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.
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.
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.
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: