Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
It usually only takes a few weeks of ascetical effort during the Great Fast before we come once again to the crushing and ego-deflating conclusion that we can't do this ourselves - we can't accomplish this holy work "on our own steam." Perhaps this critical observation justifies our customary attempts to "do better this year," starting off with a great deal of energy and zeal, saying all our appointed prayers, abstaining according to our ability and physical strength, and so on, only to realize after two or three weeks that we haven't made as much progress as we had hoped! More often than not, we fall into a sense of desolation and defeat, slowly letting go of the observances we have been following, and gradually returning to the sort of spiritual quagmire we were in back before the Great Fast began.
It should come as no surprise to any of us that this understanding is actually one of the fruits of the Lenten springtime: we need frequent reminders that we are not the center of the universe, and that we may be skating on much thinner ice than we had previously imagined. Lent removes the veneer of control we have over our surroundings and the people in them ... it strips away our intravenous drip of pleasurable foods and the addictive feeling of never being hungry or thirsty ... it brings us face to face with the ground upon which many people sleep, as we perform prostration after prostration ... it helps us shed layers of spiritual weight, as we follow the pious admonition of St. Basil the Great and give away any clothing we can spare ... it bares the fangs of our anger, irritation, impatience, selfishness, pride, envy, and greed, particulary when we are struggling to function on a nearly empty stomach before Presanctified Liturgies, while tempations corner us from every side.
However, no sooner do we approach halftime, than the Church elevates the Holy and Life-Creating Cross of the Lord, as the answer we have long been awaiting. The only way we can live the Christian life, the only way we can witness to our neighbors in this post-modern world, the only way we can preach to those who have grown deaf, dumb, and blind, is by throwing ourselves on the mercy of God and joyously clinging to the Precious Cross! Only by linking our deserved sufferings, disappointments, and hardships to the undeserved suffering of Jesus Christ, can we have any hope at all of eventual victory over sin, evil, and finally death, both in this world and in the next.
Let us close by reflecting on a great hymn for the Sunday of the Cross, which beautifully explains why the Orthodox Church places the Cross at the center of our Lenten struggle and liturgical devotion:
"Rejoice, O life-bearing Cross, the invincible banner of godliness, the Gate of Paradise, the protection of the Faithful! The Cross is the might of the Church; through it, corruption is abolished; through it, the power of Death is crushed, and we are raised from earth to heaven. The invincible weapon of peace, the Cross is the enemy of demons, the glory of the Martyrs, and the haven of salvation, which grants to the world great mercy!"
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Peter DeFonce