lord said: “If anyone wishes to 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. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”

Unless we are following Christ’s Cross, we will be lost in the wilderness, aimlessly denying ourselves and taking up our crosses, as if without Christ’s Cross those things made any sense! Without Christ’s Cross as the Tree under which we take refuge, we will burn out, become resentful (#hangry), and likely give up. We become self-made martyrs, like the Pharisees who make a display of their fasting (perhaps even writing blog posts about how tired and #hangry we are).

Indeed, we begin to think of fasting as something done for God – as if He needed anything from us. And even if He did, do we really think He would be impressed by us not eating meat for 40 days?

When we remove Christ’s Cross from the mix, when we forget that we are called to follow Him and imitate His self-emptying love, the Sign and Symbol of which is the Cross, our fasting becomes a deluded, Christian-esque self-help program.

God forbid this!

For Christians, Christ alone is the Savior and the Lover of Mankind. By following Him to the Cross, our crosses become salvific; without Him, they are simply self-destructive.

Our progenitors, Adam and Eve, discovered this truth the hard way. Promised that they could become like God by trusting in their own efforts, failing to heed the word of the Lord, they took and ate fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They sought knowledge apart from the source of knowledge, power apart from the source of power, life apart from the source of life. Apart from the Light they found only darkness, so God banished them from the Garden, not to punish them, but to protect them: how could they eat of the Tree of Life in such a miserable state? An eternity of wretchedness would not be a blessing; it would be a curse.  

There, in the middle of the garden, stood two trees.  Before them stood two people, who chose life without God. They ate and tasted only death. Imagine what they must have experienced in that moment, when they were promised sweetness and found only bitterness.  How tired and #hangry they must have been!

And now, in the middle of the Fast, stands the tree Adam and Eve didn’t choose: the Tree of Life, Christ’s Holy, Precious and Life-Giving Cross.  It is the shelter and comfort and sweetness humanity has been craving since we took our first (and last) steps in the Garden.

Lent is supposed to make us hungry, supposed to make us tired, and supposed to break our spirits – at least a little bit. By trusting in our own efforts to become holy, to be redeemed by what we don’t eat, to seek knowledge without God, we learn quickly how feeble, how frail, how mortal we are. And Lent does this by bringing us to an awareness of this in our guts. We undertake this holy endeavor that we might be made empty of ourselves.

Because if we are full of ourselves, how can we be filled with Christ’s Spirit?

Now here we are, midway into the Fast. As we hit this turning point in Lent, let us also hit a turning point in our hearts. Instead of focusing on the arduous task of the Fast before us, let us turn our attention toward Him who was crucified for our sakes. Let us take refuge and find rest in Christ’s Cross, and taste of its Fruit. Let us taste of its sweetness and be free from the delusion that we can secure our life for ourselves.

We must be empty in order to be filled. And right now, my growling stomach reminds me that I am empty, not just biologically, but existentially, desperately yearning to be filled by the Fruit of the Tree of Life, Christ’s very Body and Blood, which He Himself bids us to take and eat.

And that’s cause for even the #hangriest among us to rejoice.

-Christian Gonzalez 

1 Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 1969), p. 77. 

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 the Holy Cross, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.

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

Selma at 50: No Longer Master and Servants, but Friends

Inclement weather throughout the country, hours of traffic, long lines and hours of waiting couldn’t keep tens of thousands of U.S. citizens from convening in Selma, Alabama on March 7-8, 2015 for the weekend marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. As in 1965, people from various parts of America rallied around a common cause, namely, the rejection of racism. This was not achieved through the mandate of any single person, but because such action was consistent with the inscription in our hearts from the moment of creation. We were not called to live in isolation, in fear, and in opposition of each other, but rather in communion.

In this way, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not merely one of many Civil Rights leaders in our nation’s history, but rather, someone who responded to God’s calling to faithful and liberating servitude. And this he did not consider to be his own mission, but the ultimate purpose in life for all men and women. He encouraged all people of all faiths to search their hearts and rediscover the primordial quality that made us more than flesh and blood, more then men and women, more than black and white, more than self and other; to harness the faith to put on as our own mantle that which makes us images of God, namely love.

This was what visitors experienced as they encountered each other in the chapels, museums and streets of Selma. The brotherly love present in Selma reminded clearly reflected the love of Christ for His disciples. And this love was never condescending and never divisive. As was the case with Christ and His disciples, we in Selma had reached the point where we no longer carried ourselves as master and servant, but rather as friends, for indeed, all things that have been heard from the Father have also been made known to us (John 15:15). 

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