Monday, March 12, 2007

Deny Yourself, Take Up Your Cross, and Follow Me

(3rd Sunday of Great Lent) (Mark 8:34b-9:1)

At the end of today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark, our Lord says, “There are some who will not taste death until they have seen the Kingdom of God come with power.” The fathers tell us He is speaking of Peter, James, and John, who saw Him shining with the uncreated light of His glory on the mount of Transfiguration. At the time of His incarnation, leading to His Passion, and to Pascha, His victory, where He tramples down death by death on our behalf, He appeared to be nothing more than just a man. When He comes again, He will come in glory – He will not be mistaken for anyone else, He will not appear to be anything more than just a man. At that time, He will come to judge the living and the dead – each one of us will appear before Him to give an account of our lives, of all we have said and done, and of all we have failed to say or do. The righteous will enter into the joy of the reward the Lord has prepared for them; the unrighteous will depart into suffering. No one, the fathers tell us, will be sent to hell. Rather, it is the weight of our own sins, unconfessed and unrepented, that will keep us from rising to be in the presence of God.

There is a way for us to follow that will lead us into the kingdom of heaven, into the paradise of the presence of God. That is the way of the Cross; and we do well to consider it as we come to this, the midpoint in our journey through Great Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious Cross. The Cross is where the victory was obtained for us; and the Cross is the way we must go to leave this world behind, and enter into the Kingdom of God. “Whoever would follow Me,” our Lord says, “must deny himself, and take up his Cross.”

What does it mean to deny ourselves? Blessed Theophylact writes that we can learn what it means to deny ourselves by considering what it means to deny another. What do we tend to do when we see the suffering of another person? Do we intervene? Or do we go our way, and say nothing? To deny ourselves is to say nothing when it is us who are suffering – to consider ourselves as to be of no value in this world, and so to endure whatever comes our way in this world without protest, without complaint.

What does it mean to take up our Cross? It means to be willing to suffer, even die, for Christ. At some times, and in some places, this means a martyr’s death. Yet even when it is not a literal death, we are called to be willing to endure the ridicule and rejection of a “social” death – to be cut off from those who live in the world around us because we choose to follow the way of life we have been blessed to receive in the Church, rather than to live according to the ways permitted in the world. We are meant to be witnesses to Christ, to show Him present in the world because He is living in us – and so we live according to holiness, and not the way of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

“Before Thy Cross, we bow down to Thee in worship, O Master; and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify.” Grant us grace, O Lord, that we may not deny Thee, but may deny ourselves, and take up the Cross of holiness, and make the journey through Great Lent to Thy glorious Pascha, and so be found worthy, in Thy mercy, to enter into Thy kingdom. Let us glorify Thee in word and deed, so that our souls may be saved; and we may bear witness to others, that they also may be saved.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Physical and Spiritual Illness

(2nd Sunday of Great Lent) (Mark 2:1-12)

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark, we hear of the healing of a man who is sick with palsy; a condition that may refer to being paralyzed, with weakened muscles and possible tremors. He is all of us: paralyzed by sins, weakened by worldly thoughts and ways of life, and unsteady in all our ways.

When everything is going well, it is easy for us to live the Orthodox way of life. Praying is not a burden. It is easy to fast. We are generous with alms. We are not troubled by our sinful desires. But when the going gets tough, such as when we are sick, things are different. It’s difficult to pray. Fasting becomes a challenge. We don’t think of others, only of ourselves. We often indulge our weaknesses, using our sickness as an excuse.

The fathers teach us that we find out who we truly are in times of temptation and adversity, such as being ill. We are pushed by circumstances, challenged, and so reveal who we are. In the case of the man sick of the palsy, we might suppose that he realized his condition, and asked to be brought to the Lord for His help. If we are wise, we will do the same whenever we find ourselves in difficult circumstances.

Our Lord does not immediately heal the man; but rather, forgives his sins. We don’t usually like to consider this, but there is usually a connection between our physical state and our spiritual condition; and when we are ill spiritually, we may find this causing physical illness as well. Of course, we should always be considering how we live, and confessing and repenting when we find that we have sinned; and we should give thanks to God for the difficult circumstances that show us who we are, and how much work we each still have to do to become the person God wants us to be.

When the man sick of the palsy is healed in his body, our Lord tells him to take up his bed and walk. By doing so, the man shows that he has truly been healed; and, we are meant to know, that his sins were, indeed, forgiven. So it is with us. When we have examined our lives, and repented of, and confessed, our sins, the promise of God is that our sins, also, are forgiven. Trusting in the mercy of God, we, also, should take up our beds and walk – that is to say, we should also show, in deeds as well as in words, that we have been changed, that our souls have been healed. There should be something different in who we are, and in what we say and do, after we have repented and confessed. If there is nothing different, we need to ask ourselves whether we truly have repented, whether we have confessed everything – and again, if we find anything, repent, and confess – and be different.

As we journey through this time of Great Lent, this season of preparation for the celebration of our Lord’s Pascha, His triumph over death on our behalf, let us ask God for His grace to see our illnesses and our weaknesses and our wickedness; let us ask for grace to repent and confess; let us ask Him to forgive and heal us; and let us then take up the labor of living the life of Christ for all to see, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.