“Bearing the Light to Christ to the World through Prayer, Penance and Sacramental Life”
Sermon for the Salutations to the Holy Cross with His Eminence, Metropolitan Gerasimos
Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church
March 16, 2023
We are all making our pilgrimage through this holy season of Lent, Great Lent, in preparation for the Great Pasch, when we will joyfully celebrate Christ’s triumph over death: the triumph of grace over sin, of hope over despair, of light over darkness. In both of our traditions we will begin the celebration of the Great Easter Vigil by the lighting of the Paschal Candle, from which all those in the assembly will light their own individual candles, spreading the light of Christ’s Resurrection throughout the world.
When I was a young man, I recall watching a film at a gathering of my parish’s youth group which depicted the Orthodox Easter Vigil celebration in a Greek church. When the Paschal Candle was lit, a young boy struggled to be the first to light his candle from it. He succeeded! The film was about his walk home and his struggle to keep the candle lit so he could share it with his family. He encountered obstacles along the way, even having to cross through water, getting himself wet but still keeping the candle lit. The film highlighted his parents’ marriage, and also a strain in relationships in which forgiveness had to be asked and given. In short, every adventure in the boy’s journey to his home and upon his arrival symbolically expressed the sacraments of the Church. Meaning: if we wish to keep the light of Christ alive in the world, we must stay close to the sacramental life of the Church. Which is why the Church gives us times of penance throughout the year, and most of all, this period of Great Lent.
Staying close to the sacramental life of the Church does not mean simply attending religious services, or routinely observing certain rituals. For the true Christian, the sacramental life imbues all of existence, and is lived out and expressed in one’s relationships, and how one spends one’s time and money, and is felt in the body itself. Thus the need for Lent, a time of bodily fasting, of willingly taking on penitential discipline. It is part of the Church’s wisdom of fast and feast: we cannot truly celebrate festively if we have not prepared beforehand through fasting. The point, though, is not to be able to enjoy ourselves all the more when Easter comes, but rather to teach us what it means to live an authentic Christian life, that is, a sacramental life.
I believe the famous words of our father among the saints John Chrysostom in his celebrated sermon “The Proof of Fasting” are well known to most of us:
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful… Let the ear fast … by not listening to evil talk and gossip… Let the mouth fast from the foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?
Learning the Lesson of Lent
This is the lesson of Lent, a lesson to be learned over and over again: it is the lesson of selflessness, learning to think of the other first before oneself, willing the good of the other and acting upon that. It is the way of love, the way of the cross. We sing our canticles tonight to the “Precious and Life-Creating Cross.” Indeed, such is our Lord’s Cross, truly the “vessel of light,” “treasure of life,” and “bestower of the gifts of the Spirit.” But so also is the cross which he gives to each one of us, a personalized spiritual ladder custom-made by the Lord himself, so that we might reach “the height of the wisdom of God” by lowering ourselves to share in his suffering: fasting from food so that we might learn to fast from sin.
There is no reaching such heights in an abstract world; no, it means living the way of the cross in the concrete, everyday circumstances of our life. We therefore need the sacraments, access to God’s grace, so that in our relationships, in how we spend our time and our money, in how we live the vocation God has given us, we might manifest the presence of Christ himself and bring his light into the world. We live this sacramental calling not just in the major moments of life – our initiation into the Church, or marriage and Holy Orders as sacraments of vocation – but also in a myriad of smaller ways: making sacred space at home for prayer; making a temporal sacred space by allotting time for prayer, individually and as a family; marking rituals at home to connect us with the liturgical life of the Church in her various seasons throughout the year; physical reminders in the spaces we occupy – a crucifix on the wall, an icon displayed in a prominent place, a Bible within easy reach (of where we would otherwise sit to watch television!).
We are all here because we want to be close to Christ, which means building up greater unity with one another. We want to walk in his light, and bring his light into the world. We are all concerned about the growing prevailing darkness in the world, manifested in so much violence, be it physical, moral or political; in distortions of, and attacks on, the human person and even the human body itself; in increasingly bitter polarization and hostility emblematic of a “cancel culture” which ejects from society anyone who would dare to voice an opinion different from the socially-accepted (or shall I say “obligatory”?) dominant narrative.
But we should take heart, for we are in good company, indeed, the best company of all: our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Yes, he was ejected from society because he posed a threat to the worldly power of the governing authorities and the leaders of his own people, those who provided the dominant narrative of their time. The people got swept up into a growing mob mentality that was quick to judge without thinking things through, and so erupted in violence against an innocent man. But we know how the story ends. Which is why Easter comes after the end of Lent.
Nonetheless, in our own time, too, the dominant narrative seeks to eject our Lord from society, and, with him, those who follow him. So that is why we pray together, for only together, in Christ, can we bring his light into the world, can we live what we express in ritual at our Easter Vigil celebrations. And so we continue to fast and do other works of penance, denying ourselves simple pleasures so that we may be more oriented toward the good of the other, that is, better at living the call to authentic love. And we also continue to care for the poor and serve all those in need, as we strive, in all we do – in our own God-given vocation, in our relationships, in how we deal with the temporalities of this world – we strive to bring light into darkness, peace where there is violence, love in place of hate.
We do all this because we remain close to the sacramental life of the Church, for it is only with God’s grace that we can accomplish any of this – or better yet, that God will accomplish it through us. Let us thank God for this time of repentance and conversion, and let us heed St. Paul’s exhortation, for now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2). Taking to heart the lesson of Lent for living our lives as Christians in this world, yes, the story will end well: joined to Christ forever in his victory over death, worshipping him in the company of the saints and beholding his glory in his Kingdom of light, truth and peace. May God grant us this grace.