On the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 18, 2011
Gospel Reading from Mark 8:34-9:1
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
There is no other way to be a follower of Jesus Christ than to follow Him on the road of the Cross. The Narrow Road is paved with stones like these: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, love others more than yourself, give expecting nothing in return, turn the other cheek, give away your possessions to the poor, be willing to die for the sake of the Gospel or for the life of another, love your enemies, pray without ceasing, be peacemakers, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, lift up the oppressed, love justice, show mercy, deliberately and consciously and continuously choose the narrow path, be humble, “flee from the company of men”, control the tongue, put on the mind of Christ and repent of everything that is not His mind, nurture and love silence, love without condition, become pure in heart and mind, do everything necessary to think and to live in a way that pleases God.
You can see why this narrow path is desired by only by a few. And not everyone who finds it will follow it. Most do not and will not ever care to find or follow because this path is the path of the death of ego, the death of self. The Gospel is this: We must die to live. Goethe, the German writer says it this way: “As long as you haven't experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on this dark earth.”
All of this seems too hard. Impossible. So unlike what we have been taught life is all about. To live as if God really exists is radical in and of itself. “In Him we live and move and have our being,” St. Paul preached to the Athenians on Mars Hill. What difference would it make in our lives if we really believed that? How would we live if we experienced that truth moment by moment? What would we do? What would we say? How would our priorities change? What if we really believed?
I have learned one thing over the years. I have learned that there is not one thing I can do to wake people up to the absolute necessity of caring about God. (I am asleep half the time myself!) I do not know the recipe to wake a sleeping heart.
But the path seems to be made up of suffering and prayer; suffering to show us our deep need and prayer to awaken us to the presence of God. The perfect image is Gethsemane and the Cross where Jesus suffered and prayed. We must both suffer and pray. Jesus did and so must we. So after St. John of the Cross was beaten nearly to death and after many hours of prayer he asked God, “What is grace?” And God replied, “Everything that happens.”
It cannot really be explained. It must be experienced. I am always looking for ways to communicate this message, so let me try this one.
It is like this:
Murky water is turbid; let it settle and it clears. A dusty mirror is dim; clean it and it is bright. What we need to see is that the mind and heart must be purified in order to follow the path of Christ. The dirt and dust are the cause of our confusion and the source of all our suffering. Impurity of heart is the reason for our unhappiness. All our suffering comes from our addiction to ourselves, that murky water, that dusty mirror.
Why are our hearts and minds unclear and unstable? Because they are full of craving and emotion. Add to this the accumulation of our mental habits and all the acquired influences that delude the mind, and desensitize us and close up our spiritual senses, deadening our ability to love God as He loves us and one another as ourselves. The beauty of our original essence, the image of God, is lost to us. Our feelings and senses are unruly, subject to all kinds of influences, taking in everything without discretion, all kinds of defilements of heart and mind.
If we could just see that this is our condition, that the water, the mirror of the soul must be cleansed of all pollutants, then a miracle would begin. If we would only repent and change directions, begin to cleanse away all the defilements of mind and heart, gradually remove our lifetime of biases, wandering thoughts, and perverse actions, then we would discover the truth of who we are, who we were created to be; that we are God's temple, the dwelling place of the Spirit, the abode of the Divine Light and that Christ has come to dwell in us and awaken us to His all-encompassing love. The murky water returns to clarity, the dusty mirror to brightness, the image of God within restored to its rightful place as the kingdom of heaven within.
Here is a little Zen poem that describes the process beautifully.
Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.
We elevate the Holy Cross because it is the symbol of the spiritual path we must take. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said. The way of the Cross is the way of internal purification, the path of our return to clarity, the way of repentance. Every time we catch our wandering minds and refocus them on God we have made a true act of repentance. Repentance is allowing the murky water to settle and become clear again and polishing the mirror of the soul so that it becomes clear and bright.
I could go on for much longer, but I won't. Let me end with a little, practical example. There is among Roman Catholics a method of prayer and meditation called “Centering Prayer” which is very much like our practice of hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer. The technique is simple and involves focusing on a short prayer or some such thing for a period of time, usually twenty minutes or a half an hour. When the mind wanders the instruction is to simply notice, without judging, and to return quietly to the prayer or object of focus. On hearing this one woman came to her priest and said, “I cannot possibly do this. My mind will wander a thousand times!” The priest said, “Good.” She replied, “Why is that good?” He answered, “That means a thousand times to return to God.” That is how it goes. We begin haltingly, but with persistence we become stronger, the water clearer, the mirror, brighter. One thing is sure. Only if we begin, will we get anywhere because God is waiting for us to make the first move and then His love will meet us and make up in us all that is lacking.